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Words and Ideas Need Good Stories:
An Approach to Teaching based on Knowledge of Learning
(Selected excerpts from an article authored by Rosemarie Gulla)
“Can you believe,” asked Eustace, “that there was once a winged horse?”
From A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys (1852) by Nathaniel Hawthorne,
Bald-Summit. Introductory to “The Chimaera.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne developed a character named Eustace Bright when he wrote A Wonder- Book for Girls and Boys (1852). Eustace told the children great tales, one of which was the story of “The Chimaera”. If you are familiar with the story of Bellerophon on the back of Pegasus as they tangled with the three-headed beast, Chimaera, then you know of the enchanted bridle that Bellerophon used to back and ride the glorious winged horse. An ordinary bridle, or for that matter, any bridle at all, was not fit for a creature as fine as Pegasus. Pegasus, in his fullest glory, would cooperate with Bellerophon on an important mission because of trust. As a faithful team, they would be their strongest.
The method of teaching literature, in an approach called W.I.N.G.S. (Words and Ideas Need Good Stories), functions like the enchanted bridle for Pegasus. The premise of this approach is based on the idea that the best learning occurs through emotional attachment to ideas or information encouraging students to open the door to their own success by being truly engaged in the act of learning. The W.I.N.G.S. approach proposes that the emotional engagement of the student is the first and crucial step needed to not only move the process of learning forward but to have it continue throughout a lifetime. It is based on the acknowledgement that caring about something on an emotional level opens the door to learning.
When They Care, You are Halfway There
This approach to teaching, W.I.N.G.S., employs the use of story to appeal to the universal realities of dealing with fundamental human concerns. Common to human existence are the experiences and consequent first-hand knowledge of selfishness, generosity, intimidation, support, initiative, laziness, mercy, cruelty, etc. Once the stories and poems connect emotionally, once the heart is engaged, W.I.N.G.S… uses these stories to further advance academic skills and knowledge. In this way, the fundamental human concerns of stories and poems act to interest and emotionally attach learners whether they be gifted, reluctant or unskilled as readers.
The Heart of the Matter
The W.I.N.G.S. approach was developed out of the realization that students need as much time on task with material as they can get. Students need to be fully engaged with their academic work in order for their minds to work out the material on their own time, in their free moments: in bed, in cars, on the bus, staring out of windows. Their engagement with the material must be intense and the material itself must hold great interest for them. If their heart’s are engaged, their minds can readily listen. Furthermore, the material should hold ideas that can sustain them through life and provide the counsel and wisdom that poetry and legends from many different cultures offers.
In the Hawthorne retelling of “The Chimaera”, the character Bellerophon is encouraged by a child to wait for Pegasus by the Fountain of Pirene because the child has caught glimpses of the magnificent creature. Through W.I.N.G.S., students are able, it seems, to “catch glimpses” of great ideas as they are framed through stories and poems. They are willing to engage in the pursuit, the wait, and the work of seeing them. There is an emotional component to accessing great moments in stories and in ideas. Building interest around these great moments and extending them into skill development allows for the development and use of this powerful force in teaching.
There is a huge difference in the ultimate outcome of creating engaged learners when we maintain the full power of ideas and story context in our teaching. By presenting the rich schema and deep context of great or clever stories, we preserve intact the reasons why reading is such an important tool.
Powerful Stories can Empower and Involve Students
The energy is timeless and sustaining in the stories used in W.I.N.G.S. Universal and fundamentally clear are the impulses out of which stories such as classic myths, legends, fairytales and folklore distilled through the ages draw their energy. And therein lies the power within W.I.N.G.S. This approach to teaching encompasses the expectation of the expanse of a mind when it truly meets and engages with an idea that consequently leads to the experience of new levels of thought.
In the End…
“Pegasus held out his head, of his own accord…” (“The Chimaera”, A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys (1852) by Nathaniel Hawthorne)
Such a willingness to imagine, such a sense of boundless possibility exists in the minds of children. The sound of the silver bell ringing in Chris Van Allsburg’s The Polar Express (1985) speaks to those who have “aged out” of believing. In the retelling of “The Chimaera” by Hawthorne he references two characters who keep both of their feet earthbound. When these two men see Pegasus they react: “I own a cart-horse worth three of him…If I owned him, the first thing I should do, would be to clip his wings!” and “I saw him once when I was a lad, he was handsomer then”. Children utter sounds of disgust when they meet up with these two characters. The students taught with the W.I.N.G.S. method respond with such loving faith for they know they have been recognized as the glorious creatures they are. They unfurl their wings and they readily partner for they want the Chimaera vanquished. They want the mission.
On July 15th, 1851 Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote the Preface to A Wonder Book where he said, “…the Author has not always thought it necessary to write downward, in order to meet the comprehension of children. He has generally suffered the theme to soar, whenever such was its tendency, and when he himself was buoyant enough to follow without an effort. Children possess an unestimated sensibility to whatever is deep or high, in imagination or feeling, so long as it is simple, likewise…” The results of this study corroborate Hawthorne’s opinion and the premise behind WINGS that words and ideas need good stories to support their finest use with children.
Hawthorne, N. (1852) . A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys. Retrieved September 24, 2003, from http://www.eldritchpress.org/nh/wb6a.html
Van Allsburg, C. (1985). The Polar Express. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.