Tuesday 14 June 2011

The Grammar of Fantasy: An Introduction to the Art of Inventing Stories

The Grammar of Fantasy:
An Introduction to the Art of Inventing Stories,
by Gianni Rodari

One of the most elusive characteristics in Reggio Emilia is the relationship between fantasy and reality in the daily doings. In The Grammar of Fantasy, written in beautiful, accessible and poetic language, a teacher who wants to learn how to help children make stories has here all the tools she or he needs. 

Playing with language is something that comes easily to some of us. It feels like a gift, like perfect pitch. But Gianni Rodari shows us how to invite others into the games we play with language. He tried this out at Diana School in Reggio Emilia and gave a series of lectures there in 1972. This book tells us some of the stories he made up, but far more important shows us the process of making up stories, by oneself, in a group, and giving the tools to the children so they can do it also. Their stories are quite perfect, and, like children's drawing and painting, have a quality which charms both adults and children in the audience. 

Schools have traditionally relegated imagination to a very small place, valuing memory and attention much more highly. This book leads us into imagination. It shows us how we can help children use their images — pictures in their minds which have importance and meaning to them — and make wonderful creations from them. 

So Rodari talks about "The Fantastic Binomial" that is, the ability of the mind, given two words that normally are not related, say, streetcar and refrigerator, to make a connection, a story, that is satisfying. Children can do this too, as is illustrated in the book with stories about "light and shoes" and "dog and closet". What would the children in your class do, if presented with such word-pairs? 

And he talks about hypotheses: What if a lion walked into the police station? And "fairytale salad" What if Cinderella bumped into Tom Thumb on the way to meeting the wolf, what then?

In a chapter called "Recasting Fairy Tales" the Cinderella story is analyzed (Cinderella (A) lives in the house of her father (B) and stands in a relationship to B, different from the relationship that her stepsisters (C and D) have with B. While B, C, and D go to the palace, (E) where there is some kind of event the ball (F), A remains alone. However, thanks to the intervention of G, A, too, is able to go to E and makes an extraordinary impression on the prince (H), etc.

Then Rodari shows us how to move further and further from the original cast. We use the structure of the Cinderella story, changing the characters and the place but keeping the SHAPE of the story, weaving it until Carlo (who replaces Cinderella as A), the Count's stable boy, with the help of the cabin boy ( who replaces the fairy godmother) stows away on the yacht (replacing the Ball, E) taking the Count (who replaces Cinderella's father B) and his children (C and D) on a the vacation trip (F). The yacht is shipwrecked and Carlo gives a cigarette lighter to the island's medicine man (H) and as a result is celebrated as the god of fire.

In another section of this rich book Rodari introduces us to Propp's cards:

A German named Propp analyzed the themes of fairy tales into their elements. Cards were made for the children, to help them construct stories. I found even the translated titles of these cards difficult, and have rewritten them in terms I think could be illustrated for English-speaking children: 

1. Someone goes away from home. 
2. A rule is given to that person. 
3. The rule is broken. 
4. The villain tries to find out what's going on. 
5. The villain receives information about his victim. 
6. The villain attempts to deceive his victim. 
7. The victim gets fooled and so (unwittingly) helps his enemy. . . etc. (There are 31) 

The children use these cards to generate stories: a father leaves the house and tells his children not to throw flower vases from the balcony onto the heads of pedestrians (1, 2, 3); a difficult task is to go to the cemetery at midnight (25), etc. 

Stepping back from the specifics of the book, what we have here is a map into a world neglected in most schooling, but not at campfires nor at bedtimes in nurturant homes. We have the enchantment of story and the science of story connected. People have made up stories for very good reasons and need them as surely as we need food and drink. When schooling avoids storytelling, the schooling maladapts us for being human. 

Reggio children study the shadows they draw, a lot of shadows from imagination, from observation, after tracing real shadows on sidewalks etc. This can be a representation of experience or a representation of theory, but it is all scientific inquiry. These hypotheses, once drawn, can be compared with future experience, and found incorrect or, interestingly, sometimes correct. They are stories: the bird shadow will fly into the cage (taped bars on the wall) and back out this afternoon; things that move, like people and butterflies, have shadows that move, while things that stay still, like trees and houses, have shadows that stay still. Whether true or false, these stories help children examine their world more carefully, thinking like scientists think. 

I believe in what I have come to call "hot cognition" -- the driving of learning by emotional attachments or passions. Stories always engross humans, so they are rich stuff from which to make learning. They have internal logics which differ in kind from mathematical logic: a man changes into a cat passing under a barrier. To change back he must pass under the barrier again, from the other side. If he goes across the barrier as a cat, he must go over it, to avoid its magical properties. Do you see? 

When Rodari helps us see connections between science or math and story, he helps us knit our lives back together. When he helps us see how education and art come together, he helps us do our jobs well. Rodari says: "By using stories and those fantastic methods that produce them, we help children to enter reality through the window instead of through the door. It is more fun. Therefore, it is more useful."

No comments:

Post a Comment