• Teaching Religion from a Secular Perspective: Storytelling


    (Note: to participate in the discussion thread for this topic, click here.)

    We’ve had plenty of discussions here at SHS about teaching religion - - and a few of them have gotten quite er...intense. (come on...you know you had fun, though!) But I’m going to come at it from a slightly different angle in this featured From Soup to Nuts post this week. I’d like to talk about teaching religion to our kids in the context of STORYTELLING.

    Truth is, the history of religion is a history of stories. Not just the teachings of the religions themselves - - which truly are rife with fables, parables, allegories, and myths - - but even the very timeline of events tied to religion over the course of human existence includes narratives that are more than just a little interesting to study in detail. And is there any more engaging way to get kids excited about learning than storytelling?!

    This whole topic came front and center for me a couple weeks ago when I was listening to a video interview with Laura Gibbs about Teaching Humanities Online. Laura, who teaches online courses at University of Oklahoma, and has a unique non-lecture approach. Her approach is to have students create semester-long storytelling projects called “Storybooks” along with their reading assignments. And as if this weren’t cool enough, the reading content that students use in Laura’s courses that she calls “UN-TEXTBOOKS” is completely Open Source, free, and available to anyone. Yes, I said, ANYONE.

    So, let me introduce you to my favorite new resource for teaching religion via storytelling, care of Laura Gibbs…”The Myth-Folklore Un-Textbook.”

    Now, I could go on and on telling you how amazing I think this resource that Laura has created is, but let me share a little bit of what one of Laura’s former students, Beth Hobson, had to say about it…

    "I was driven to take Laura's Mythology and Folklore class because I have always thought that mythology and folklore was an interesting topic. I guess you could say that I naturally gravitated towards learning stories about other cultures and the stories that existed in them.Laura's class styling is unique and in a very good way. It was creative, more in depth, allowed me to use my creative skills as a student/artist, it fit into my major, and most importantly it kept challenging me to learn/grow as an individual/student. As most people know, this is difficult to find on a college campus. Most classes are tailor made, and the course syllabus rarely changes. It's not the professor's fault by any means, it's just that every student learns/grows differently. In terms of Laura's class her style fits a visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and renaissance, which is what makes it such a unique learning style. The ability to create a style that delivers to each learner, is wonderful!"
    As you begin to explore the resource, you’ll see that the readings are divided up into 100 individual units - - everything from Egyptian Mythology to Celtic Fairy Tales to Sioux Legends. In Laura’s course students are completely free to choose which units they want to focus on, and as you utilize the resource in your homeschool, that’s exactly the way I would suggest you approach it as well. As Laura says in her Anatomy of an Online Course blog, “Given the magic of mathematical combinations, there are literally trillions of possible paths to follow through the UnTextbook.”

    But possibly even more exciting is the potential this resource has to spur writing projects! Can you just imagine the possibilities? Well, if you can’t, you might want to browse Laura’s Pinterest boards which display samples of her former students’ storybooks!


    My hope is that this resource will spur a discussion about not only this resource, but other creative ideas you might have about using storytelling to teach religion in your homeschool. Laura Gibbs, author of this resource, and her former student Beth Hobson have signed up to be part of this week’s discussion as well, so if you have questions about the Un-Textbook or this Storybook approach to teaching mythology and folklore, I’m sure they’d be delighted to answer them. Click here to be taken to the discussion thread.

    This article was originally published in forum thread: Teaching Religion from a Secular Perspective: Storytelling started by Topsy View original post
    Comments 16 Comments
    1. LauraGibbs's Avatar
      LauraGibbs -
      Thanks so much for the chance to share the Myth-Folklore UnTextbook here, Kerry! I will be glad to answer questions, and I'm glad for suggestions and ideas about how to develop it further. This summer I am building an UnTextbook for the other class I teach (Epics of Ancient India: The Ramayana and the Mahabharata), and then NEXT summer I'll cycle back around to Myth-Folklore in order to add new resources, make fixes, etc. etc. My school is providing great support for the development of open textbook materials, and if people are interested in learning more about other faculty from University of Oklahoma who are developing open resources, you can find out more at the University of Oklahoma Library's Open Education blog.
    1. alexsmom's Avatar
      alexsmom -
      Thanks for the great, organized compilation of world myths! Our family will be referencing it a lot!

      I think my biggest difficulty, living as a minority against the hugely Christian country, is that I want my kids to know about that religion so that they will have cultural context for the allusions and references that constantly come up. Every couple of months, it seems, the question arises here *What Bible do I use to teach my kids about Xtianity, or what stories do I share with them, so they will know what these people are believing.*
      Indiana Jones was the impetus for the latest thread - but it happens all the time, where movies, books, news - all have components where being familiar with christianity would be useful. The bible itself is too tedious to get through (if you dont believe it, cant speak for those who do), its too violent and gruesome to let kids read, but the *Bible Stories for Kids* is often overly sugarified, and leaves out those gruesome bits. *But thats not really what the Bible says* is my hesitation in using those stories.
      Thats my biggest trouble with teaching religion, where I get stuck.
      I suspect that a lot of the myths presented for other cultures have been somewhat sanitized and modernized for our sensibilities - it doesnt bother me so much, as the number of modern believers is relatively nil. It doesnt seem logical to do that with a mythology thats currently shaping government policy, though.
    1. LauraGibbs's Avatar
      LauraGibbs -
      Thanks for your comment! I am really glad if the stories there can be useful to you, and the resources I used to create that — the full text books at Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg, Sacred Texts Archive, Hathi Trust, LibriVox Audobooks — are full of amazing material. It's definitely worth the time to poke around in there and see what you can find.

      The issues you raised here are all very much on my mind also. The students in my classes often got the Bible-for-children approach, so I make sure to include stories that don't do so well for children, like the story of Bathsheba, for example, or Susannah. For students who do know the Bible well, I try to go beyond that with apocryphal and extra-Biblical stories. A big goal for me is to emphasize the connections between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, which is often a complete revelation to my students who may have learned nothing about Islam in all their years of schooling. And, of course, for my students who are rebelling against religion, whatever their reasons for that might be, they can choose to create an UnTextbook which is filled with other types of legends and folktales; that's fine: all the stories are important, and whatever combination the students choose is fine with me! It was also really fun to see which units were the most chosen, the most highly rated by the students, etc. At the same time I can convey to them the importance I personally put on the religious storytelling tradition by having included lots of different types of religious stories there as options to choose.

      Meanwhile, I have to say that I love your avatar! Douglas Adams is a personal hero of mine. My courses focus on public domain books... but if I could include any books at all, copyrighted or public domain, I would include Douglas Adams in my class for sure. Genius. And good advice too!
    1. darkelf's Avatar
      darkelf -
      Is there a section on Vikings/Norse?
    1. LauraGibbs's Avatar
      LauraGibbs -
      Hi Darkelf, I wasn't able to find an online book on Norse legends that I could adapt into the format of the reading units (separate stories, about 15,000 words total for each unit... I tried a few books but none of them worked out), although there are some great Norse resources available at the Sacred Texts website. And some of my students came to the class with an interest in Norse legends, so they filled the gap with their own projects too, like this absolutely fabulous project about Sigurd for example: The Voyages of Sigurd the Volsung. That's a wonderful thing about making the students' projects just as important a part of the class as the readings: they fill in the gaps in the reading and go off in their own directions, too!
    1. Kimberj103's Avatar
      Kimberj103 -
      This is a fantastic resource! We live in the armpit of the Bible Belt, so the mythology of Christianity and Judaism are part of daily life whether we like it or not. It comes up on casual conversation, on the news, etc. I relate to what a PP wrote about wanting my kids to catch those nuances (even though many people here are not nuanced at all!).

      Laura, I know your work is primarily with college students, but what suggestions do you have for the language we use in talking to young children about mythology? I'm hoping he absorbs the idea that myths may have kernels of truth, but I'm not sure how to go about it. I had him write his own family myth this week - we started with a factual account and then he embellished to make it more entertaining. He's six so "true" and "not true" are purely in terms of facts right now - not abstractions.
    1. IEF's Avatar
      IEF -
      Thank you for sharing these excellent resources with us, Laura.

      What age(s) would you consider to be your target audience?
    1. StoneAgeTechie's Avatar
      StoneAgeTechie -
      This does sound like an amazing resource!
      My oldest is totally into the Greek myths, always has been… I'd love to hear more about how the storytelling would translate to writing projects… My kids love to read but loathe writing.
      Thanks for sharing!
    1. LauraGibbs's Avatar
      LauraGibbs -
      Well, I teach college students, mostly seniors in fact, but my goal was to have a whole wide range of reading materials, so you will find materials in there suited for even quite young readers. My students really enjoy re-connecting with stories they might have known as children, and some of them also have children of their own, so I love the idea that they can share stories from the class with their children. Some of them are intrigued by the idea of writing stories in a way that would work for young children. So if you poke around in there, you will find some really lovely units that come from books intended for a young audience. Here are a few that come to mind:
      Babbitt's Jataka Tales (while the Shedlock unit is a collection of jatakas not written for a young audience)
      Fable of La Fontaine (the first half of the unit is a children's version)
      American Indian Fairy Tales (this is a very nice book)
      Tejas Legends (this is a FABULOUS book I think, one of my favorites!)
    1. Topsy's Avatar
      Topsy -
      Quote Originally Posted by StoneAgeTechie View Post
      This does sound like an amazing resource!
      My oldest is totally into the Greek myths, always has been… I'd love to hear more about how the storytelling would translate to writing projects… My kids love to read but loathe writing.
      Thanks for sharing!
      Karen - - definitely check out Laura's Pinterest boards where some of her former student's writing projects are archived. There is SO much writing inspiration there!! https://www.pinterest.com/laurakgibb...re-storybooks/
    1. LauraGibbs's Avatar
      LauraGibbs -
      Oh, definitely see if you can get your oldest into writing their own versions of the myths! There are some great Greek myth projects that my students do, totally new and different every semester. Here are some of their Greek-myth-inspired Storybooks:
      Goddess Animals: Three Goddesses and Their Birds
      Queen of the Underworld: Tales of Persephone

      Demigod Daycare

      The Quest for the Weapons of Hercules

      And that's just a few of them! LOTS more here:
      eStorybook Central

      During the school year, I am getting to read new stories from the students all the time; it's so much fun!
    1. LauraGibbs's Avatar
      LauraGibbs -
      Oh, that sounds like a great writing experiment! A type of mythology that can be great for using with children are aetiological stories about nature... you can present the scientific account and the mythological account and show how they serve different purposes, both satisfying, both important. There's a lovely book of Tejas Native American Legends that has some beautiful stories like that for children! Here is that unit in the course, and the whole book is online at Sacred Texts:
      When the Storm God Rides: Tejas and Other Indian Legends retold by Florence Stratton and illustrated by Berniece Burrough (1936).
    1. mirandamiranda's Avatar
      mirandamiranda -
      I love the idea of this course SO MUCH. I want to take it myself, and I will definitely be suggesting to my children we have a go as a family. But I would love a bit more information about the Storybooks. Apologies if this has been covered, maybe I didn't find the right link, but I am not completely clear on how they work. It seems students create their own stories based on the myths they are reading. Is it an adaptation of the myth? A retelling? An original story inspired by the myth? Any or all of the above?! I would love some more specific guidelines if you have any!
    1. LauraGibbs's Avatar
      LauraGibbs -
      Hi Miranda! The class really is fun; I miss it during the summer in fact. During the school year I get to read new stories all the time. And yes, exactly, the students can do a Storybook where they choose a topic that they work on all semester OR they can do a Portfolio, where they collect their favorite writing from each week because they all do storytelling posts in their blog each week, based on what they are reading in the UnTextbook. The best way to see how that works is to look at the results; the students voted on their favorites this semester, and here are the Storybooks and Portfolios that they really liked:
      Spring 2015: Favorite Project Nominations
      You can see the brainstorming and writing process they use here:
      Storybooks and Portfolios
    1. alexsmom's Avatar
      alexsmom -
      This is a little off-topic, but...

      My filipino friend (native, living in Manila) used the screen name of Lapu in the game we both played together. He told me this neatly moralistic story of how Magellen met his death at the hands of Lapu-Lapu, the first national hero of the Phillipines.

      Magellan arrived on the island of Cebu, and was taken to the Humabon (king), where his wife saw a statue of the infant Jesus, and remembered it from a vision, so convinced the Humabon and all to convert to Christianity. They did, and were all having a nice party, and Magellan was showing off how invincible their armor was, and pointed out the only parts where there were gaps.
      And Humabon asks if Magellan will go subdue the people on Mactan Island (across less than a mile of open water), led by that annoying foreigner Lapu Lapu. Magellan is willing, and leads a war party of about 50 men to take on the 1000 or so Mactans. He is unaware that LapuLapu's spies have reported this, along with the secret to defeating the warriors.
      Magellan and his men attack, Lapu strikes him where his armor doesnt cover, and kills him. Magellan's soldiers run (swim) away, and Mactan retains its independence.

      I love this story for how arrogance and over-confidence lead to ruin.
      Heres a wikipedia summary of the actual history, which is based off one of Magellans chroniclers. Battle of Mactan - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
      Its fun also seeing how its presented in history books - usually in a pretty uninteresting manner "Magellan died in the Phillipines, didnt get to circumnavigate the globe, blah blah blah".

      Is there a point where history, neatly repackaged to teach a lesson, becomes myth?
    1. LauraGibbs's Avatar
      LauraGibbs -
      Oh, what a great story! The Philippines has an amazing cultural history, and there are some excellent folktale collections online; you can see some here:
      Stories from the Pacific (see bottom section there)

      The way I think about history and myth is like this: the word mythos in Greek just meant "story"... as did the word "logos" too. So, the Greeks called Aesop's fables "mythoi" or "logoi," meaning "stories" (English "fable" is from the Latin word for story, fabula). History is kind of like a subset of the big world of stories: history is a story that makes a special claim to historical fact, which is actually a pretty modern concept, not one that is even really present in traditional societies that rely on oral tradition. So, history is a type of story, but it is one that also asks to be judged by an additional set of standards: historical accuracy.

      So, you can read all history as a type of story, but you cannot read all stories as history because not all storytellers care about historical facts... and for many storytellers, the category of "historical fact" is not really even relevant, as it is a very modern, very literate concept.

      I'm always excited when students want to do historical Storybooks for my class, focusing not so much on the historical accuracy but on the story itself, the legendary qualities. That is often the case with pirate stories for example: even when a pirate is a historical figure, it is often the legends about the pirate that are more influential and well remembered than the historical facts!

      And sometimes you can see how even historical stories rely on motifs that are familiar from other stories, like the way this Magellan story shows Magellan as having something like an "Achilles heel," a secret weakness that, once discovered, proves to be his destruction! Very cool!
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