Waldorf Without Walls

Selecting Stories from Grimm's Fairy Tales

by David Darcy

During the summer before I taught first grade at Austin Waldorf School, I read each of the stories in the Pantheon edition of The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales. I kept track of which I liked and which I disliked, and took notes on the plots since some of the stories are very similar to others. The simpler stories I used early in the year, saving more complex stories until the end of first grade.

The book that I used has fallen apart from use, and the notes on the stories are gone. I consult with many parents who will be using fairy tales as they homeschool their children, and the prospect of reading through the complete collection is daunting for many. The following list of my favorites is intended to guide you as you select the stories you will tell.

Although many of the images in these stories are "grim," many experienced teachers believe that the inner pictures the children form are only as vivid or harsh as they can handle. The value of these stories is thought to be in their power to stimulate the child's imagination by bringing archetypal images. It seems fitting that the range of these images should be as full as possible, since each strengthens the child for certain challenges he or she may face during life. I chose not to alter any of the stories when I told them. If I was not comfortable with a story in its entirety, I did not tell it at all.

Although telling a story from memory is much more difficult than reading it to children, I strongly encourage you to experience the power of telling the stories. When we read, our inner vision is divided between the printed words and the images of the story. When we tell the story, we live much more fully in the images. I firmly believe that this helps the children visualize the story in greater detail.

Telling the story also allows us to keep eye contact with the children. This enhances a dynamic that I have heard described as "the children dreaming into the storyteller." The children are taking in the words of the storyteller, but also his or her "way of being in the world." In a sense, our values, ideals and aspirations are conveyed to the children as they hear the stories we tell. By stepping up to the challenge to tell stories rather than read them, we become more fully ourselves, and the children absorb this along with the words that we speak.

The style of storytelling that I prefer is when the storyteller does very little with voice or movement to dramatize the story. The goal is to let the images of the story speak within the child's imagination. Clarity of speech is emphasized so that the child will understand as much as possible. Since these stories include many images that are no longer part of daily life (such as a well, a gallows, perhaps even a cart) I encourage you to make notes as you read a story so that you can explain before you tell it what certain words mean. Better to explain before telling the story than to have questions interrupt the telling, or to have the children not understand.

Students will gain the most benefit from the inner picturing activity that accompanies listening to a story if you to make story time a "sacred space." This may be harder in a classroom with thirty students, or it may be harder for homeschoolers because of the more casual environment. In either case, (although this may sound too authoritarian), I strongly encourage you to have the children get really quiet before you (the storyteller) say a verse (such as "Quiet your tongues, be crossed every thumb/ and fix on me deep your eyes/ then out of my mind a story will come/ ancient and lovely and wise"). Light a candle to begin story time, permit no interruptions during the story, and let the story "hover in the air" for a few moments after you finish before slowly extinguishing the candle, which signals the end of story time.

Children learn to abide by any expectations that we consistently hold, and you will find that by really protecting this time, you will give the children a great gift. Obviously for homeschoolers this means that the phones (or at least the ringers) will need to be turned off!

Ideally children should be given time immediately after the story to "ruminate" on it, so you may want to have snack and recess after the story. Just as our food must go through a process before it is useful as energy, the images in a story are most powerful when they are given time to sink in. Ideally, children should be able to sleep on a story before they are asked to remember it at all.

Because the fairy tales are so rich in imagery, children benefit greatly from hearing the same story told for three consecutive days. During the first listening, they are usually most focused on the plot. During the second listening, they know what will happen, so they can live more fully into the images. On the third day, it is common for children to inwardly tell themselves the story as they are hearing it. Each of these phases has its value, and even though in our over-stimulated society, many children become impatient or rude if they are told the same story on consecutive days, if we are clear and firm that this is how we will do it, the children will accept and benefit from the repetition.

Many people have heard that it is essential to tell these stories word-for-word as they are written. These stories use exquisite vocabulary and rich syntax, but most of us simply cannot learn stories word-for-word. I believe that this expectation has kept many people from developing their storytelling talents and kept many children from hearing these stories. I believe that the sequence of images is the most important aspect of these stories, and that you will find a few choice phrases that you will want to include. (For example, in The Donkey the king says that the donkey looks "as sour as a jug of vinegar.") Build on these as you are able. Better to achieve something modest than to have so a lofty goal that you never venture into the role of storyteller.

On a final note, I have found that students in sixth grade benefit from a return to these stories. As their own writing matures, it is good for them to read a favorite story, focus on the vocabulary and sentence structure of one paragraph, and work to replicate the level of artistry that they find there.

I hope that these stories will be a great source of pleasure for you and your children!

Although your taste in stories may differ from mine, I encourage you to read these stories to see how you like them. They are listed in the order they appear in the Pantheon edition.