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Tell a Story

The importance of storytelling and listening to stories being told can hardly be exaggerated. Stories capture our imaginations, create our myths, and mold our beliefs and values. Stories give our lives meaning; they integrate our brains.

The narrative story teaches children the use and meaning of language itself. It provides vocabulary and a sense of time—a beginning, middle, and end. Story creates purpose.

It has been discovered that some children tell stories to themselves as they lie awake in their cribs, before falling asleep. There is a beautiful story about a little girl named Emily who used more sophisticated language when she talked to herself than when she talked to her parents. Linguists from Harvard, led by Katherine Nelson, studied recordings of young children made on micro cassettes strategically placed in their cribs during a research project called "Narratives from the Crib."

Some of the results are recounted in Malcolm Gladwell's national bestseller, The Tipping Point. In her nighttime monologue, two-year-old Emily created a story of her perfect Friday with details of breakfast, kisses from Dad when he went to work, her Nursery School Day (told in hushed tones), and a visit from her friend Carl who rings the doorbell and rushes in. In her story she refers to herself as Emily: "Carl and Emily are going . . .to ride to Nursery School." Emily is organizing her life into a pat structure, she is mastering her routine, and she even tells a joke about the whole scene and says: "Won't that be funny!"

It seems clear that storytelling is a necessary part of thinking and the development of the human brain. Story creates order out of chaos. It establishes patterns that serve as templates for life. Story structures knowledge, making it memorable and whole. Story takes specific ideas, events, and elements and weaves them into a cohesive, holistic narrative.

Story is so powerful that it can give meaning to individuals suffering tragic mental defects as it did for Rebecca, a patient of Dr. Oliver Sacks (as he describes in his extraordinary book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat). Though her IQwas only 60, Rebecca was able to create meaning for herself by acting in a special theater group. The environs of the stage and the unifying force of the story made Rebecca whole, so that Dr. Sacks observed, "One would never guess that she was mentally defective."

In his book, Sacks develops a concept, based on the work of A.R. Luria, which he calls "romantic science." Romantic science explores the concrete (as opposed to the abstract)—it deals with biographies or "novels" of the individual. It is specific, real, alive, and meaningful, as opposed to generic, symbolic, inanimate, and theoretical. It is story: In story we show (the specific), we don't tell (the abstract). Sacks says, "Young children love and demand stories, and can understand complex matters presented as stories, when their powers of comprehending general concepts, paradigms, are almost non-existent."

In Cultural Literacy, Hirsch, Kett, and Trefil state that "educated people must know myths, myths, myths." They say that communicating myths is just as important as history: "The tales we tell our children define what kind of people we shall be."

So not only do stories integrate our individual thinking, they also unify our culture.

But what does all of this have to do with rocket science? A few years ago, I read an amazing article by William B. Scott, entitled "Systems Strategy Needed to Build Next Aero Workforce." It appeared in the May 6, 2002 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology. Scott reports on the concerns of aerospace professionals, government and industry leaders, educators, and physicians that "kids exposed to 'light screens'—television, computers, and videos games—for extended periods at an early age do not develop

Chapter 7 Tell a Story the sensory pathways that enable imagination and creativity." According to Michael Mendizza, a researcher for Touch the Future, "Before the 1950s childhood had a rich, descriptive narrative as its primary environment—story telling and radio. Descriptive words were used and they demanded a child create a corresponding mental image of what those words meant. He painted his own mental picture."

Scott reports that the vocabulary of the average 14-year-old has dropped from 25,000 words to 10,000 in the past 50 years. The optimum development of imagination and creativity occurs in the first five years, when kids are playing, making up stories, and pretending.

The question our government and industry leaders are asking is "who will imagine our future?" Our ability to explore space, to defend ourselves, indeed, even to survive may depend on our ability to listen to and tell stories.

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