Using traditional story-telling to teach ecology

by Candace Gossen

photo1I grew up in the bayous of Louisiana. As a French-Indian, storytelling is in my blood and often in my hands, eyes and smile. I am also a scientist, an archaeologist and an ecologist. For more than 12 years I have taught for Saturday Academy in Portland, Oregon, an organization that hires people like me to teach 2nd to 12th graders about science. For the past 8 weeks I have been teaching a group of 5th to 8th grade Native American students about the Great Bear Rainforest. I want to share with you how I integrate the art of storytelling back into the world, even through the public school system where talking about spirit and ceremony are not easily understood.

This class focused on the Salmon Forest within the Great Bear Rainforest. David Suzuki, through the television series The Nature of Things, produced a really beautiful film on the Salmon Forest and we began the class with this. Each week we focused on a part of the forest. In the beginning we identified all of the characters, with the keystone being the salmon itself. We sketched flow diagrams of all the connections of the characters to sort out the ecosystems within the forest itself. Then the students chose a living creature as their animal to focus upon for the rest of the class, and explained why they were interested in it. Their homework included researching a native story about their animal and bringing it to class. It was not a personal story, but one about an animal usually read from a piece of paper. This was the beginning.

photo3In the following weeks we conducted water tests to determine if a salmon could live in the water samples that we were testing. Through the use of their senses – touch, taste, smell – the students began to understand how to ask questions and how to use their senses to arrive at answers. They learned about the scientific method. Each student wrote a description of their experiment. We then drew the hydrological cycle and talked about things that were causing the water to change and affecting the fate of the salmon.

In the chemistry class they learned that the planet’s surface was 70% water, about the same proportion as a young human body, and that the air in our atmosphere contains 78% nitrogen.  It is this nitrogen that is the key element and which tells the story of the importance of the salmon to the forest. By measuring concentrations of the isotope N15 we know that nitrogen is taken up in the deep oceans by the salmon and carried with them as they return to the streams in the north-west. It is through bears and other animals that feed on salmon, carrying them deeper into the forest and leaving the carcasses on the forest floor where they are eventually incorporated into the soils – a vital link in the life of this magical place. More than 50% of the nitrogen in the trees is derived from salmon. If the salmon disappeared then half the forest would vanish.salmon

The students then had to draw the connections between their chosen animals and the salmon and explain how they all depended on each other. With all of this information in place, they could draw a mask of their animal and tell its story. These masks could be hung on a wall, or worn – whatever they chose. The mask told the story of their animal and its place within the Salmon Forest; the storyteller was encouraged to embellish the tale and so an even better story unfolded.

After drawing, painting, adding branches and whatever art pieces we had in the art box and from their own recycling, we sat in a talking circle. Each student was asked to share the story of the mask. Their story could be real or not, but it had to include facts. It had to include the chosen animal, information on where it lived, how it connected with the salmon, and whatever else they had learned.

photo6In a truth-speaking way, each student was given time and attention by the others. I was amazed at the ability of the students to make up their stories on the spot while looking within their masks for the reasons why they created them. Up to the last minute some were saying that they couldn’t think of a story to tell, but as each began the story seemed to unfold easily and became entertaining. Each story-teller earned a round of applause and a thank you.

We have one more class meeting next week. I have asked the students to think of someone that was a storyteller for them – a grandparent or a friend, someone that told them stories that made them laugh. I also made them promise that they would take home what we did each week to share with their storytellers. My final request was that these elder storytellers come to the last class to attend the story circle.

Unfortunately it hasn’t worked out that way. A few won’t make the last class, others have multiple families and arrangements wouldn’t allow. Many elder grandparents have been left without ways to get around, and can only be part of a group when someone takes the time to bring them. Sadly, they feel forgotten.

The art of storytelling came from my ability to tie stories in with science, a way to understand complex science that I teach to college students as well as 2nd graders. The only thing that changes from one class to the next is the level of complexity. But science does not have to be hard, in fact, it’s the story of life. Ecology is the connection between all living things, invisible threads that I get to explain.photo2

This class taught my students about a place in the world that is unique, close to their homes and within tribal areas of the students. They shared what they learned with their elders every week, and some mothers and grandmothers stayed in our classes to participate themselves. The science experiments and lessons further detailed the connections so that in the end the stories were broad with details. The students learned how to conduct experiments, write stories, research, draw, and built their confidence with support from their friends.

In eight weeks, two hours once a week, a group of students became very good storytellers and learned that their voices are important and that stories bring all the connections together.

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  • Hi Candace : Thanks for a true effective “elder” wisdom to unfold the natural connection using David’s video. I have seen it too and these connections became more vivid. Your story telling methods will be helping children from a very young age to ‘observe’, ‘think’ critically and stimulate their ‘problem solving’ capacity which, in turn, will help to boost their self esteem. Knowledge is a powerful tool to face the world. Your methodical way will sure help them to grow. Candace you are a wonderful “Elder”.

  • Dear “Elder” Candace – thanks for this moving story, great photos, and – obviously – the good work you and the students are doing together.

  • One of the first jobs I had on the way to becoming an ecologist was as a timber cruiser in Oregon. We were taught and found out on our own that the tallest trees would be found along the streams. From my university coarses I concluded that this occured because of the effects of microclimate and soil depth. I am happy to learn that since my student days in the 1960s we have learned a lot more about how ecosystems work. This example of fish and wildlife contributions to tree growth is a good example. Learning from indigenous peoples and respecting their traditional knowledge and wisdom has made a big difference in recent years. Josef Kuhn.

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