Welcome Friends, Fans and Family to 2016!

Meet Cindy Rivka Marshall

Cindy Rivka Marshall

Cindy will be starting our new year off as our

first guest blogger for 2016. Welcome Cindy-y-y!

Learning to Care: Introduce a Theme with Stories
By Cindy Rivka Marshall re-posted from Story Arc Blog copyright 2015

“There was once a princess who had never cried.” So begins a story I am telling to a group of children late one fall afternoon. My task is to introduce them to the themes of compassion and g’milut chasadim, or acts of loving kindness.

When I first enter the room at Temple Shir Tikvah’s religious school in Winchester, MA, I see twenty fourth graders gathered around tables. 
They are typically unruly, more interested in eating their snacks and seeing their friends than sitting through another class. I do not wait too long before launching into my story.

“The princess had no reason to cry; her every need and desire was anticipated and fulfilled. She was fed before she was hungry, she was clothed as was needed, she was caught before she could fall, and she was protected from any danger.”

I quickly have the attention of even the most rambunctious child. All eyes are on me, but they are not just seeing my facial expressions and my gestures. They have a certain mesmerized look about them that signals that they are each experiencing the imagery in their own way. We have entered what I call “story space” – where teller and listeners are co-creating the story in a shared space and time.

With children – and with learners of all ages – stories can be a doorway in, a way to capture the imagination, to experience vicariously, to think symbolically, and to hear of possibilities outside one’s experience. According to brain research, humans are literally hardwired to think and make sense of information in terms
of story. Kendall Haven, in his book Story Proof, writes, “If you craft your stories based on the elements of effective story structure, your messages, your themes, and your information will arrive more accurately into the conscious minds and memories of your intended audience.”

On this day, I am introducing the fourth graders to the idea that they, and their parents will act as a “Caring Corps” this year. Temple Shir Tikvah’s innovative model, the Learning Corps, pairs each grade of students and their parents with a synagogue committee. This provides opportunities to strengthen ties between the congregation and the religious school, and for young families to learn about and to contribute authentically to the ongoing work of the synagogue committees. The fourth grade families, paired this year with the Caring Committee, will participate in activities that support temple members going through challenging life cycle events. They will make baby blankets, decorate sympathy and get well cards, and attend shiva gatherings to support mourners experiencing the loss of a loved one.

The story I selected to introduce this theme is a traditional tale that I found in Molly Cone’s book Who Knows Ten. As always, I create my own version of the story, in order to highlight the messages of the particular lesson I am teaching. To prepare for telling the story, I think about the motivations of the characters in the story, and find their body postures and voices. I practice telling the story manytimes, preferably to listeners who can give me feedback. I never memorize a story, but rather learn the basic outline, or story arc, and then speak as I visualize the story unfolding in my own imagination. This allows me to improvise in the moment, in response to my listeners.

“If the princess wanted a toy, her parents gave her a playroom full of toys. If she wanted a book, they gave her a whole library of books.”

It strikes me as I tell of this privileged princess that although her situation is more extreme, it is not unlike some of the children in the room, who live relatively safe and comfortable lives in the suburbs of Boston. My hope is to get them thinking beyond whatever material possessions they may think they “need” or want, to the basic physical, emotional and spiritual needs of all humans.

“The princess began to demand more and more things, challenging her parents, until finally she stamped her foot and declared, ‘I want to see God!’”

Once the princess is guided (by a wise older person) out of the protected setting of the palace, she begins to see beyond herself and meets less fortunate children. Only then can she look into her heart and experience empathy. She wants to share what she has with them. In this moment of noting her own compassion and generosity, she cries for the first time, and she glimpses God.

I invite the children to respond to the story. I give them the option to respond non-verbally as well, with a gesture or facial expression. Many of them readily make personal connections to the story: “Sometimes I feel sad when I see someone having a hard time.” They observe: “The princess wanted to do something to help the other children.” I ask them to give examples of times when they helped others.

When an educator uses a carefully selected story to introduce a theme of study, the story serves as a jumping off point that can lead into questions, discussion, interpretation through the arts, and applied action steps. The strength of the imagery and message of that story can be easily recalled as a sort of shorthand reference to the lesson later in the process. “Remember how the princess felt compassion? What might you do if you were feeling that kind of compassion right now?”

Cindy posts monthly about different approaches to Story-Based Learning at www.cindymarshall.com/blog


Cindy Rivka Marshall is a multicultural and Jewish storyteller, Story Coach, workshop facilitator,
professional development trainer and education consultant based in Boston. Since 2011 she has
worked with Bailee Star, Education Director at Temple Shir Tikvah in Winchester, Massachusetts.
Cindy’s expertise in Story-Based Learning has informed the design of an innovative model for
Jewish learning called the Learning Corps. Religious school classes are paired with synagogue
committees, a concept originated with former Education Director Joan Forman. Temple Shir
Tikvah receives funding from Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston to support the
development and growth of this program. Be sure to visit her website to learn more about Cindy Rivka Marshall.

Thank you, Cindy!