A new children’s book has an unexpected author: a seventh-grader from rural India who, until earlier this year, hadn’t considered himself a storyteller. The book, now part of a project on Kickstarter, will be the first to come from a new series of workshops taught at schools in developing communities around the world, aimed at sharing voices that are typically unheard.
The workshop “essentially teaches students the art and power of storytelling…and how they can use that power in their lives,” says Sawyer Altman, a recent Stanford University graduate who designed the program, called Rakonto.
Students learn about how local leaders have used storytelling–in India, for example, Altman talked about Gandhi–and the effect that those stories can have. In the next stage of the workshop, students analyze a series of different stories to learn what makes some stories more effective. Using a variation on the design-thinking methodology popularized at Stanford and IDEO, they brainstorm story ideas, prototype storyboards, and then sit down to write.
All of this is very different from what would happen in a typical school in rural India, and in many parts of the world, where class often looks a lot like it might have 100 years ago–students sitting in rows chanting facts in unison or memorizing equations. In India, and elsewhere, this type of rote education comes under criticism for leaving students unprepared to deal creatively with 21st-century challenges like climate change and jobs lost to automation.
The workshop, by contrast, tries to foster critical thinking (as students analyze why they like particular stories), creativity, and a sense of agency. “I try to shed the spotlight on how we are using storytelling every day,” Altman says. “I highlight to students how this means that stories are this beautiful, democratic thing, something that they can use to enrich the narratives of their lives and to create powerful social change, and inspire others to believe what they believe, and behave in ways in accordance with the world that they want to come about.”
The book featured on Kickstarter, by a seventh-grader named Vijay, talks about a growing challenge of grandparents being “pushed out” of family homes where generations traditionally would have lived together–and then ending up homeless on the street. By the end of the story, the narrators have come up with a solution: an organization that gives food and shelter to older relatives who can’t rely on their families.
“It’s so hopeful,” Altman says. “They essentially try to tackle this problem.”
Altman has given the same workshop in rural South Africa, Ghana, Mexico, and, most recently, Nepal. With the Kickstarter campaign, he hopes to launch a sustainable business model: After each workshop, one student story will be illustrated and printed as a book. As subscribers buy that book, it supports sending a facilitator to give the next workshop somewhere else. (For schools, the workshops are free.) The experience, Altman hopes, leaves students thinking differently about the world.
“At the end of the workshop, there’s a total transformation,” he says.