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A Way of Knowing--A Way of Telling
Published in DramaForum, 2005
Nancy King, Ph.D.

There once lived a king who worried he would die without an heir. When the child was born there was great rejoicing. Although healthy, the king's counselors noticed the child often stumbled and suggested an examination by the king's physicians. The king's joy turned to grief when he learned his child was blind. In a fit of rage, the king ordered his servants to take the child to the far off mountains, to be devoured by the wild beasts.

Tiger was the first to see the small child and roared, “I will eat you,” but the child had never heard a creature roar and could not see the beast. Tiger was astonished to see the little child stand still, utterly unafraid. Impressed, he called to all the animals, “Come see this tiny being who feels no fear. Let us help this wee child survive.” Tigress fed the child her milk. Fox made a warm coat. Peacock wove a hat of beautiful feathers.

In the morning, birds sang, “Wake up, wake up.” The young child tried to answer the birds’ songs but could not make sounds as beautiful as theirs. The child asked for help. One animal brought strong bamboo for that was all she knew to bring. Another brought thick hairs. Still another brought thin hairs. The tiny child played with the gifts, attaching the hairs to a stick, tightening them until the thin hairs went “Pi,” and the thick hairs went “Ba.” Even today, there is an instrument in China called the PiBa. Now the young child could sing to the birds with the PiBa. In the evening when the animals told stories of their lives, the small child listened and felt something stir inside. 

Years passed. One day, the child heard animals talking about blue sky and asked them, “What is blue? What is sky?”

Tiger said, “These words describe the world above the earth.”

The child said, “I do not understand.”

“This is because your eyes do not talk to you the way ours do. You are blind.”

“Can you make my eyes talk to me?”

“I do not have that power. But, these mountains are not the whole world. In other places there are people, like you. Perhaps they can help your eyes speak to you.”

“Thank you,” said the child. “I will go and find them.”

Tiger said, “Before you leave, there is something you must know. Every creature born has a special name but when you came, you were so little you did not know your name. When you walk among people they will ask you for your name.”

“Oh,” said the child. “What shall I do?” 

Tiger said, “Naming takes thought.” He convened a meeting and said to the animals, “Our friend is leaving and must have a name. Everyone suggested a name.

Totally confused, Peacock protested, “My head is spinning. I cannot decide which name is best. Since Tiger is known to be the wisest of us all let us agree to give Tiger the honor of suggesting the name.” The animals agreed.

Tiger stared into the fire for a long time before turning to the child who sat before him. “Over the years when we told you about our lives you took what we said and turned it into stories we can tell our children and grandchildren. To honor you and your gift we will call you Storyteller, for you take what you hear and add something of your own.

Although the animals were sad Storyteller wanted to leave them, they understood and each gave Storyteller a present. Tiger said, “I will give you words that humans use so you can talk to them. Their ways are different from ours.” When at last it was Mouse's turn, she put her arms around Storyteller's foot for that was what she could reach. “All I have to give is this small hug. Perhaps it will keep you from being lonely.” With their presents, Storyteller left the far off mountains to walk among the many peoples of the earth, in places of heat and cold and rain and snow and dust and wind.

While traveling, Storyteller played the PiBa and asked questions of people. It came to matter less and less that Storyteller's eyes did not speak for Storyteller's fingers created sounds for people to hear. Storyteller's mouth created pictures everyone could see. Stories give birth to stories and soon, Storyteller had many, many stories to tell.

One day, as Storyteller was telling stories, a merchant grabbed Storyteller's left arm and said, “Don't be stupid. Why give away for free what villagers will pay for?”

A second merchant grabbed Storyteller's right arm. “Don't listen to him. Come with me. I will make us rich.” The two merchants, arguing over who owned Storyteller, created such pandemonium the King's guards arrested them and brought them to the King.

“What is going on?” growled the King. Once again the two merchants fought over Storyteller, making such a commotion the King's ears hurt. “Guards, take these men away!”

The King asked Storyteller, “Why are the merchants fighting over you?”

“I do not know. I was only telling stories in the marketplace.”

“Tell me a story,” ordered the King. Storyteller struck the PiBa and began. The King felt sad and cried. Then, he laughed with delight. He decided there was more wisdom in Storyteller's stories than in all his advisors’ words. “Who taught you to tell stories?”

“I grew up among creatures in the far off mountains. I learned from them.”

The King recognized that Storyteller was the child he had sent to be devoured by wild beasts. “I have been given a second chance and this time I am wiser. Though you are blind you have your own way of seeing. I can die peacefully knowing you will take my place as ruler of our kingdom.”

“I am sorry but I cannot. Stories are like rivers. Just as a river needs streams to keep it flowing, I must have stories to keep me seeing. If I stay here I will lose my vision.”

Storyteller thanked the King for his kindness and left the palace to travel throughout the world, playing the PiBa, hearing and telling stories. Thus did Storyteller give the gift of storytelling to the world.

Like all traditional stories, the Chinese story, “A Way of Seeing,” evokes many issues, ideas, and experiences to explore. We might ask: What happens to the child on the journey to the far off mountains? How does the king feel after his child is gone? What does he say to the queen when she asks for her child? Why can't a blind person rule a kingdom? The more we take the story inside ourselves, the more it is possible to wonder.

Stories are part of the fabric of our lives. When something happens, for good or bad, we usually want to tell someone what occurred. Recounting our story helps us make sense of what we've experienced. Through writing and telling stories we share knowledge, personal experience, culture, humor, ideas, and create a common source of knowing among those who hear the story. I have noticed that after hearing stories, people have more energy and groups work together more effectively, with more resourcefulness. Conversely, in my experience, when we are deprived of stories, our psyches lack nourishment; we are less able to imagine and visualize, we are more prone to depression and despair, and we have poorer access to our inner resources.

When working with a group it is important to tell rather than read the story, making sure we are in good contact with our listeners. Telling a story involves making choices, accenting or diminishing the importance of an event. As we sequence and select our narrative we connect who we are to the story we are telling, putting ourselves into the story, sometimes without even knowing how or when. Hearing a story is an active process that allows us to visualize and create images from our imagination. 

I design story tasks with a particular group in mind, based on a central focus that is evoked by the story but related to student concerns and skills being taught. Assignments are worded so that students are clear about what to do, without being told how to do it; descriptive rather than prescriptive, with a clear end point so they know when they have completed their work. When planning a task, I pay attention to language; asking students to paint an image of the hero gives different results from asking them to paint an image of a hero or my hero. All tasks are sequenced to enable students to end each class meeting on a positive note with a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of closure. I think it is important to leave time at the end of each session for students to reflect on the text, class experience, what they have learned, and the topic being explored. When students work in role, part of the reflection process includes helping students to “debrief,” to get out of role and back into themselves so they can leave the session with no unfinished business.   

Beginning class with imagemaking enables students to concretize abstract ideas, evokes knowing that can then be expressed in words, and gives students a way to talk about the text and their responses to it. Imagemaking also acts as a focusing mechanism, helping students to let go of what has been and pay attention to what is. Sharing images helps students verbalize what may be difficult to express and helps those who may not know each other recognize that others may share their ideas, that dissimilarity in skin color, religion or culture does not necessarily mean a different point of view. At the same time, sharing images enables students to discuss diverse points of view from individual perspectives, thus enriching class discussion. 

From two-dimensional images in fingerpaint we use color, shape, and texture to explore and evoke feelings and ideas for which we initially may have no words. Three-dimensional clay images enable us to explore relationships that can change over time as thoughts and feelings about a text deepen or transform. The use of these primitive materials, which we use with our hands, in about one minute, helps us to physically and spontaneously connect thoughts and feelings that are evoked by our understanding of the text with ideas about meaning, style, language, and culture. 

Each of the following approaches to the story, “A Way of Seeing,” explores a way to work and centers on a focus chosen to suggest a strategy for teaching oral and written language. Although students’ age, level of proficiency, degree of interaction among themselves and their teacher, and the degree to which they participate, are all factors in devising class plans, I make these suggestions knowing that readers will tailor the ideas to fit their situation. With small classes, images can be shared with the whole group, but with larger groups, sharing is more profitably experienced in small groups with participants describing significant aspects with the larger group.

Instructions are given by the teacher. I use this format when planning my classes.


Entering into the story

Focus: Noticing and questioning
Tell:   “A Way of Seeing”
Paint:  An image of a telling moment from the story. (A telling moment is a powerful instance in the story that makes you feel strongly--angry, puzzled, happy, sad, worried...)
Write: Words that come to mind after painting your image.
Share:  Images and words. Talk about what makes a telling moment for you.
Imagine: You are a reporter interviewing “Storyteller.” Decide the purpose of the interview, where it will be published (daily or weekly newspaper, magazine) and in the kind of publication (news, family, arts, gossip, etc.).
Write: Down key questions you want to ask Storyteller.
Share: Beginning and ending questions with the group. 
Talk:   About how you came to choose these questions, why they matter to you and to the story you plan to write.
Discuss: What makes a telling moment and a memorable event for you.
In role: Discuss this issue as if you are Storyteller.
Reflect:  What might differentiate Storyteller's ideas from yours?
What kinds of things do you tend to notice?  Does who you are make a difference in what you observe? If so, how do you think this happens?  If your issues change over time how do you develop awareness of change?


Becoming who we are

Focus: Exploring blindness
Sculpt: An image of “blind.”
Share: Images.
Talk:  About blindness. How might you feel if you were born or became blind?  How might you make a life for yourself? How might it affect choices of a job, a spouse, where you live, how you get around? If you have known a person who was blind, how did blindness affect the relationship?
Tell: “A Way of Seeing.”
Paint: An image of Storyteller at a particular moment.
Write: One or two sentences Storyteller might say to another person in the story about what is going on in Storyteller's life at the moment.
Share: Images and writing.
Reflect: On what it takes for us to become who we are, what this means, how a handicap affects our development, how we react to handicapped people.

Paying attention

Focus:  Creating dialogue
Paint:  An image of the king and his child just before the King tells his servants to take the child to the far off mountains.
Write:  The dialogue between the King and his child.
Paint: An image of the king and Storyteller at a specific moment after Storyteller is brought to the king's palace.
Write: The dialogue between the king and Storyteller.
Share:  Dialogues in pairs, each reading both scripts for the class.
Reflect: On issues and questions raised by the dialogues.
Do you notice differences in language read out loud or read silently? If so, what are some of these differences? What accounts for them?



Exploring possibilities

Focus: Creating a character
Sculpt: An image of a character at a particular moment in the story in relationship to a person, place, or thing.
Decide: What does this character want to accomplish or have? What keeps him/her from getting what she/he wants? What are some consequences of getting or not getting what he/she wants? Why does she/he want it now?
Develop: Strategies that your character might use to get what he/she wants.
Play: Out the strategies in your mind, imagining a variety of consequences that might arise.
Choose: One strategy to explore more deeply.
Write: The story of how your character gets what she/he wants. Feel free to go beyond the story as it was told. Choose to write it as a story or a play.
Share:  Writing. Discuss how you came to write in your chosen form.
Reflect:  On writing. What makes us choose or reject a possibility? What helps or prevents us from making new or unexpected choices?


Imagining, Inventing, Creating, and Expressing

Focus: Creating a story
Imagine: You are a character in the story and meet Storyteller who tells you a story. You decide you want to give Storyteller the gift of a new story.
Paint: And title an image that comes to mind.
Share: Your image and title with a partner.
Reflect: With partner how you come to title your image.
Ask: Partner questions about her/his image and title that can't be answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ For example, suppose the image is a swirl of colors and the title is: The Coming Whirlwind. The partner might ask: Where is the whirlwind coming from? Who rides the whirlwind? What makes it come to earth? What happens when it meets children trying to hide from the storm?
Partners: Write down questions but do not answer them.
Write: A story that comes from image, title, and questions asked by your partner.
Ask: Partner for suggestions to deepen your story.
Revise: Story.
Read: Stories to classmates.
Collect: Stories and make a book of stories for Storyteller.
Reflect: On process and on stories.


I suggest students date and title all images, noting which story evoked them, keeping them in a notebook to which they can refer and reflect at a later date. The collection of images and stories serves as a record of work and a personal source of nourishment as they reread and remember stories, plays, and poems they have written. Our stories help us know ourselves, become more aware of inner changes over time, and make it possible for us to better understand the world in which we live.

For further information about imagemaking and storymaking please consult my website: or contact me at:

King, Nancy, (1994) Storymaking and Drama. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann
King, Nancy. (1996) Playing Their Part. Portsmouth, NH: Heineman

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All material copyright © Nancy King 2019.
Updated January 2019.
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