Working with stories with 10-13 year olds

I am often asked about how I work with stories and youth. Let me share with you one example.

The Tortoise and the Hare.

You know the story right?

I tell an African version of it that I read in Tales of an Ashanti Father, by Peggy Appiah. When I tell I use certain Ashanti (Ghana) words, which I have learned from my friend Afro Moses ( and I play the djembe or mbira in parts.

The story…

Lion, king of the jungle noticed that many of his animals were being lost to hunters and other animal predators. He gathered his animals together and talked of the loss and how he believed that unity and cooperation between them could help the situation. He then asked the animals what they thought. Many animals agreed, many did not, in particular, Hare jumped up and stated that he is fine on his own, he is fast, a good hider and does not need all this nonsense.

Well, you can imagine the animal’s reaction to a comment like that? They shouted, yelled, got animated, noisy. In the end it was Tortoise who spoke up in favour of the king. Tortoise took his time and told Hare what a fool he is to believe speed is so important, to prove his point he offers to race against Hare – much to the humour of all animals present. The race time and track are set and all animals go home with mirth in their hearts and on their lips. How could Tortoise possibly do it?

Tortoise, his family and friends do not go home to bed. They meet together and …

You know the rest. Tortoise made a plan and recruited his family and friends after a bit of resistance. They hid in strategic places along the track. They learnt a song to sing to warn the next runner that they were coming… in the end they won. Although at the end Tortoise states that it is cooperation and diligence that won.

This story raises some serious questions?

– Who won? Is it Tortoise, or all of his family and friends? Who receives the acknowledgement? Who is remembered long after the event?

-Did tortoise cheat?

Did he run the race alone? Did he challenge the Hare alone?

What are your answers I wonder? When I ask these questions generally half of the population believe that Tortoise cheated, most believe he ‘bent the rules’ to win.

So that leads me to ask;

What were the rules? Were they ever stated? Who has the right to impose rules? Who in our world EVER wins a race completely on their own?

Let me repeat that, as it is the key question for many youth. Who in our world EVER wins a race completely on their own. The runner? The swimmer? They may cross the line alone but they have a multitude of people supporting them along the way. The chess player learns strategies and practises against others along the way. The rock climber has their belay person, the trainer, the route setter etc etc.

Once this idea has been broken out we then work in a group to mimic the success of Tortoise. We think about things that we want to achieve. Write them down, describe them, visualise them clearly. Tortoise knew exactly what he wanted.

We write a step-by-step plan. Including who we need to recruit to help us achieve that goal. We also make a strong point of who we need to ignore/leave behind to achieve our goal. It sounds harsh but not everyone is going to buoy our spirits or compliment our efforts or want to see us achieve. Not everyone should be listened to.

We also look at the things we can do alone, such as research, visualisation, practise etc.

Depending on the age group I analyse the turning points in the story, that is at what points could the story have gone a different way. What were the alternatives? What then are the alternatives in our own stories?

The Tortoise and the Hare is a universal story that has been passed down over generations across the globe. Its long life and success as a story is due to its relevance. Sometimes us adults need to be reminded of our story and the power of the stories we tell ourselves and our children.

Just as a further note for those that are interested.

I used the story and structure above as a part of the ‘Kids Making Choices’ Program over a period of 5 years. Below is some information on the program as a whole.

The program was an early intervention two-day workshop. We worked with targeted primary schools, typically with a high component of Culturally and Ethnically Diverse (CALD) background students. The program was funded by The Attorney Genreral’s Office (National community crime prevention programme), the PCYC Wollongong, and the Illawarra Ethnic Communities Council (as it was then known).  The program approach focused on raising young peoples awareness of the importance of developing personal values, competencies and character strengths that will empower them to understand and consider alternatives to a variety of situations.

The Objectives of the project as a whole were to;

  • Assist and enable CALD young people to understand and explore values that are important for them and society.
  • To explore concepts for the positive and negative choices, self esteem and peer pressure.
  • To develop personal competencies for the transition to high school, particularly how to deal with peer pressure.
  • Learning to communicate effectively and set personal goals.
  • Using values and character strengths to make positive choices.