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Engaging with Contemporary Social Issues Through Multicultural Story Sharing


brenda beckDr Brenda Beck is an adjunct professor in the Department of Anthropology, at The University of Toronto. The author appears in the photo at right, visiting sixth grader exhibits.

An Introduction to Our Work
Canada has recently become one of the world’s leading multicultural societies, especially if one primarily focuses on this country’s major cities. Whole swaths of Toronto’s many suburbs, for example, are populated mainly by immigrants, as are many core near-downtown areas of this city. The change in the cultural feel of these locales, though quite recent, is very profound. Of course, this has placed significant new pressures on Canada’s public school system in these areas. The students and the teaching staff in such neighbourhoods have transformed quite markedly. Both now have a profoundly “All-Nations-Of-The-World” feel to them. And this diversity is not just linguistic and cultural in the broad sense. These schools also display a stunning religious, socio-economic and attitudinal mix.

This new school environment poses many challenges for teachers but also striking opportunities. The educational leaders in these school districts face the cutting-edge possibility of steering Canadian educational norms and structures in new directions. In particular, there is a crying need to help whole classrooms full of immigrant students learn to appreciate and ground themselves in their own heritage(s) while at the same time learning about Canada. There is also the very immediate issue of learning how to explore and appreciate what others, peers who rub elbows with each other daily, bring to the table. Loneliness, looking different, weak language skills, poverty (for some), differing festival calendars, and a lack of self confidence are but a few of the many issues that all who work in such a school community must squarely acknowledge.

self love student art social action

This article describes an experiment in accessing the power of Story Telling for learning at multiple levels just such a multi-ethnic setting. What I am about to describe cannot be called a “controlled experiment” nor is it one that was well-planned by me, in advance. However, this is not just one case study. I also currently have somewhat parallel experiments running in several other schools, addressing different age groups and different types of school bureaucracies, both in Canada and in India. But because I believe only a “thick description” can properly convey the impact of storytelling, I will examine one unique array of students at a time. This essay is limited to examples drawn from just one setting

The Class Project
The class consisted of about 25 students, no two of whom shared very much in the way of a common background. Some had come with their parents from India (and South Asia more broadly). Some were born here in Canada. There were also a significant numbers whose families had immigrated to Canada from China, from the Caribbean or from Africa, as well as a smattering that had arrived from elsewhere around the world including various countries in Europe. All were in the eighth grade and the mix of males and females was roughly balanced. Spoken and written language skills, including the students’ grasp of English grammar, varied wildly. This is one reason, though not the only one, that both the classroom teacher Ms. Renuka de Silva and her Principal, were happy to give their students substantial leeway to express ideas thru a creative arts and crafts approach.

student artThe eighth grade teacher who took up this experiment had decided to use a story from South India that I had already worked on (albeit in a university milieu) for nearly fifty years. This energized teacher had already selected a native Canadian story about the residential school system and a Chinese story about some other historical of injustice, before taking up this particular ancient South Indian Tamil legend as her third class project of the year. I supplied her with an animated video version of the Tamil tale, known as The Legend of Ponnivala ( which she shared (selected parts of) with her students. I also supplied some ipad reading apps, and the opportunity to engage with the tale using a third medium: a packaged series of well-illustrated graphic novels. All these materials told the same story but allowed each student to access tale using their own vehicle of choice. All the materials used were highly visual and all had been developed over many years by me. All versions of the story rested both personal scholarship and on the advice and input of a variety of South Asian cultural advisors.

The students developed a communal art project to express their responses to this tale. That display used a tree concept to integrate individual contributions. A universal and somewhat generic branching plant was selected to stand at its center. Later in this essay I will include close-ups of many items that were either hung on to (or posted near) this tree. Unfortunately, due to a strict school policy, I cannot share any photos of the wonderful students themselves.

As a senior Canadian South Asian scholar I have spent more than fifty years studying Indian folklore and culture generally. Furthermore, I have focused on this one tale in particular depth. Significantly, this body of work gains authenticity from the fact that the artist who directed all of the animation and graphic novel illustrations used was himself the grandson of an actual village story teller. This man, my artist’s father’s father, had happened to specialize in this one, very long folk tale and had become a respected local teller in the 1950s and 60s. As his direct descendent, a boy who had sat on his grandfather’s knee night after night and listened as he sang, my Animation Director had come to feel uniquely empowered by this story, long before I met him. His artwork and his illustrative style are an expression of his own cultural heritage. I was fortunate to find as my project partner someone so sensitive to this story’s special nuances, as well someone so naturally talented! All this groundwork later turned out to be useful. Using so much visual material definitely helped the eighth grade students in this case study access the tale more easily. It also helped them as they worked to imagine particular scenes in the legend that they later choose to flesh out further using their own creativity


Another very important element in this school experiment was the school-wide framing device suggested some time earlier by the school Principal, a man with a strong personal commitment to embedding the concept of social justice within the school’s broader curriculum. Mr. Jeevan Chanicka had already looked for ways to apply the obvious relevance of this perspective in his own school’s multi-ethnic school setting. I later learned that he had involved students in creating six identically shaped canvas frames, each making a statement related to a broader social justice vision. The result was six large paintings that I found hung in a straight line high above the more immediate project exhibit, installed at ground level, that I am about to describe. Those paintings each contained just one line of explanation. Significantly, each revolved around a personal pronoun....An obvious invitation to engagement:

THE SIX CONCEPT PAINTINGS: In the interests of space, only three of these six paintings
are represented by visual images in this article.
1. Self-Love and Knowledge: I am the learner of my history and the holder of my future.
2. Respect Others: We see diversity as an asset and practice inclusivity.
3. Raising Awareness: I believe every voice is important and needs to be heard.
4. Exloring Issues of Social Justice: I am an advocate for social justice because inequalities exist.
5. Social Movement and Social Change: We can drive social change together.
6. Taking Social Action: We are agents of change.

Self-Love and Knowledge–Exploring Issues of Social Justice–Taking Social Action
I found it very interesting that all six concepts were highlighted in the entrance to the school. This was the one place where all who passed through the school doors, including the students’ parents, would see these six paintings clearly displayed and be able to ponder their significance. The first principle, in particular, is positioned as a ”foundation” needed to appreciate the rest of the cluster. It is directed at motivating students to develop confidence in themselves, no matter what their own ethnic origin, religious affiliation, or economic condition. The second side of principle number one encourages each student to develop a knowledge of and pride in their own unique heritage. Clearly these were needs, universal as they may be, that needed special highlighting in this very particular, massively multicultural, environment. The other five principles, were then each accorded their own pride of place. Each bore a special extra relevance, of course, in this specifically new-immigrant-coloured school environment. How contemporary and how very Canadian this whole visual framework was! I have encountered very pleasing theme-posters in many other schools... concepts like love, sensitivity, humility, setting a good example, or being an inspirational leader. Nowhere else, however, have I seen anything quite as expressive of the values young Canadians need in order to step boldly into Canada’s own what I found expressed in this school’s explicit value statement(s).

The next question that I needed to pose was what did this one eighth grade teacher select from these foyer statements and how did she rephrase these ideas for use within her unique classroom project? I soon found that she had made (all but one) principle into questions. She then wove these queries into a student assignment: “Read/watch The Legend of Ponnivala, and answer these questions,” she asked in her class directive. “You may use both words and art to form your answers.” I will now try to match these teacher-written questions (a bit roughly) to the six canvas painting themes discussed above. To do this I have rephrased teacher’s words just a bit, more massively in the case of question five, in order to keep my overall argument clear and succinct.

Teaching Questions Developed For A Grade Eight Multicultural Story Exploration:
1. In what way is this story a vehicle of culture? Did this story influence your beliefs regarding deity?
2. How was my earlier view of another/own culture impacted and changed by this story?
3. What symbols did you find in the story and do any of them play a role in modern-day culture?
4. How does the cultural history (and several cases of injustice) seen in this story impact on and inform our present day values?
5. What examples of a social movement did you find in the story, if any? Did you discover any examples of social change in the story. If so, what were they?
6. How does the story problematize the status quo described? What role did the gods and goddesses have in this framing?

Now I want to turn to the exciting part of this exploration. How did one old legend that came to Canada from far across the world manage to thoroughly engage eighth grade students? And secondly, how did it help one teacher lead her class towards a deeper understanding of modern Canadian values? Here is what one student wrote in an attempt to explain what her class had just done:

"The journey first started when Dr. Beck came to our school for a presentation of 'The Legend of Ponnivala.' Our class started watching the series, analyzing the subtle things that happened while watching. From there we then put our dense critical thinking into action, digging deep, going through layers and layers to understand the motive of it. As we learned how to continue to think densely we made a dense question of our own. This not only allowed us to practice our skills of dense thinking. It also helped us connect with ourselves, the world and the texts."

A second student linked the project very effectively with what had been studied earlier the same year. The thematic relationships between these several teaching segments were clearly understood and described nicely. Here is one example:

"We explored our six inner values. In our first term we learned about power dynamics between First Nations peoples and foreigners through the book “Encounter” and we explored the residential schools through accounts of real life residential school survivors. In the second term we discovered countless social injustice issues through a story called “The Willow Pattern” that originated from China, and many other stories from a book called “One Peace.” While analyzing the stories in the book “One Peace” we studied people like Craig Kailburger, Kirnmie Weeks and Sadako Sasaki in a social justice perspective. We are now later in the second term and we have analyzed the Legend of “Ponnivala” through a social justice perspective, using a variety of artistic and literary mediums to communicate our thoughts. All this was done through dense critical thinking, using different lenses to understand how our biases intervene with other texts and how are biases are composed.

With this frame established, I now want to work through each specific question posed and explore the various student answers I collected. Not all responses express the same depth of understanding but taken as a whole I believe the outcome is quite stunning, especially when we consider that many students preferred using mainly art and few words. Overall, I believe the student exhibit I am discussing demonstrates the strength of this teaching approach: asking students to include both visual story materials and essay-style words in their assignment(s. In particular, each pupil had to contribute to a communally-built sum-up “foyer display” some of their own key ideas. I will describe the responses embedded in this display and illustrate how each tries to respond to the teacher’s initial range of “frame topics.”

Teaching Question On:
student artIn what way is this story a vehicle of culture? Did this story influence your beliefs regarding deity? Here are a variety of student answers along with a few images. These answers provide a sense that there has been distinct classroom learning along the lines and themes intended. Where the question has two parts, part one is addressed first. All the images used reflect original student art included in the exhibition.

Pt I, Student One: “In modern day culture elderly people tell us stories about beliefs and spread their knowledge by expressing their feelings and thoughts. I think cultural histories inform out present day values because people still like to believe in cultural things: for example Diwali, Eid, Christmas, Kawanza etc.”

Pt I, Student Two: “Cultural histories inform our present day values. One of our present day values is children. This value does not only exist in present days, but also exists in cultural histories.”

Pt I, Student Three: “A lot of things that our parents knew are things that were passed on from their parents and so on and so forth. With that you can imagine how many generations of biases have been passed down into our brains. A part of our cultural histories will stick with us for a long time.”

Pt I, Student Four: “I didn’t realize that so many of the problems that we have in the present existed in the past and in different cultures.”

Pt II, Student One: “In the story the characters would perform a pooja for a special ceremony like weddings or even do one every single day.... The lands of Ponnivala belonged to the goddess Celatta. So every day Kunnutaiya and Tamarai would perform a pooja in her honour, so their land would stay rich and fertile.”

student artPt II, Student Two: I thought that women in India were always required to listen to men in the house. But after reading this text I was a bit surprised that the women in the story were more respected and that most of the men would listen to what they have to say about a situation.

Pt II, Student Three: “In the Ponnivala culture, they have to perform three pujas a day to the gods or else there will be misfortune....However, in my culture misfortune things happen when you are in the wrong place.”

Pt II, Student Four: “This text influenced my perspective on cultural beliefs regarding deity learning how other cultures think about their culture and beliefs. For example, in my culture we have to cover our heads, so we won’t show our hair before we go and pray. But in this culture it’s okay if they don’t cover their heads before they go and pray.

To Summarize
The concept that each person carries with them their own valuable cultural heritage, and that this complex set of customs and beliefs can be contained and communicated through stories has clearly been absorbed by the students in this class. Furthermore, without speaking of religious differences per se, students have come to appreciate that the same kind of cultural variation also applies to belief systems.

Teaching Question Two:
How was my earlier view of another/own culture impacted and changed by this story?

student artStudent One: “I realized that Hinduism or the Hindu culture says everyone should be nice and respectful to each other. You also have to pray to god twice a day or three times a day and because of this Ponnivala episodes we watched, it cleared up some of the stereotypes I have heard.”

Student Two: “When I read this text it made me think of all the ways that our cultures are really different, yet similar at the same time. For example, in my culture we also have the male power factor, where the males have dominance over the women. We also have our beliefs in god and there are superstitions.”

Student Three: In my cultural history elders or parents would arrange marriage for their children because they are either in poverty or due to another reason. However, if you think more deeply into this they do this because they value their children...As this value occurred in cultural histories, it also occurs in Ponnivala. Tamarai valued children. She (would do) anything (to have) them.

Student Four: I follow the religion portrayed in the text. The only difference is the text is viewed from the Tamil point of view. In my upbringing Lord Shiva’s skin colour was taught as blue. In this story his skin colour is light grey. Then I thought to myself, ‘Oh, I thought his skin colour was blue.’ I questioned myself.”

Student Five: “Personally, I thought that the women in India were always put down, abused or (not) as highly respected as men. After reading this text I was a bit surprised that the women in the story were more respected and that most of the men would listen to what they had to say.”

To Summarize
The class shows evidence of having become sensitized to the idea that all cultures carry stereotypes about “others” within their stories. They were also able to perceive and appreciate the fact that ideas and customs can vary by region within what is generally thought of as one great big culture area. The teacher has successfully conveyed, using stories as a preferred vehicle of study, that the job of a “dense” thinker is to identify negative stereotypes that are a part of one’s own personal heritage and try first to identify and critique these, and then to try to discard them. This discovery of similarities seems genuine, even if something like valuing one’s own children might appear as obvious and therefore as a naive comment from an adult perspective.

Teaching Question Three:
What symbols did you find in the story and do any of them play a role in modern-day culture?

Student One: “Everything that the characters did usually meant something.”

Student Two: “The symbolism preserves a belief in deity because the items and things are holy, divine, auspicious or in some cases ominous.”

Student Three: “In the story Kunnutaiya and Tamarai got married at a Ganesh temple. Ganesha is a symbol and has meaning (even today).”

Student Four: “While reading this text... Tamarai’s brothers gave Kunnutaiya and Tamarai (undesirable, inauspicious) wedding gifts. The significance of the gifts meant that Kunnutaiya and Tamarai were not welcomed back to Tamarai’s family home. The family does not want to talk or have any contact with them.”

Student Five: “Anything translates into symbols that connect to your cultural values which influences the things you do in modern culture. For example, when I asked my mom for a pet snake she remembers that snakes are a symbol for misfortune and death in her cultural values and she replies, ‘No.’”

To Summarize
Students were able to grasp the idea that actions can be symbolic just as objects and various forms of artistic statements can message layer upon layer of meaning. And they also discovered that symbols can convey both positive and negative connotations. Furthermore, some students were able to give examples of how these subtle and often unspoken meanings still impacted on their lives today.

Teaching Question Four:
How does the cultural history (and several cases of injustice) seen in this story impact on and inform our present day values?

student artStudent One: “In most of the stories and cultures there were always problems like abuse of power, male domination, woman abuse, and child abuse. These problems exist today in most parts of the world.”

Student Two: (I saw a) “woman abused....the watchman was beating Tamarai. As a result it helped me extend my knowledge that this social justice issue existed.”

Student Three: “Tamarai went to visit her elder brothers’ children. She was beaten mercilessly (which was unjust) but afterwards she fought back quickly using a fireball.”

Student Four: “The soldiers of Virappur fought against the kings of Ponnivala because of the killing (by those soldiers) of Komban (Virappur’s symbolic pet boar).”

student artStudent Five: “The Chola king told the maid to put out poison. Lord Vishnu (sent) a palace cat (to lick the food first) so the twins would know it was poisoned.” (This unjust action by the king ultimately caused the twins to murder that Chola king.)

Student Six: “For example, a long time ago in China female children were considered useless and were devalued as children because they could not carry on the family name....I still know some Chinese families that prefer male children.”

Student Seven: “Tamarai and Kunnutaiya wanted land so they asked the king for it. He gave them the land of Ponnivala. Tamarai (also) wanted a child very badly, Unfortunately she couldn’t get a child because their family had been cursed (due to no fault of hers). That was unjust.”

To Summarize
Through studying the story of Ponnivala, located in a distant land and happening at distant time, students have learned to look for injustice in new places and to realize it can occur anywhere. In some cases they were also able to make links to types of injustice still persisting in societies like their own, in Canada, today.

Teaching Question Five:
What examples of a social movement did you find in the story, if any? Did you discover any examples of social change in the story? If so, what were they?

Student One: “The text influenced my perspective on culture (and social justice) when (I found that) the Chola king was trying to kill (the heroes) Ponnar (and his brother) by using poison.” (What was not recognized by the students at this grade level was the possible link between that poisoning attempt and its eventual outcome: Their rebellious action (ending in a murder) can be interpreted as pointing to a much wider social shift. In the corresponding historical period, people in this region were beginning to recognize the harm being caused to society by such a pompous, inept and unjust royal heir... the man who now sat on a once-much-respected Chola throne. The murder leads to a power vacuum and then to significant social changes... as seen later in the story).

Student Two: (No example found) Hence my illustration presents one of the additional foyer “teaching” posters found hanging in the school’s entrance hall the day I happened to visit. Had I known (before the completion of the student exhibition being discussed) that this was a school-wide topic of special interest I would have pointed out to the eighth grade instructor driving the project that there are actually several places in the Ponnivala story one might use to discuss the topic of Social Change. One such possibility presents itself very near the beginning of the story. There a group of farmers move in and try to displace the former residents of the Ponnivala area, men who make their living as artisans and traders rather than as ploughmen. The agriculturalists succeed and the local artisans’ power and status are lowered during a process of forced submission. There are many modern examples of parallel social movements, ones which usually involve the migration of one group and the ultimate displacement of others who previously lived in that “new country” to which the immigrants go.

Another example that exhibits similar potential for discussing Social Movements and Social Change is the follow-up story of what happens after that Chola king is murdered by two of his clearly rebellious underlings.

No student noticed that the farmer-heroes NEVER enter the wild forest territory adjacent to their lands to hunt... that is until after the Chola overlord of the entire area has been killed. That murder opens up the landscape by erasing its control from the top. In short, a political vacuum is created. After that Chola monarch’s death the farmers enjoy a new liberty, freedom born of local political chaos. They can now enter the forest at will. Taking advantage of this new situation the two heroes quickly go on a hunt organized to capture parrots which they want to make into palace pets for their family’s women. Of course this can be viewed as a highly symbolic act. But the two heroes also set out, very soon thereafter on a wild boar hunt. This is a traditional sport widely associated with India’s elite class. Now, without a king controlling the forest and claiming it for himself, the story heroes can kill wild boars at will. Previously only grand kings enjoyed the right to hunt in such forest preserves... an exclusive privilege to be exercised at their pleasure and then used to advertise their bravado. But breaking this class restriction, the newly democratized boar hunt also had its own consequences. Both those parrots and the wild boar “belonged” to the tribal hunters to protect and enjoy whenever the kings were not out on a forest sporting expedition. When the Ponnivala heroes entered that adjacent hill tract with a retinue of village assistants, all bearing arms, the forest dwellers who lived there were angered. They justifiably felt that their own special rights were now being violated. Which group holds the moral high ground in such a scenario? What a great topic for class discussion!

To Summarize
This is one area where a theme that was clearly endorsed by the Principal of the school was never clearly articulated. Likely this was because the teacher involved was not aware of these themes’ presence in the story. This was a potentially rich teaching opportunity missed! None of the students whose work I read picked up on the idea that there were pointers to both significant social movements and major group protests hidden deep within this Ponnivala tale. The clues were calling out, and were even selected by students for several of the images they developed for their exhibit. But those significant deeper meanings went undetected. The lesson now is mine. As a story writer and educational planner I need to better assist teachers in “guided” dense thinking of their own. People like me can be sought out to help teachers recognize story pointers to the chosen topics they wish to feature in the classroom. Not every story used in classroom teaching would have such ”deep layers hidden within,” but certainly many like The Legend of Ponnivala do.

Teaching Question Six:
How does the story problematize the status quo described? What role did the gods and goddesses have in this framing?

Student One: I thought that the gods and goddesses didn’t have to be so cruel to Kunnutaiya’s family. His father and mother suffered so much..... Just because they accidentally killed a couple of cows their whole land got cursed for seven generations. They had to do so much for the gods to notice them, like the twenty-one year pilgrimage (of Tamarai). I thought that the gods should’ve seen the unfairness in the whole curse.

student artStudent Two: It was important for gods/goddesses to intervene in people’s lives in order to problematize the status quo. In the beginning Lord Siva cursed Kunnutaiya’s family to be born with no children for seven generations. This curse caused Tamarai to be barren (and in turn) caused Tamarai to visit her elder brothers’ children. She wanted to seek comfort from seeing them. She also realized that she couldn’t go empty handed (she took gifts). She respected them and appreciated that they were there. (The reasoning seems to be ‘Without the problematic curse this family visit might not have happened.’)

Student Three: Vishnu helps (the heroic couple) by changing all their crops (maize cobs) into (rows of) precious stones. Tamarai and Kunnutaiya (harvest these and then) horde all the precious stones in their small hut. (Then) Vishnu tests them by turning himself into 1,000 beggars. He wants to see if they would still give to others, even after earning all this wealth. Tamarai... gave all their stones away to the beggars. This shows the gods that Tamarai and Kunnutaiya are not greedy people; they are generous and kind.

To Summarize
This was perhaps the most difficult concept on the list, the idea that in stories problems are sometimes created (by writers or by gods) to create a story “engine,” in other words a reason to make the characters struggle to find ethnical or workable outcomes. This is similar to the famous notion put forth by Valdimir Propp where a tale teller poses a situation of “lack” near the beginning of a story. Then at the climax that lack is somehow removed and the situation gets resolved by the actions the characters take. A few students grasped this idea but perhaps to varying degrees. Both this concept and the previous one relating to social protest and historical movements, discontent that generates change, are somewhat advanced (abstract, causal) frameworks and would be challenging for eighth grade students to fully comprehend when they become hidden/embedded inside a story milieu. Nonetheless, challenging students and pushing their existing concept frames the limit is what teaching is about! Kudos to the teacher, and to the Principal! It takes courage to teach these concepts.

student artAnother way to talk about causality, sequencing, structured oppositions and social “pressure points” is to talk about interconnectedness. There I think many of these eighth grade students grasped the above concepts, though they were able to express this idea better in their artwork than in words. The story world is one of the best places to teach about networks, interdependencies and social connectivities. The four images provided below show that many students picked upon this core idea nicely:

Having studies the pieces, we can now proceed to look at the messages the story conveyed overall. What overarching themes did the students perceive? What did they think the story basically about? If you asked me this question I would answer that there are many ways of framing this major folk epic. It is so rich and so deep that, like the proverbial elephant that one blind man believes is a rope because he has grabbed its tail and another believes is a tree truck because he has put his arms around one leg.... so too there are many ways to talk about The Legend of Ponnivala. Here are at least some of my own approaches to teaching it, depending on the age level, cultural background and political awareness of the student audience concerned.

Ways of Understanding the Legend of Ponnivala Story as a Whole:
a.) A big picture window on another culture and another historical time (YOUNG CHILDREN)

b.) A somewhat fanciful but roughly “true” story-history of one’s own region. Alternately, a part-history of one’s own people (HIGH SCHOOL AND COLLEGE STUDENTS IN INDIA)

c.) One South Asian example of a universal historical process: the difficulties in transitioning from a herder-hunter-trader lifestyle to one of large-scale plough-and-irrigate farming. (ADVANCED ELEMENTARY SCHOOL STUDENTS, Canada or India, plus NATIVE STUDIES COURSES)

d.) A story-driven case study that highlights the social and political tensions typically accompanying a fundamental shift in the means of production and the new technologies that drive this (HIGH SCHOOL AND COLLEGE STUDENTS).

e.) A necklace of moral tales with an ethical or social-behavioural lesson embedded in each, picking and choosing sub-stories as appropriate (KINDERGARTEN AND ELEMENTARY SCHOOL STUDENTS)

f.) A story depicting an orthodox Hindu worldview of gradual yuga deterioration and the accompanying degeneration of mankind into darkness, all in preparation for a grand renewal (COLLEGE-LEVEL RELIGIOUS STUDIES STUDENTS).

g.) An expression of a medieval Indian tantric-infused Hindu worldview where ascetics can store up amazing powers, especially using liquids and then learn to manipulate various forces at a distance. (COLLEGE-LEVEL RELIGIOUS OR HISTORICALLY-FOCUSED ASIAN STUDIES STUDENTS).

h.) A Socratic-style teaching story where no one is all good or all bad. A deep, rich ground for all shades of grey to flourish, allowing the perceptive student to examine his or her own ethical assumptions and action strategies in situations of challenge. (ANY LEVEL OF STUDENT, ASSUMING A SENSITIVE GUIDE AIDS IN THE UNDERSTANDING OF SPECIFIC STORY EVENTS)

i.) A story about the nature of fate and its expression through depicting the roles of various key Hindu gods, particularly as they intervene and partially manipulate human life outcomes. (COLLEGE LEVEL PHILOSOPHY AND RELIGIOUS STUDIES STUDENTS. ALSO SUITABLE FOR A FOLKLORE COURSE)

j.) A story about female heroism and women’s special gender-linked powers.(HIGH SCHOOL AND COLLEGE STUDENTS IN GENERAL, PLUS WOMENS’ STUDIES).

k.) A story about male heroism and male weaknesses, particularly in association with a wide range of possible leadership styles and their likely outcomes. (HIGH SCHOOL AND COLLEGE STUDENTS IN GENERAL- can easily be paired with storyline “j” above).

l.) A South Asian story about immigrants and their struggles over three generations in a new environment (CHILDREN, ANY AGE, OF FAMILIES RECENTLY IMMIGRATED TO CANADA)

student artOf these many alternatives I have thought of, which story framework did this eight grade class choose? Interestingly, this school teacher (and her Principal) chose something I had not really focused on, that that makes good sense in the Canadian context: social justice. They chose to explore the meaning of this concept in a different historical time and then to view it through a Canadian cultural lens.

What an appropriate pedagogical approach, especially in a school as blatantly multicultural as the one that is described here! Furthermore, In addition to now having a case study using this approach, as just described, from Canada, I now have a somewhat similar teacher interested in using this in a highly respected South Indian private high school. Because she is a guidance counsellor who will use the story across all high school grades, I believe that her focus will be a little bit different. She is just starting out but I believe her approach will place more emphasis on bullying issues and on gender stereotyping than on social injustices that permeate an entire society. Nonetheless, I see her approach as similar. She will just be placing a little extra emphasis on the individual or personal nodes where social injustice actually occurs. How interesting that using this story in two very different cultural contexts is sparking the use of a rather similar teaching framework!

Before concluding it is useful to consider what students in a Canadian eighth grade classroom came up with in terms of their own overview concepts. I found just two and they were very, very different.

Student One: “Our belief systems have perpetuated discriminatory thoughts such as how we think about others all around us. Which in turn have become our biases. We only recently realized this, as the (my) illustration shows. The current time is depicted as a black canvas. We have the choice to either continue in our old ways, build on our biases, create dissonance and plunge back into darkness, or we can learn from our experiences and move towards the pathway of peace and understanding. The background (in my illustration) is not clear because it represents the residue left by our actions.”

Student Two: (I think the number seven runs through the story as a key symbol). “The number seven has special meaning to Hindu people. For example the stone masons had to lift seven stones in order to find (the baby) Kunnutaiya. There were seven generations of barrenness due to the curse that Lord Shiva placed on Kolatta’s family due to the death of (seven) cows. Tamarai stood on seven needles during her penance to get children. Tamarai also went through seven deaths. Tamarai did a twenty-one year penance (3 x 7) in her journey to get children. In the legend there were many instances where the characters had to go through seven challenges in order to receive a favour or a gain. In most cases the number seven represented life-altering events associated with the gods and goddesses. These changes (were usually) effects of previous events, for example the death of the cows led Lord Shiva to curse Kolatta’s family.

Neither of these “views” of the story were expected, though I do “get” both students’ points of view. The first student has expressed a very “Hindu” view of history and that certainly fits with this legend. In the Ponnivala story the level of violence clear grows and motives become darker and darker as one approaches the close of the tale. At the very end, furthermore, there is a Hindu version of a resurrection, and then (in the bard’s final song) references to forthcoming re-growth of moist, lush grasses, bamboo, and of the spreading (anew) of a great banyan-like tree. Such song images and the student’s own artwork closely resemble my suggested theme “f.”

The second student picked up on a different symbolic thread, but one that is also definitely part of the story. Although I am very aware of the importance of the number seven I have not identified it as a core theme. It is particularly interesting, as this student more or less says, that the terrible and sacrilegious death of seven cows at the very start of the story is later balanced off by seven harsh (mythical) deaths that the heroine undergoes. Her suffering can easily be seen as a kind of human expiation of the suffering those initial cows had to endure. That heroine absorbs their anguish, so to speak, and blends it with her own. One might even argue that this is a very Christian theme, now manifest through a female saint-heroine rather than a Christ-like figure. Not everyone would agree with this cross-religion stretching of concepts, of course. Nonetheless, this student’s observations are astute and could perhaps be labelled as an additional Ponnivala theme called “magical numerism.” An alternative would be to lump it in with my broader topic (above) labelled as “g”.

Canada has become a world leader in its struggle to deal in a just and fully contemporary way with multicultural issues. In order to do this to its fullest we badly need to develop new ways of teaching about cross-cultural living. To succeed in this requires great sensitivity and understanding on the part of our school teachers and school administrators. Canada is currently faced with a significant opportunity to generate fresh ideas and positive examples in this field. In my view, multicultural storytelling, when done in a dense and discovery-filled way, can provide teachers with an excellent tool kit for this. We already have a few brave teacher-leaders moving into this field. Many more are needed and a wide variety of cultural traditions deserve representation. The Legend of Ponnivala, packaged for school use, is just one small start. Art is another key ingredient, as it allows students to express their views in non-verbal ways. Let us move forward rapidly and bravely, sharing and documenting what we are learning through experimentation in this field. Surely we can generate many more good examples which we can then share around the world!

Beck, Brenda E. F. 1982 The Three Twins: The Telling of a South Indian Folk Epic, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 248 pp.

Beck, Brenda E. F. 1992 Elder Brothers Story (Known as the Annanmar Katai in Tamil): Vols. I & II, (A folk epic of Tamilnadu in Tamil and in English, on facing pages), Institute of Asian Studies, Madras, Tamilnadu (approximately 780 pages), collected, translated and edited by B. Beck.

Beck, Brenda E.F. 2012 The Legend of Ponnivala: An animated folk story told in 26 colourful video episodes of 25 minutes each. This work has been broadcast, once each in both English and Tamil, via ATN Toronto, Canada and once (Tamil language only) via ThantiTV, Chennai, India. A Telugu translation and further broadcasts are anticipated.

Beck, Brenda E. F. 2013 The Legend of Ponnivala: A Graphic Novel in 26 segments, each sub-story being 36 pp. long and told with full color illustrations that use traditional South Indian folk art. Available in print and in ebook form, in both Tamil and in English (as separate sets). Also available as a two volume set of 13 stories each, making 888 pp. in total. The first 13 volumes have also been programmed as an ipad ap. That reads aloud, in both English and Tamil. All these variations are available on the internet and also from Ponnivala Publishing, Gore’s Landing, Ontario. K0K 2E0. Some of these materials can be viewed on line at and at

Propp, Vladamir 1968 (revised edition) The Morphology of the Folktale, Austin, University of Texas Press.

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