The Beautiful Story-Grandma Program (storymama.kr [in Korean]) is a unique program that the Advanced Center for Korean Studies began in 2009. Through the program, elderly women are given training and sent to child education facilities near their homes to tell three- to five-year-olds stories based on Korean traditions and history.
With four objectives, the program first provides elderly women with the opportunity to participate in society by giving them a chance to use their life experience. Second, it also helps with building the future generations’ character as the stories are based on traditional folktales that showcase good deeds done by Korean ancestors. In many ways, this is a modern recreation of a traditional teaching method where grandparents would hold children in their laps and tell them character-building stories.
Third, the program promotes intergenerational communication between the elderly and young children, each representing the opposite ends of a generation spectrum. This is important because just like in many newly developed economies, Korean families have become rapidly nuclearized with fewer families living with three generations under one roof. This has led to a severe intergenerational gap within society that the Beautiful Story-Grandma Program hopes to bridge by forming connections between children and the elderly.
Fourth, the program aims to build a foundation for the long-term transmission of traditional culture. Taking the view that cultural tastes are a matter of preference, exposing the younger generation to culture within a community acts as an important factor in transmitting that community’s culture into the future. The Beautiful Story-Grandma Program plays an important role transmission since the stories contain the culture and values of Korea.
Story-grandmas come from all walks of life. There are former teachers from elementary and middle schools as well as university professors, civil servants, office workers, and housewives. The selection process for story-grandmas tries to be inclusive, but there are criteria in terms of age and employment status. The women must be between 56 and 70 and must not be regularly employed. Employment status was included in the criteria so that the story-grandmas could concentrate on the program activities.
Once selected, the story-grandmas go through one-year training in basic aptitude and in storytelling. The story-grandmas must complete this training to be conferred with the title of story-grandma. The actual duties as story-grandmas don’t begin until in the second year. Depending on the annual schedule of the child education facilities near where they live, the story-grandmas visit three child education facilities per week for thirty weeks a year (fifteen weeks per half-year) to tell stories.
Each storytelling session begins with a review of the previous week’s story, and this is followed by the current week’s story and a thought-sharing session. The entire course is planned in learning guides that also serve as curricula for the story-grandmas who use the guides as the basis of their activities.
Gyu-mi Kim, a story-grandma working in Seoul, was selected in 2014 as part of the sixth cohort of story-grandmas. After working as a designer for over thirty years in the United States, she found the Beautiful Story-Grandma Program while looking for meaningful things to do upon returning to Korea. She is active in the Dongjak-gu area where she lives, and she performs at one kindergarten and one daycare center for fifty-two children each week.
In the second week of May, I had a chance to sit in on Grandma Kim’s storytelling class. That week’s story was “Rich Man Choi Helps the Poor,” but before beginning, Grandma Kim reviewed the story she told last week, “The Filial Son and the Tiger.” Then she led a discussion about how the children had tried to make their parents happy over the past week. The children raised their hands, eager to proudly tell about how they helped out with chores, massaged their parents’ backs, and looked after their siblings. After gaining the children’s attention, Grandma Kim begins with this week’s story about a rich man named Choi who helped poor people and was rewarded multiple times for his kindness, inspiring him to even greater acts of kindness. The session ended with the children making detailed promises about how they will perform acts of kindnesses in the coming week and Grandma Kim praising each child. Before she leaves, the children rush into Grandma Kim’s arms for a hug.
Suk-ja Hyun, who lives in Changwon, Gyeongsangnam Province, is a five-year veteran, selected in 2011 for the third cohort of story-grandmas. She is working at three facilities this year, one of which is the Changwon Municipal Daycare Center.
During the fourth week of May, I had the pleasure of observing Grandma Hyun’s class. For this particular week, “Hongseom Saves His Father with a Frog” was the story. Drawing from her experience growing up in the countryside, Grandma Hyun was able to add an extra layer of meaning and context by imparting knowledge about snakes and frogs to city-dwelling children who live far away from nature. She also led a discussion on the central Korean value of filial piety as well as wisdom to overcome difficulties. With every story, the children get to think a little deeper about the values of their culture and grow as individuals.
As seen in the above cases, the Beautiful Story-Grandma Program is a new method of transmitting intangible cultural heritage, combining entertainment with learning and communication. The effects have been greater than expected, with elderly women recovering self-esteem and gaining a sense of achievement through the program.
Eight years since its launch, the program now has 2,500 grandmas participating (as of June 2016). They visit over 6,600 child education facilities to share traditional tales with 430,000 children each week. Even now, there are grandmas and children all over the country using traditional stories filled with unique cultural values as a medium to transmit Korean traditions and heritage.