If there’s one thing that’ll make me stop what I’m doing and just listen, it’s when someone starts telling a story. The act of listening to a story is possibly something that takes me back to my childhood and that may explain my fascination for stories. Storytelling has always played a key role in my own language classroom practice, yet I’d never addressed this explicitly in presentations in seminars or congresses. It’s something which I certainly brought into the classroom based on my own first teaching experience in Primary school in the UK, when stories and storytelling played such a significant role in the work I did and it’s something I’ve kept up, being able to explore ideas a bit better with the different levels and age ranges of EFL learners.
Apart from the stories we hear as children from storybooks and those we read ourselves, I’ve always enjoyed listening to the stories people tell us based on the objects, people and places which mean something to them. This has always seemed far more organic and visceral and as such, makes a story more memorable and meaningful, for example:
- the story of a rubber tree seed and how this evokes fond childhood memories as well as a longing for times past, and you see this in the narrator’s face as the story is told;
- the story about my mum and her pet crocodile and how for a whole week, when she was seventeen, she looked after it and took it for walks on Icaraí beach. I picture her walking, feeling so sure of herself with that crocodile tagging along.
- my own story of the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens and how I loved to visit it as a young child and count the rabbits, mice and squirrels on it. Just like a familiar story which a child enjoys listening to over and over again, this little routine of finding and counting the animals on the statue was done on an almost a weekly basis and being able to look forward to this meant the world to me. (I visited this statue again two years ago, during a beautiful Sunday morning walk with friends along the park. How wonderful it was to see a little girl skip around the statue, then stop to find and touch the animals and count them.)
Once stories become more memorable and meaningful, then what also emerges is emotion and involvement, both for the storyteller and the listener. We have the chance to (re)live specific moments and experiences and make sense of ourselves and of the world around us. Stories give us the chance to savour the intensity of life itself, without making any sort of excuse for experiencing this intensity. The writer Jonathan Safran Foer puts this quite bluntly to us:
“We live on the surface of our planet. Human life happens on a shell as thin, relative to the size of the earth, as an egg’s, or as thin as the paint on a wall. We have lifestyles on the surfaces of our lives: habits and cultures, clothes, modes of transit, calendars, papers in wallets, ways of killing time, answers to the question “What do you do?” We come home from long days of doing what we do and tuck ourselves under the thin sheets. We read stories printed on even thinner paper. Why, at the end of the day, do we read stories?[...] Stories rub at the facts of our lives. They give us access – if only for a few hours, if only in bed at the end of the day – to what’s beneath.” (pp. viii-ix)
It was with all these thoughts in mind that created a session on the possibility of using different storytelling techniques in class in order to foster language exploration through this medium. Any medium which grabs our attention, which invites us to become part of a greater picture, is a wonderful resource for us teachers and one we can tap into on a far more regular basis.
The first version I gave of this session was at a BRAZ-TESOL Brasília Chapter event in May 2013 and the final version took place at this year’s IATEFL in Harrogate. It’s a session which has undergone changes, largely due to the changes we need to make in order to adapt to a plenary, talk or workshop format. But like any narrative which gradually unweaves itself, it’s a session which finds its own pace and direction. A great deal depends on the participation of those present in the room. The session requires that all of those present weave their own stories/narratives. They may feel free to share ideas, they may feel threated by sharing ideas, they may decide not to share ideas because the intensity of the emotions and which can’t be voiced at that given time. Any option is fine. Yet, the session is one which makes participants see storytelling from a new organic perspective. It’s as much their own journey into what lies beneath as a session which shows different techniques to get learners/people to tell stories.
So, because of the different nature of this session, I decided not to share the PowerPoint presentation through Slideshare etc., but rather describe some of these activities. A word of warning, however: in every group I’ve done one of these activities, the outcomes have been completely different. It all depends how a given group of learners react to the activities; it depends on their own life stories; it depends on how they are feeling that day; it depends on how you, the teacher, are feeling that day…and I think that this is what is so exciting about this…what emerges from the learner is what we are going to work with as teachers. My main intention here is just to share ideas of how to spark off stories, how to build up narratives through different activities. How teachers use these ideas to develop language work in class is up to them, though sometimes the options are quite obvious. (Please note: the activities on the whole are things we do in class, some with a slight twist. If any of these ideas are part of a resource book or written about by someone else, please let me know so that I can give them credit.)
Making stories memorable through objects
Objects carry specific significances for different people. Why we keep an object is generally linked to the emotional value it may have for us. When we bring an object into class and tell a story about it the tactile element of the object itself will make the story quite different. It’s not the same as just showing a photo of the object. The story becomes immediately tangible to others. So our attention is immediately engaged, our desire to listen to the story and to find out more about the object and the person.
1) Ask learners to bring an object into class and tell a story about the object. They need only speak for a minute or two, working in small groups of three. (Depending on their level, learners may wish to prepare something at home, which may involve rehearsing their narrative. But there is no need to encourage them to write down the story. Part of the success of this activity depends on the spontaneity of the language used and the ability to focus on narrative flow as they tell the story. )’ The teacher may wish to model the activity by telling his/her own object story.
2) As learners tell their stories, you may find they automatically react to the stories. The teacher can monitor the groups and provide help when needed. The idea at this stage is to ask for one of the learners in the group of three to re-tell their story to the others. The groups may choose the story they feel needs to be told and encourage them to work collaboratively on enhancing the narration of the object story before the performance.
3) A good follow-up, not only for learners to share their stories, but also to provide the teacher with an extra resource for language work, is to record learners’ contributions via Voxopop, for example. (http://www.voxopop.com/)
Making stories memorable through people
The idea for this activity came from the writer Mark Haddon and a task he carries out with his students in the writing workshops he runs at the Arvon Foundation. We’re all used to thinking up characters in a story by traditionally going through their physical description and then saying something about them. But what if we changed this and created characters which emerge through significant life events and interact with other characters? What if the narratives emerge from the meeting of these characters?
“We covered the table in a huge sheet of paper and I put a constellation of big dots all over it, labeling each one as potential turning points in the lives of the characters we were trying to write about, birth, death, divorce, leg amputation, discovering you’re adopted, coming out…take these dots, I said, and connect them with a line, and you’ve got a life, take these other dots and connect them and you’ve got another life, we’re looking at an almost infinite number of novels sitting in front of us.” (Mark Haddon speaking at 5X15)
1) Hand out an A3 sized sheet of paper to students seated in groups (about 4 people per group). Ask them to draw a few stars on the sheet of paper. Ask each of them to select three stars and for each star think of and write down:
(a) a life event (a marriage, a birth, first day at school, etc.)
(b) each student selects three stars and links these up (a good idea is to link the stars with a specific colour): this is now the life story of a character. Name your character.
(c) each student now has a character, with a name, and a life story which contains three significant events. These characters are now ready to meet each other in a narrative which is going to emerge as the characters’ lives intertwine.
The possibilities are endless now and how the teacher decides to progress with this, or better still, how the students decide to progress with this may give rise to quite an exciting new narrative building format.
Making stories memorable through places
We often bring to class photos of places to act as a stimulus to set a context and location for a story. However, an alternative is to bring a sound into class, or ask the students to do this themselves, and then beginning creating a story around this sound bite. Today with smartphones we can all quite easily record sounds and play this back in class.
1) Close your eyes. Listen to the sound below and imagine the scene. Be ready to describe the story of your scene to another student.
2) Tell the story of the scene you imagined. Decide between the two of you which of the two stories will be told to the other groups. Work in pairs on improving the narrative so that whoever is listening to the story really gets a feel of the atmosphere and the feeling of the scene. (This can be done either in writing or students can actually find a quiet spot and record themselves telling the story. The idea is for the teacher to monitor and provide support at all times. Enough time needs to be given to this activity to allow for work on language to be done and a fair amount of rehearsing as well. Again, the type of narrative which emerges will be quite different from pair to pair, as will the language chosen. But there is an underlying thread which is atmosphere and feeling.)
3) One of the things we can encourage is the idea of re-working a story and this means it’s useful to encourage learners to keep their work saved somewhere. An idea might be to encourage them to use Google Keep as a means of saving text, images, audio etc. It can’t be shared between people, yet it’s a nice way of saving your own work.
I also think that by working with stories through a variety of media, we move closer and closer to the art of creating multi-modal digital fiction. By bringing together a combination of text, sound and images to tell a story we allow learners to experience new literacies and we take a step towards Transmedia storytelling, which already permeates our lives (through advertising and the branding of films) and is a well-known “genre” for many of our learners, especially teenagers.
If you would like to find out more about multi-modal digital fiction, I strongly recommend you access the Inanimate Alice homepage to find out more about this.
Making stories meaningful through emotions
Being able to latch on to an emotion and use this as a springboard for the start of a story is quite an amazing way to start things off. It can produce story beginnings such as this one mentioned by Mark Haddon (see the video link above) when he went into a school to work with 8 and 9 year-olds. The children shared their story beginnings and a girl read this out:
“They were sitting on the edge of the world. The baby was dead…”
Something that we often do to get stories emerging in class is to take in photos/images to act as a stimulus for the creation of a narrative. The problem with this is that the way I read a specific image may not be the manner in which you read and interpret the same image. In fact, the image may also conjor up no feeling or emotion whatsoever.
So, just so that we understand this, one of the final activities we did in the session was to look at the four images below and decide what emotions they evoked in us.
Have a look now and think: what emotions do each of the images evoke in you?
All four images create a strong emotion in me and would be perfect to help me start off a story. Let’s remember, however, that all of these pictures mean something to me because three of them were taken by me and I’m in the pic-nic photo. As we did this activity in the different sessions I ran, the reactions I obtained were always completely different. Many teachers mentioned how very difficult it was to make an emotional bond with an image in which there were people they did not know. Others said it was easier to use the black and white photo and the flower photo to help unleash an idea or emotion. Some said that the images featuring people imposed specific relations which impinged emotions on them and so this blunted their creative possibilities.
Once we discussed this and saw how a task we often do in class with a specific purpose can backfire, we then worked on thinking of alternatives which could help us access our emotions as a starting point for a story. What became clear was that this is something that we can actually discuss with learners themselves and they can then bring in their own images, or alternatively, an artefact, a sound bite which they feel would work for them.
A final point about working with emotions to add meaning to stories and to actually help us start a story is that the way we collaboratively build up these stories and share them is a key issue. The seating arrangement in class has to be such that it allows for this moment of profound sharing. Being able to sit in small groups and also sit in a large circle with everyone is very important.
Being able to work effectively with stories is not only about finding the space in the classroom for us to build these stories, but it’s also about seeing the potential for story-building moments with the resources we have around us: the linguistic, physical, intellectual, emotional, historical and social resources we have in all our learners. And then, it’s about weaving a little bit of magic with the stories they craft.
Safran Foer, J. (2008) Foreword to Bruno Schulz’s “The Street of Crocodiles & Other Stories”, Penguin.