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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 6; Issue 3; September 04

Major Article

Once Upon a Time...The Conspiracy of Narrative.

secondary and adult

Alan Maley

[Editorial note: HLT thanks LEND ( Italy) for permission to reprint this article which first appeared in the proceedings of the Portonovo Humanistic Conference, 2002. The Conference was inspired and organised by the LEND group in Ancona, led by Valeria Gallerani and was the third in an on-going series. They happen attwo yearly intervals.]

I shall begin by talking about the power and functions of stories for humankind. In the second part, I shall look at possible ways of harnessing this power for teaching.

Part I. Stories as Stories

1. There is so much to be said about the way stories interweave with our lives that it is hard to know where to begin.

  • Perhaps then, the best way is to begin with a story:
My Father

My father is on the broad side and tall side. My father was a hard working man and he had a lot of money. He was not fat or thin… His age was about 30 years when he died, he had a good reputation, he is a married man. When he was in hospital I went to see him every Sunday afternoon. I asked him how he was going on, he told me he was getting a lot better. My father was very kind to me and gave me and my cousins cigarette cards. He likes doing woodwork, my father, for me, and he likes a little game of cards now and then; or a game of darts. He chops wood and saws the planks and he is a handsome man but he is dead. He worked in the rubber works before he died.

In this personal narrative of a young boy, we can feel him struggling to make sense of his father's recent death. The mix of past and present tenses, the fractured punctuation, the switching of time zones, the blend of fact and fantasy ~ all point to his confused struggle to make sense of his recent experience. And that is what we all do to a degree: we use stories as a way of making sense of the world. We use narrative as a way of integrating our experiences into our present understanding.

  • The stories we tell about ourselves are a fabric into which we weave our individual pattern. We invent ourselves by the reiteration of what we have experienced, felt, done, thought, said… In this sense, they are the way we define ourselves. (I AM the stories I tell, and I am also the stories I have been told, and which I have shared with others.) Without our stories we have no hi~story; we cease to exist.

'Our fundamental tactic of self-protection, self-control, and self-definition is not spinning webs or building dams, but telling stories, and more particularly connecting and controlling the story we tell others - and ourselves - about who we are.' Daniel Dennett.

  • They are also the way we share our experience of the world with others, which helps us to understand that we are not alone, that all human experience is uniquely different, yet essentially the same. We are all in a story, with a beginning, a middle ~ and an end.

'If culture is constructed as the sum total of everything that binds a people together, then telling of story is humankind's longest-running means of preserving a collective's sense of itself.' Ruth Wajnryb.

  • Stories are as ancient as humankind itself.

'To ask what is the origin of stories…is to ask what is the origin of language and of the mind.' J.R.R.Tolkien.

From the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Mahabharata, the Panchatantra to the Odyssey, the Bible, the Arabian Nights, the stories of Nasruddin, the Anansi stories of West Africa (which reemerged as Brer Rabbit in America) … down to the most recent reformulations and recreations of story sequences in Brian Patten's 'The Story Giant' (2001) ~ stories are everywhere about us. They are a universal feature of what it is to be human. Our species is perhaps mistakenly called 'homo sapiens' (there is very little evidence of our sapience in international politics certainly). We should perhaps be better named 'homo fabulens' ~ man (sic) the storyteller.

'Telling stories is as basic to human beings as eating. More so, in fact, for while food makes us live, stories are what make our lives worth living. They are what make our condition human…the unnarrated life is not worth living.' Richard Kearney.

  • Stories are also a tool for thinking, and for preserving the accumulated wisdom of humankind. The Sufi stories, Zen stories, the fables of Aesop or la Fontaine ~ all of them both preserve wisdom and stimulate new thinking about present problems. They offer us a different way of thinking about things from the strictly rational, 'scientific' approach.

'The analogical form can evade the categorizing of our rational thought, and reach other sectors of the mind.' A.J.Deikman.

'Scientific explanation makes sense of things by placing them under laws… - but life is generally not like that. It follows not a scientific logic of cause and effect but the logic of story, where to understand is to conceive of how one thing leads to another, how something might have come about.' Jonathan Culler.

2. So what do stories involve us in doing?

  • They prompt visualisation: the projection on to our inner, mental screen of the events, the characters, the emotions being recounted. And this includes auditory imaging: we imagine the sounds of the action, the voices of the protagonists.

  • They spark inner speech, as we talk to ourselves about the stories we hear.

  • They stimulate curiosity, and with it speculation and prediction about what will happen next, about what the final outcome may be.

  • They lead to a process I term 'apprehension', in contradistinction to 'comprehension'. By this I mean that we come to inhabit stories, as it were, from the inside through imaginative participation in the story, rather than merely 'comprehending' their propositional content. Through stories (including literary forms like the novel) we are able to share the consciousness of one or more other people as they progress through time.

'We read novels like 'The Wings of a Dove'; because they give us a convincing sense of what the consciousness of people other than ourselves is like. We feel we have learned something from them…' David Lodge.

  • They involve the willing suspension of disbelief

'...the story maker …makes a secondary world which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is 'true'; it accords with the laws of the world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside it.' J.R.R. Tolkien.

  • They involve relishing, taking uncalculating, sheer pleasure in the narrative. A kind of surrender.

3. In summary, what then are the functions of stories.

  • They help us to share our experience, to create a 'storied' group (Wajnryb 2003) whose solidarity is rooted in the stories they have both experienced and created together. This is a key issue for the use of 'story' with language classes.

  • They help create a distancing effect, a kind of filter through which we can view and assess present reality. They give us perspective.

  • They help preserve individual life paths.

'Stories give life to past experience. Stories make events in memory memorable to others and to ourselves. This is one of the reasons people like to tell stories.' Roger Schank.

  • They also help preserve memories of our sub-culture.

'...growing up is the process of collecting two important classes of stories: those of the subculture(s) one wishes to join, and those that serve to define oneself as an individual who has an identity independent of the sub-culture.' Roger Schank.

  • They offer us comfort and 'escape'. Telling one's own story can be a kind of healing. Hearing others' stories can reassure us that we are not alone in our existential dilemmas.

'...fairy stories offer…Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things which children have, as a rule, less need of than older people.' J.R.R. Tolkien.

  • They bring understanding and wisdom.

'People forgot things. But not stories; they remembered stories. Into even the simplest story they had learnt to pour their understanding of each other and the world around them. And the Giant had learnt to sip wisdom and information from the stories, like wine from a glass.' Brian Patten.

'…wisdom is often ascribed to those who can tell just the right story at the right moment, and who often have a large number of stories to tell.' Roger Schank.

  • Above all, they bring pleasure, not only in the unfolding of the narrative but also in the language used to tell the story.

'There will always be someone there to say, 'tell me a story', and someone there to respond. Were this not so, we would no longer be fully human.' Richard Kearney.

'…I'll not say to you, read this chapter, see this gloss: no, I'll say to you, TASTE this fine chapter, SWALLOW me this rare gloss.' Francois Rabelais.

Part II. Stories in the Classroom.

So how can we best exploit stories in the service of language learning?

1. Some general points:

  • Teachers tend to want to have lots of 'activities'. In regard to stories, perhaps we need to keep in mind that it is the story itself which is important. The main 'activity' should be the enjoyment of the story, entering its fictional world, apprehending it. It may be a mistake to insist on squeezing it dry by loading it with too many activities. The 'Pleasure Principle' should be uppermost in our minds, if we are not to turn the living story into a dead specimen for dissection. ('We murder to dissect')

  • It is also worth remembering that repetition is an important element in stories. This naturally occurring repetition, which aids both comprehension and retention, includes the repetition of gists and story lines with variations (as in folktales and Urban Myths (Brunvand 1999), the repetitive use of character types and structural elements (Propp 1968), and the repetition of language itself within stories.

  • Consideration should also be given to the way the story is to be presented. Will it be read silently from a book? Will it be read aloud? Will it be told as a live performance/improvisation by the teacher? Will it be heard from an audio version? Will students read it as they listen?

2. If we feel compelled to have activities to 'add value' to the inherent value of the stories themselves, what are the options? Clearly there is an enormous range of possibilities. ( See for example, Maley 1993, 1995, Medgyes 2002, Morgan and Rinvolucri 1983, Taylor 2000, Wajnryb 2003, Wright 1995, 1997 ). What follows is a generalised list of options:

  • Ask questions. Preferably these will be personalised questions (What would you have done…? etc.), questions inviting speculation, or those inviting students to relate the present narrative to past experience.

  • Invite students to visualise, perhaps even to draw their visual impressions of the story or of particular episodes.

  • Encourage personal associations - perhaps of other similar stories, or of recollection of characters or episodes from real-lfe narratives - newspaper articles, TV soaps, etc.

  • Re-telling stories from notes or entirely from memory. This can be extremely rewarding from the language learning point of view: the student has the story schema and a memory trace of some of the language, yet will inevitably produce something different from the original.

  • Engage students in creative manipulation / transformation of stories. This can take many different forms: comparing two similar stories; changing the beginnings and endings of stories; changing characters and outcomes (eg. See Roald Dahl's reversal of roles in Little Red Riding Hood, where the wolf becomes the victim), combining two stories into one; reversing the order of events. (For a published example of this see 'Arrow of Time')

  • Set up procedures for students to create their own stories, for example by: making connections between a random set of pictures; making a story from random inputs ~ a character, a setting, a time, an object; by using a set of Tarot cards to generate a story; by using 'Serious Consequences' (Maley and Duff 1982), where each student adds a sentence in turn but can only see the last sentence which was written.

  • Ask students to keep a journal in English, in which they record their personal stories - those they experience and those they read or hear from others.

3. Finally, as developing teachers, we might make more use of stories to promote thinking about our own practice. The kind of stories to be found in Nick Owen's, 'The Magic of Metaphor' (2001) are an admirable resource. The stimulation of fable, analogy and metaphor can often unblock our thinking about professional issues. As an example, and to end as I began, with a story, I offer the following examples of the genre. What, if anything, do they suggest?

  • Yu Gong was a poor farmer. His house lay at the foot of a high mountain. On the other side of the mountain was the sea. Yu Gong very much wanted to have a view of the sea. So he began to remove the mountain by digging out rocks and carrying them away in his wheelbarrow to the far end of the valley, where he dumped them into a deep lake. He had been doing this for a year or two, when an old man saw him on the road.
    'What are you doing?' he asked Yu Gong.
    'I am removing the mountain so that I can have a view of the sea,' he replied.
    'But you will never finish in your lifetime,' said the old man.
    'It doesn't matter,' said Yu Gong, 'After all, my sons will carry on the work after me, and then their sons, and their sons after them. We'll have our view of the sea in the end.'

  • "Nasruddin's neighbour found him on his knees, looking for something in the yard in front of his house.
    'What are you looking for?' he asked. 'I dropped my keys,' said Nasruddin.
    'Let me help you,' said the neighbour.
    After about 10 minutes, they had still not found the keys, though they had looked at every square inch of the yard.
    'Where did you say you dropped the keys?' asked the neighbour.
    'I didn't. But actually I dropped them in my bedroom.'
    'So why are you looking out here in the yard?'
    'Well, there's more light out here, so it should be easier to spot them,' said the mullah wisely.

Alan Maley
Bangkok, January 2004

References and Sources:
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