Stories are fun. Stories are easy. Stories are good for grammar, idiomatic expressions, vocabulary, etc. etc. Stories stimulate conversation. We teachers know that, but what happens when we try to convince our students to create a few? Reactions are instantaneous and surprisingly fluent: "I can't write anything like that." "I have no imagination." "It's too difficult!"
So we learn to be artful. We search for subjects that will imbue our pupils with enthusiasm without their being aware of our cunning, and then we just hope and pray for the best, because we know all too well that a topic which we personally find fascinating may prove to be slower than molasses or even a complete fiasco in class. Once in a while, however, luck is on our side and we live the magic moment.
By magic moment I mean the time when the classroom is suddenly alive with the buzz of conversation - in English! - and the teacher can take a step back, ready to help but no longer necessary to the process. When the buzz eventually dies down, the students are full of the pleasure of what they have accomplished. These are the moments that renew our energy and thrust us forward again into the joy of teaching.
The stories at the end of this article are the final result of two such magic moments. They were written in the autumn of 2001, in two evening classes at pre-intermediate level which I was teaching at the Regional Institute for European Studies (IRSE) in Pordenone, Italy.
The students who make up our evening classes can only be classed as heterogeneous: a mixture of ages (16-70), backgrounds, occupations and levels of knowledge. Their reasons for studying English are also varied: the teenagers often wish to improve their grades at school; the older students may need English for their jobs; some want to be able to communicate when they travel; a few are looking for mental stimulus. The classes are usually small in number, rarely exceeding twelve, so each student receives personal attention, as well as support and enrichment from the group. Our only difficulty comes from fatigue: at the end of the day our students often need to be energized.
Like most EFL teachers, over the years I have developed a personal list of favourite activities and themes which are (almost) infallible when I want to stimulate real conversation and get students talking. In my experience, some of the best relate to childhood. Be it Toys, or Best Friends, or Favourite Room, childhood is far enough away for them (even the teenagers) to feel safe in talking about personal feelings and experiences. An added bonus often comes from the recognition of similarities in others, which arouses curiosity, so listening is enhanced and dialogue becomes truly interactive. If shy students don't want to talk about themselves, I suggest they speak about a family member or a friend (or even about someone they dislike).
To be honest, the success of the story-telling activity described here was fortuitous, the by-product of a lesson on used to which took place in both classes. The lesson in the second class - the next evening - was a fortunate imitation of the first. Student reactions in both groups were the same.
The students had already read a short text and commented on some photographs. Before inviting them to write their own exemplifying sentences with used to, I gave them my own examples in a personal anecdote. The story, naturally peppered with a lot of used to's, told them about some aspects of my childhood and described a time I had disobeyed my mother and got my just desserts. The tone was humorous, a gentle laugh at the child I had been. This became their model, and many of the students made statements like the following:
"I used to go to the beach every summer with my parents, and I remember one particular summer when I really got in trouble..."
"There used to be a cinema on that street. One time I threw a water bomb at my sister and she...
Since there was clearly a spontaneous desire to enlarge upon these original sentences, and there was a good half hour before the end of the lesson, I asked the students to pair off and tell each other their stories. They were very animated, and even the shier ones were infected. After about ten minutes I asked them to form larger groups, and to repeat their stories. And that's when the magic happened. Suddenly they were talking, laughing and asking one another questions. Some even adventured into new stories. I had become just an instrument, a walking dictionary for a word here, a clarification there. As soon as they had their information, they turned back to their partners and ignored me completely. L1 had disappeared. At the end of the lesson they were wonderfully pleased with themselves.
For homework I asked them to write down their stories and bring them to class the following lesson. Of course it took more than a week to collect all the stories but then I asked them to pair off with someone they hadn't worked with before, to correct their stories together. I was there to help, but did no over-correcting. At the end of the lesson they turned their stories in, and I typed them up as they were. My Christmas present to my pre-intermediate students was a sheaf of papers with all their personal stories.
The only conclusion I can honestly draw is that luck is an important component of the teaching process. My only credit was in realizing that there was a desire to communicate and in giving my students the time to do just that. The resulting stories were a gift.
Here they are.
Students' Stories of Childhood - Autumn 2001
(slightly corrected stories for your enjoyment)
When I was about thirteen years old, a friend of mine and I decided to steal a lot of packets of "Big Bubble" chewing gum in a supermarket...
This choice was due to a desire to behave bravely and to feel a strong emotion: to steal and to go scot-free.
In fact, it was an unforgettable episode for me. I hid the stolen goods under my jacket, but when my friend and I were going out of the supermarket, some packets fell to the ground in front of a shop assistant.
I felt paralysed with fear, but I was able to bend over to pick up "my things", pretending nothing had happened, without paying attention to him.
When I got home it was easy to hide the packets inside my desk, but I was punished all the same...my mother scolded me severely because I came back home too late to study.
I remember when I was five years old, I went to nursery school with my brother, who is younger than me. In my school the teachers were nuns. They were severe with children and I cried every day because I wanted my mother. At noon, when we had lunch, I hated eating rice with milk. I always refused this disgusting food. Then the Sisters scolded and punished me.
One day, I decided to escape from my school with my brother. I saw a hole in the wire netting, so I passed through it and I went back home, walking a long way with my brother. When we arrived home, our mother was furious with us. She spanked me and she put my brother and me on the bike to go to school again.
I remember a little experience I had when I was about four. I was in my nursery school and I was playing with my friends, waiting to go home. My sister, who is only one year older than me, wasn't with us because she was ill, and I was looking forward to going home to play with her. Suddenly, in the afternoon, the school bus arrived and my teacher asked me to get on the bus.
Usually I didn't go home by bus, my mother always came to take me home, but I got on the bus because I thought my mother couldn't come to take me home because of my sister. But the bus didn't stop in front of my house! So I started crying, I was desperate! I was asking the teacher to stop the bus but she didn't hear me!!!
At the end I discovered that my teacher was taking us to a party in another school with other children… and I had forgotten this!
But I didn't enjoy myself too much…I was shocked…I thought they really wanted to take me away from my family and I was afraid. I had a big smile only after some time when I saw my mummy who came to me, and I said "Here she is…! Now I am free!!"
I have four brothers. The one I get on with best is my older brother Giacomo. There is a one-year difference between us - so he has always been my best companion and confidant.
When I was four or five years old, I don't remember very well, while we were playing in the kitchen, somebody rang the bell. My mother, who was near us preparing lunch, went to open the door, leaving me and my brother alone.
It was then that my brother, looking at the fire on the stove, told me "I'm going to do a thing you won't be able to repeat." He took a piece of paper, burnt it and threw it into the trash basket near the gas cylinder, looking at me and smiling. As I didn't agree with this point of view I burnt another paper. At this point quite high flames went out from the basket, making us very frightened. We decided then to hide under the table surrounded by the chairs.
Fortunately my mother came back and as soon as she realized what was happening she immediately extinguished the fire and then after scolding us, she spanked us. Now when I look at the flames on the stove, very often I remember this event and the narrow escape I had and that makes me smile.
There is an incident that happened to me and to everybody in Friuli when I was four years old. It's not a funny or nice incident, but when it happened it was a kind of mysterious game. I refer to the 1976 earthquake. I was only four years old but I remember it perfectly: I was watching tv with my parents when suddenly the lights went out. At the moment I thought it was a joke of my father, but when they told me to stay on the sofa, I realized that it wasn't. Since I was a "little bit" lively, I remember that I didn't want to go out with my father because I wanted to walk by myself!
After that I remember my grandmother's green chair in the garden and everybody outside and some days spent in a tent in the garden. I think we were too young to understand how serious the situation was: for us children, staying in the tent and in the garden all day long was a kind of playing-field.
This all happened when I was six. It was summer and my relatives came from Como to spend their holidays. I was happy because there was my cousin. Together we were very lively and we played games all the time.
One night, my parents, relatives and neighbours went to Antonio's house, a neighbour who lived alone, to play bocce ( a kind of bowls). It was a tradition, meeting to play bocce on summer nights.
Antonio had a big house, with a nice garden around his home. In the garden there were swings for children and a little fountain with goldfish. The adults were under the pergola, playing bocce for a long time.
My cousin and I were bored, so we decided to go out into the garden. We played in the swings; then I saw a great tree that had its branches over the fountain.
So I made up a new game…!!! catching a branch and pulling it down to the water…but it wasn't a good idea.
I hung onto a little branch and I pulled strongly…I splashed in the fountain with the goldfish! I was completely wet. Since that night I have never played games with tree branches!
When I was a child I used to spend the afternoon with my great grandmother, called Alina, who lived near my house. I often went there with my twin brother Lorenzo. My great-grandmother was blind and she died some years ago, and precisely in 1997, at the age of 101.
Alina liked to tell us many old tales; at the end of her stories she gave us many sweets as a present for our company.
One day, when my brother was ill, I went to my great grandmother's, to visit her and to talk to her, and she gave me sweets. I said goodbye to her and I went out of her bedroom and closed the door. Afterwards, I re-entered the bedroom of my great-grandmother and I said, "Hi. I'm Lorenzo," and she asked me for some information of my day. I answered and told her false information, and she gave me some bon bons. I said goodbye to her and I went home with double sweets that I ate next day.
Now I know that my great-grandmother understood that I wasn't Lorenzo because she recognized my voice and she pretended she didn't know me.
When I was about ten years old, in the evening I used to go out for a walk with one of my friends (a neighbour, to be precise), and her big dog named Billy. One day we went up and down through the fields located near our houses. We were happy and we ran with the dog.
Suddenly, Billy ran so fast that we lost him in the high grass and wheat fields. What a terrible dog! My friend and I looked for him for about two hours.
In the morning it had rained, so the ground was slippery and muddy. Finally we found him, but he was very dirty, and scared, too.
My friend said to Billy, "Don't do it anymore!"
When we were "ready" to go home with the dog it was about ten at night. My grandmother was calling the police when I came in. She was terribly angry and "screamed", "You won't go out for two months!"
I was mortified, but the next day my "granny" forgave everything.
When I was a child, I went to Genoa with my family for the Colombiadi. We went there by caravan. It was a terrific, wonderful trip. We visited many historical and artistic cities (such as Cremona, Pavia, especially the Certosa of Pavia, Mantova, Piacenza, Tortona, Pegli, etc.) during the trip to Genoa.
When we arrived in Genoa (after two days of travelling), we went to our campsite. This was near the sea, so my brothers and I wanted to go swimming, but, because the beach was rocky and the water was very cold (despite the fact that it was summer), we didn't swim.
One day, while we were going around the city and the Colombiadi, I got lost, and while my parents and brothers were looking for me, I went to play some different and nice games in a park, where I found my frightened family.
I've never enjoyed myself as much as that day.
When I was a child, I was not so keen on going to school, so, one day, when I was about eight years old, I decided to skip at least one school day.
I talked about my plan with two friends of mine who lived near me and they agreed with me immediately, so I explained my plan to them.
As we used to go to school by bus, I thought we should go out in the morning, as usual, but instead of going to the bus stop, we had to hide until the bus had passed, then we had to go home and say to our mothers, "The bus hasn't passed, probably they are on strike."
So we did it. We came out in the morning, we waited until the bus had passed, we returned back home and half an hour later we were playing football. One hour later my mother went out to do the shopping and discovered the trick, but when she came back home it was too late to take me to school.
It was a good plan and my friends and I had a great day together.
This happened when I was about seven. My brother - four years older than me - and I were playing a game called "sock soccer". The game consists in wearing slippers on your hand and hitting a ball made of old socks full of paper, trying to make a goal against your opponent; you have to do this lying on the floor.
Our old house was on two levels, upstairs there were the bedrooms and we went there only to sleep. On the first floor there was a little kitchen, a dining room with television, a sitting room (taboo for children), and a long corridor with a fireplace at the end. While we playing, my father was listening to the news on tv and our noise disturbed him a lot. He complained several times, but the game was too much fun to stop!
Suddenly, the ball fell into the fireplace and started to burn. I was so unhappy about this! I was watching the ball burning, desolated, when my brother came and looked at me…looked at the ball… and said, (Loud laugh) "Dad, we have just finished!!!"
We looked each other in the eye and we started laughing like fools!
I remember when I was eight I had a pretty little doll I liked very much. Her name was Petula; she talked and moved her legs, too.
I've got two elder brothers who often liked to play with toy guns.
One day I went into my bedroom and didn't find my beautiful doll. I looked for her everywhere, but it was no use. Later I went out, and with a terrible shock I saw my doll tied on the garden gate and my brothers shooting at her! It was horrible. I think it was one of the worst days in my life. As I looked at her I began to cry, and immediately my mother ran downstairs to see what was happening, why I was crying in that way. After she realized what had taken place, she scolded my brothers and confiscated their guns, but anyway my favourite doll was already completely destroyed!
That Christmas, under the Christmas tree, I found a wonderful, new doll!
This happened a long time ago, I think when I was eight years old.
During the summer, my uncle and my brother, who is eight years older than me, usually played football in the garden of my house. with other people (neighbours), who were all older than me.
One day I was so curious that I asked to play and I was so insistent that at the end they accepted my request.
My grandmother tried to warn me that it was so dangerous for a little girl like me, but I didn't pay attention to what she said, and I played anyway.
My role was goal-keeper; well, at the beginning it was all ok , but at a certain moment I saw a big boy holding the ball, crossing all the playing-field and kicking the ball. I was scared and didn't know what to do. In one moment everything went black because I received the ball in my face. All the people ran to me to see what had happened. My mum picked me up and took me to my grandmother's house. I was conscious and I had a big headache, but at the same time I was happy because I stopped the ball.
My happiness finished when my grandmother started to insist that it was dangerous to play with people older than me, and also in the evening my mother said it was better to play with people who are your age when you are a child.
But at the same time I was happy because I stopped the ball!
This was my first experience on a stage and I can remember it very well. I was four years old and I was a ballet dancer. I had a white costume, ornate with lace and beads. I also had a crown, a wonderful crown on my head. My mother combed my hair like a princess and I felt like a princess. I was so excited, and the oldest girls reassured me. My pink silk dance shoes were beautiful and small. At the moment of my debut, I thought that I would burst out crying, but fortunately, it wasn't like that. The show was appreciated and after that, I continued going to ballet and danced for ten years.
It was a freezing winter. Lessons were over and I was going home. On the way there was the Post Office, a big, wide, tall building with the street on both sides. I went in with a friend of mine. It was cozy and warm. We began to run inside and outside, enjoying ourselves a lot. I couldn't run in my coat, so I took it off. Time passed very fast. Suddenly I saw my mother with the carpet-beater in her hand and I realized I had gone too far. I was hit, justly: in fact, I hadn't thought about my mother's anxiety.
That night I had a high temperature and the day after the doctor said that I had bronchial pneumonia. For a month I felt like a princess. I had delicious meals, I read a lot of children's books that my mother borrowed from the library and she and my brother cuddled me and they took good care of me. Life was fantastic in spite of the illness. But all fine things end; I recovered and life got back to usual.
It was Sunday and my cousins arrived at my home with their family.
It was a lovely day, so my cousins and I decided to go and eat cherries.
When we arrived at the cherry tree, the cherries on the bottom weren't red, but those on the top were wonderful.
We decided to go up the tree.
There were eight of us children, and the tree wasn't straight. When we arrived at the top, the tree fell down, and with it all of us. During its fall I jumped out, but unfortunately my feet stumbled on the branches. I fell heavily and broke my arms.
I spent two weeks in hospital and two months in plaster casts.
Perhaps the cost for the cherries was too high, but they were very good.
I remember, when I was about nine years old, I disobeyed my father.
It was in February and in my school the teacher and students were making carnival preparations for the masquerade. Eeveryone was very excited and you can't imagine how glad I was to try on fancy dresses or strange shoes.
Our teacher asked us to make a choice. I chose Harlequin's guise. The students' mothers cooked typical carnival cakes, and brought soft drinks because the carnival party would take place the next day. I went home and asked my father's consent, but he was in disagreement and he told me, "If you go to the carnival you'll be punished". My father has never liked masquerades.
I was really afraid and my mother helped me. we organized a plan together. When he went out to work, I put on my Harlequin fancy dress and secretly I stole out.
In the evening, when we were having dinner, my father asked me what I had done during the day. Suddenly I blushed for shame. He evidently understood everything, and burst into laughter.