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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 5; Issue 5; September 03


Jack goes Hunting and other Tales – a storytelling CD for older listeners

Richard Martin and Petra Koch

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I was happy when Mario asked me to send HLT a review copy of our new CD – but I was less happy when he suggested that I review it myself!

Do I praise it to the skies as the greatest listening material ever heard in the EFL classroom? Or would understated modesty be the best way to entice thousands of teachers to buy, buy, buy?

So I shall do neither. Instead I'll say something about the stories and why I tell them (as well as many others) in my classes.

The stories

The five stories on the CD are all folk tales. The first three are comic, the final two are deeper, more reflective. Let me tell you a bit about them.

Jack goes Hunting is a tall tale where one shot from a gun kills many animals. There is a version in Baron Mόnchausen's tales from the 18th century, and the story is also found in America among the Jack tales told in the Appalachian mountains (stories which originated in Britain). But, like so many traditional tales, it probably goes back further.

I have told the story a lot in the last few years and slowly a frame (the introduction and ending of the story) developed about whether a man can make his wife happy or not. There is a knack to ending a story effectively and using a frame like this often helps.

Jimmy No-Story is the amazing story of the boy who did not have a story to tell – until he became a woman. Afterwards he was never short of a tale! There are many variants of this in Scotland and Ireland, some with a different plot where Jimmy (or Paddy) is captured by the fairies or is even buried alive.

The Tailor and his Wife is a favourite with teenagers – who always love a story with a bit of sex in it. Sex? – well, yes. Plenty of traditional tales are bawdy, look at The Canterbury Tales. Of course, there is a trick to telling such tales so they do not appear simply “dirty”.

The Wounded Selkie is a deep tale of forgiveness from the Orkney Islands. Stories of the seals are common all around the British coast and often involve the seals (called selkie in Scotland) taking human form. Few stories speak to me more than this one with its wonderful line, Only the hand which made the wound can heal the wound.

The Silent Princess is an oriental tale with three more tales embedded in it. In the story a man searches for the woman he does not know and a strong woman learns from the three stories to discover the power of love and break out of her isolation.

Why traditional tales

I tell folk tales because they are part of the great storytelling tradition stretching back through time and covering every culture. (You can read more about traditional tales at www.talesandmusic.de/resources/folk_tales.htm.) These stories have survived for centuries precisely because they are strong material which speaks to us still – whereas few of us would expect the texts in our school books to be treasured hundreds of years from now!

Stories for older listeners

How old is an older listener? I don't know. All I want to make clear is that these stories have not been sanitised or dumbed down either in language or content to make them suitable for young people – as is often the case with texts in school books. That means teenage and adult listeners have material they will want to listen to.

Are they for younger listeners

Listeners can understand and enjoy a well-told story even though the language used is far beyond what they can speak themselves. Indeed, one of the many strange things about storytelling is that the same tale is suitable for an incredibly wide range of language abilities. Only yesterday I had to cover for an absent colleague and take a lesson in a class of 13-year-olds who had only had five weeks of English lessons (French is their first foreign language). I told them Jimmy No-Story and paid particular attention to the language I was using. It really was virtually identical to the way I tell the tale on the CD. The children not only understood the story perfectly, they were enthralled.

The content of stories is another matter – and I do not just mean the bawdy elements in The Tailor and his Wife! In my experience of telling in German schools, the stories on this CD are the sort of stories I begin to use when children become teenagers. I usually start with the funny stories. Once these comic tales have proved to the students that storytelling is great fun and definitely not something for kids, they will be willing to listen to a more serious tale. (For the rather different sort of storytelling I do with younger children, see my article The Frightened Mouse http://www.talesandmusic.de/download/frightened_mouse.pdf)

The language level

Above, I have written about the language being easy to understand. But the best way to form an opinion about this is to judge it yourself. Listen to this 4-minute story, The Parrot's Prayer http://www.talesandmusic.de/tales/parrots_prayer.htm. It is another story with a touch of the bawdy – and is great with teenagers and adults alike. Incidentally, if you wonder how I can say that a joke is a traditional folk tale, think about what jokes really are – part of the oral tradition. Moreover, there are parrot jokes recorded from the Middle Ages – and bawdy ones, at that! (See Medieval Comic Tales ed. Derek Brewer ISBN 0-85991-485-2)

Authentic listening material

The English curriculum in many German states, and probably also in other countries, has recently begun to place great emphasis on authentic listening material. However, teachers often complain about the quality of the material available. But a recording of a live performance has such a natural feel to the language. I think it is this, combined with the strength of the stories themselves, that explains why so many teachers are now telling stories (as well as using some of my recordings).

Post-listening activities

Mario may have talked me into writing a review of the CD, but he is not going to get me to extend it into a long methodological article! You can think of your own post-listening activities if you want.

But really only if you want to. Whilst I do sometimes spin activities off from a story, I am also quite content just to tell the tale and leave it at that. The language input the listeners experience does not need any further justification.

However, Discussing Mr Fox http://www.hltmag.co.uk/jul02/sart6.htm shows one useful activity which could also be used with some of the stories on this CD.

Who tells the stories – the CD or the teacher

Against my own commercial interests, I must insist that it is the teacher. You are the primary resource in the classroom and the stories you tell will be the ones which make the strongest impression. You are there, your students know you, they can see you, you can interact with them during the telling. That is what makes storytelling such a powerful art – far more important than the final artistic polish of a professional teller.

So you are the one your students most need to tell them stories.

And in case you ask how you can become a storyteller, an American teller, Papa Joe, explains that this is easy – all you need to do is tell stories. And if you want to become a better storyteller? That is easy, too – all you need to do is tell more stories.

So start telling, and you will experience how you can hold your students' attention in a way which may be quite new for you. You will find that you develop your body language whilst telling, that your voice range will increase, you will sense how to use timing effectively. That is how I learnt – just getting in front of listeners and telling a tale. If you want to see and hear me talking more about this (technically known as paralanguage), here is a 3-minute video clip: http://www.talesandmusic.de/about_us/videos.htm.

Of course, I do not want to talk you out of listening to the CD and even playing it in class. But I hope above all that the CD will be an encouragement to your own telling.

Listen to these tales and then you will soon find your own way of telling them. Your way will be different from my way and the story which results will be different to the story which you heard on the CD. But it will be your story – and that is the one your listeners will want to hear.

I have been told by several teachers that although they found the storytelling activities in the book Once Upon a Time (Morgan and Rinvolucri, CUP, ISBN: 0521272629) really excellent, they did not use so many of the ideas because they were uneasy about their own storytelling abilities. Indeed, John Morgan agreed this was a reason why the book may not have sold as widely as it should. Perhaps listening to a storytelling CD will encourage you to realise that you can tell stories, too – and those activities in Once Upon a Time will be more accessible to you. Then storytelling can develop a greater role in your general teaching.

Where to find stories to tell

There are thousands of stories around us in the world, just waiting to be found. An easy place to start is on the internet; my website has quite a variety to read at http://www.talesandmusic.de/tales/frame_index.htm. Then go to Resources on my site http://www.talesandmusic.de/resources/frame_index.htm and visit storytelling websites to find stories which speak to you.

Then look in your community. There are probably storytellers working there; your library is often a good place to ask. You might find that there is a storytelling club in your home town. There may be a national storytelling association in your country. If so, visit their website.

And of course there are so many books – collections of stories, folklore, mythology – enough to cater to every taste.

But remember, meeting the stories in not enough. You must keep them alive by telling them to others.

Buying Jack goes Hunting

CDs can be ordered online at http://www.talesandmusic.de/ordering/orderform_mail.htm

Richard Martin is a performing storyteller, teacher-trainer and teacher. He lives in Germany. Together with Petra Koch, he performs – in Germany and beyond – under the stage name of Tales and Music. Visit his web site: http://www.talesandmusic.de to find out more about performances, workshops and his full range of recordings.

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