Story Telling Today: Part 2
Bink has been a TEFL teacher for more than 25 years; he has also been a Cambridge SE (from YL to C2), and teacher trainer for 20 of those years. He works online with international students of all ages, needs, and levels; he also teaches face to face to teens, tertiary-level students, professionals, and works on teacher training projects, runs photography courses, workshops, and has curated many local art exhibitions and galleries – as well as being an assistant tutor on biochemistry CLIL courses in Italy where he currently lives, wanders…and occasionally rants. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Continuing on from the October edition’s introduction to reconsidering storytelling in our classrooms, Bink Venery continues his observations (with hardly any ranting whatsoever) about the ups and downs of using stories and how they are used and viewed, while also suggesting some possible applications and ideas.
From the author
This article is, first and foremost, a celebration of the ancient art of storytelling; it is also intended as a reminder of just how integral stories are in our psychological development, at guiding us through our everyday lives, and, of course, as an (almost) unlimited and precious resource for both the teacher and learners in our classrooms. It is not intended as a list of generic get-out-of-jail-fast miracle activities for that idyllic utopian classroom that – I’m sure we can all agree – simply does not exist. Also, it’s a nod to the pioneers that came before us and to the fact that wherever we all stand today, it is always on the shoulders of those giants and the stories they sought to teach us to tell and, perhaps more pertinently, to show us how to create.
Many of the points laid out below are my responses to comments made by colleagues who, over the years, have tended to veer away from storytelling in, especially, secondary school classes (but also private language schools) for several usually negative and sometimes valid reasons – many of which have been covered in the October 2023 edition of HLT – with the remaining points laid out in the numbered sections below. I apologise if the tone is a little tetchy on my part – I am neither a diplomat nor a writer; perhaps my replies may also come over as overly passionate digressions in some of the points – and that is just fine with me (and evidently HLT too!) as I believe that opinions and thoughts (not to be confused with facts) shouldn’t be bottled up and kept inside to fester and then manifest as rage or bigotry further down the line; we’ll leave all that to the sociopaths and psychopaths and the infantilism they love to wallow in on social media.
That said, I have tried to be reflective, proactive and, hopefully, understanding – while also being aware of the annoying limitations of my own subjective preconceptions and the ever so invasive, contaminating, and almost inevitable habit of projecting one’s own experience on to everyone else, not to mention that tricky confirmation bias constantly raising its ugly head – as well as my own noticeable ignorance in the enormous and fascinating fields of folklore, storytelling, sociology, psychology – and, uh, diplomacy – and so on. Although, truth is, I am neither skilled enough nor schooled enough to truly know if that is just pseudo-humility talking (or psychopathy!) – but I really hope it isn’t.
The often prescriptive and somewhat seemingly axiomatic – perhaps even dogmatic – style of the responses to the points below is heavily based on (and intentionally and unreservedly inspired by) Valahu and Buckmaster’s nifty 2016 book, Teaching English: Being the Best and may not be to everyone’s liking (just like that book title!) – but I’m sure we’ll all get over it eventually when we settle down and realise that there are infinitely more important things to be getting on with.
Introduction to part 2
Stories and storytelling, taken from the contemporary TEFL teacher’s perspective and when used effectively (whatever that may mean to the many teachers and teaching roles out there in TEFL-land), are generally seen as useful platforms for presenting, observing, and as bona fide and sound ways of traditionally studying new language, lexical chunks, and engaging with stimulating content. They can be the perfect opportunity for revision and exposure to co-text and collocation, pragmatics, grammar, elision, the art of inferring, challenging our viewpoints, and so on. They can be magnificently produced by the learners themselves – even in the sense of a conversation being seen as an instantaneous unfolding narrative between people in class. For sure, these are familiar aspects to many a modern (communicative) language teacher’s methodology when using stories, although, such aspects are hardly as ubiquitous as one would imagine, as one would hope.
“Have we all become a little too sceptical and untrustworthy of stories and the apparently hidden meanings and biases buried deep within them?”
Where exactly are all these poignant, life-changing-dress-rehearsal-field-guide stories in our classrooms today then? Do many teachers only see storytelling as a skill that has to be acquired through extensive teacher training programmes? Do only mother-tongue teachers have the right (and ability) to tell stories? [They don’t!] Do stories really frighten us so much? Why? Are they viewed as an over-elaborate text-heavy classroom tool requiring too much prep time? Are they just the stuff of the gregarious, the show-offs, and the gifted fortunate few? The answers to many of the above questions will, of course, depend very much on cultural relevance, the learners themselves and their personalities, the teacher’s individual teaching context and experience – not to mention the college, institution, or school’s own pedagogic philosophy, its demographic, and its business-minded objectives. Could it also be that a school’s clients’ pervasive and – let’s call it for what it is – often ignorant (but well-intentioned) understanding and mistaken expectations of what they think language learning actually is might have also contributed to the negative view of stories and storytelling within a school?
Subsequently, the teacher inherits that non-productive viewpoint (or is stigmatised and may even be fired for rebelling against such a thing), and the classroom then becomes imbued with it. And if we look at how all of that is quite gloriously nestled cosily within these dark days of business-minded practices that unfortunately trump actual proper and meaningful teaching and learning for the sake of a number, a result, a mark, a piece of paper, or centre accreditation – not to mention the unnerving censoring of past literature with often quite ridiculous trigger warnings poking at us from all sides – well, then, it’s no surprise that we shy away from using stories. Stories are scary even when they are not scary stories, it would seem.
So, although stories certainly haven’t been banned from the modern teacher’s repertoire, they can, however, often be seen as childish and “too much hard work” to set up, tell, or generate. Have we all become a little too sceptical and untrustworthy of stories and the apparently hidden meanings and biases buried deep within them? Have we lost faith in storytelling as an essential teacher’s tool – once again, especially in the secondary school English class? Did Nietzsche kill off our love of stories too when he foretold the death of God and our fall into nihilism? There’s a real (and evident) tragedy in that kind of story.
An over-reliance on fiction
In the previous thirteen points, we have seen that the engaging power of narrative fiction is undoubtedly a valuable – if occasionally underused/misused – resource in a language-learning environment. However, there is the genuine risk that with a flippant overuse of such material, the learners might be exposed to a lexical field that is perhaps inappropriate, irrelevant, and certainly uncommon outside of the lesson – not to mention the complexity of the particular semantic field used in, say, science fiction that easily renders most sci-fi stories out of reach for even the most proficient of learners if not incomprehensible for most. That is not to say that there’s no place for sci-fi, far from it, we just need to carefully think about the benefits and downsides when using (and researching and prepping) such rich, tricky, and definitely quite obscure language from such far-reaching interstellar material.
“However, there is the genuine risk that with a flippant overuse of such material, the learners might be exposed to a lexical field that is perhaps inappropriate, irrelevant, and certainly uncommon outside of the lesson…”
There is also research that suggests that such an overly powerful connection with fiction can, in extreme cases, create a detachment from reality. This, of course, depends very much on the age of the learners, their backgrounds – and, arguably, other more pressing concerns and factors they may have besides reading in a classroom (we are, after all, in the midst of a global mental health pandemic, let us not forget) – but it’s still something to carefully consider even with young adults. And even though, neurologically speaking, narrative fiction may be particularly important in terms of creating highly immersed mental simulations of experience that are key to psychological and social development in teens and young adults (as discussed in point 13, HLT, 10/23), there is the obvious fact that many people simply do not like fiction or, more often, science fiction (to the detriment of all in my view). It would appear that these types of gorgeously creatively complex tales still aren’t the stories you are looking for.
The well-intentioned desire to use authentic material can also lead to the educator’s implicit biases seeping into the selection of any chosen content (whether rashly or meticulously selected). This material could be full of sociocultural values and representations of ideological positioning that we may not even notice and that we would not consciously want to expose learners to. Although a cautious approach to selecting “appropriate” material should always be at the back of the teacher’s mind (if not at the forefront), we also need to be careful about looking for things that aren’t really there and then putting trigger warnings all over works of literature such as Aesop’s fables, Maus, Dr Suess, Wallace and Gromit, or, most bewilderingly, even Roald Dahl’s work more recently – denying our learners access to classic (even if dated) culturally relevant, thought-provoking, and simply quite delightful archetypal storytelling by dedicated masters of the craft. Seeing as he mentions almost all facets of the human experience, are we now going to deny Shakespeare to learners simply because he never once mentions trans people? Or maybe we should boycott his works due to the fact that they are thinly-veiled adaptations of classic Italian and Greek works and tragedies done well over a thousand years beforehand – clearly evidence of cultural appropriation by the oppressors and their western sickness that permeates everywhere? What? Really?
I guess we should now stop reading the mindboggling beauty and profundity of Dostoyevsky’s insights into the human condition due to the atrocities of what is happening in Ukraine, should we? Is this what it looks like when compassion goes wrong and we are guilty of weaponizing empathy?? That is misdirected energy at best if not sheer deluded madness at worst – and would (and will) only be our loss in the long run.
It even happened to Sendak in the early 70s (although for far more prudish reasons than today’s easily offended live wire cancel culture maniacs). You’d think there were surely other more important bandwagons that we could all be jumping upon so willingly. Evidently not.
“Mythology is not a disease at all, though it may like all human things become diseased.”
(Tolkien, 1939, p.10)
It would appear that we are willing to quite literally murder literature to get it to fit neatly into our own (conscious or not) contemporary ideological narratives and biases. Hurrah for us! Nine out of ten for effort and creative endeavour; two out of ten for importance and overall benefit to humanity. It is no exaggeration to say that such prevailing narratives can damage and upset the language learning that should be taking place and that should always be the priority in our classes. These doctored stories can often be full of plotless box-ticking, soul-destroying reductionism – an unnuanced and emotionless series of sentences stripped bare and denying the reader the author’s intended beauty; with their connotations, their ambiguity, their true meaning and purpose diluted if not totally bleached out, sterilized and butchered (see point 3 HLT, 10/23). A misguided and once well-intentioned hypersensitivity that has simply gone too far, which can then easily contribute to an unproductive and needless tension in class (undermining and even negating that initially sound idea of raising awareness and sensitivity). Not only that, this type of doctoring and blatant censorship (let’s call it for what it is – while we still can – before the subtle but ever-inclining slope towards totalitarianism becomes too steep to deny anymore) also produces unwieldy if not unusable texts once the teacher has attempted to adapt it and render it “acceptable” (whatever that actually means).
Purposely avoiding the interesting yet contentious rabbit hole that is the debate around descriptive moral relativism, perhaps it might be useful to wonder what would happen if we teachers stopped attempting to pander to the latest ideological trends and stopped worrying about our need for the acceptance or awe of our colleagues/peers? How much more productive could we be if we decided that this ridiculous desire to worship at some kind of garish short-term dopaminergic-releasing virtual-signalling alter is pretty pointless (most probably nothing else than the tiresome iterations of our own as-yet-unconfronted deeper issues as well as clearly evidence of having far too much free time that then enables and exacerbates such contrived mental delusions – idle hands (and minds) make quick the Devil’s work has never been more salient since the advent of social media)? And it’s hardly revolutionary to suggest that if we just actually focused on the learners and the/their almost-forgotten language learning journeys (remember those?), just how much better off and certainly less anxious we would all be relating to stories and including them confidently in our methodological quivers. “Quivers” meaning…you know, I meant… not trembling, I…erm. (Although “The Methodological Quivers” is definitely going to be my next band name – if not a new email.)
Nevertheless, a keen eye and a sensitive mind do need to be constantly applied if we want to avoid blundering into, more often than not, distracting and irrelevant boggy geopolitical territory (as well as dull, bland, preachy and hackneyed content) or creating an unpleasant classroom dynamic – although, one could argue, there is a place for such language-rich, pugnacious, and hostile learning environments (something that a certain Mr Rinvolucri once pointed out can be very necessary in a class and should even be desired and sought out). These heated debates – replete with actual passion and personalities trying to express themselves and their disagreements – can certainly be fertile ground for language, psychological development as well as (arguably) an insightful understanding of pragmatics, role relationships, turn-taking, status, and so on; actually using the language, actually needing language to (try to) express themselves and their thoughts. There’s, no doubt, plenty of gritty potential therein.
Be that as it may, it might be unwise to throw caution to the wind and always look to instigate these types of animated discussions just for the hell of it; they might very well not only generate magnificent language and opinion (and, for better or worse, reveal/awaken sides to personalities that were hitherto hidden and subdued), but they could also quite easily lead to animosity, a lingering feeling of resentment, and even create bad blood between the learners that would then indelibly stain future classroom dynamics. Probably not conducive to successful language acquisition, we might say; although, I’m pretty sure there have been many cases where it could have been – and might well be. As mentioned in the October 2023 part of this article, such careful content selection is – and should be – every teacher’s prerogative if not duty. Right? Am I barking up the wrong tree here? That said – and even though we certainly aren’t working down a mine or stuck up a 600 foot river-spanning pylon in the heart of wintertime in Essex (other river-spanning pylons are available) – it can still be a little disheartening when such crucial awareness sometimes takes a back seat to other non-educational duties that can often be piled onto overworked and stressed-out teachers in today’s TEFL/TESOL world. And don’t we all know it!
Such a risky crop, though, might just well be worth the harvest – just as it could easily be detrimental too; it could blacken the seeds of learning and contaminate the very soil we all stand upon with an unwanted and malignant insemination. Still, there obviously needs to be careful consideration, an attentive pruning of sorts, of when and where such polemic usage would be appropriate and even desirable to dig up and plough through – just as we need to wisely weed out and separate the wheat from the chaff with the stories we select (which is no easy feat). Just who was it, now, that said teaching was an easy affair? Or farming for that matter. Or gardening. Wait, what has farming and gardening got to do with anything here?
Time is of the essence
All of this also suggests that to efficiently present material to learners, the teacher would need to take on a non-insubstantial amount of gardening – er, sorry – research and background reading to identify any unpleasant or outdated (or current) ideological perspectives lurking menacingly within the selected story/text. Add to that the challenging amount of analysis and (self-) awareness needed in attempting to identify when such sociocultural biases are present (if they are even present at all), then we can perhaps understand why a teacher might baulk at the idea of not only finding, preparing, and adapting stories, but also the daunting idea of how to effectively integrate them into class as a successful language aid without offending the Universe, or upsetting the torchbearers of the virtuous and excluded or some such other delusional hypocritical sanctimonious nonsense. All of that easily avoidable grief just for a story? Perhaps it just goes to show us that we can’t always have that proverbial cake and eat it too, I guess.
“… perhaps we can see why page 17, exercise 3 of our beloved coursebooks seems, more often than not, like the better, more attractive and safer option.”
Throw in the equally intimidating thought of then trying to successfully tell these stories out loud in an effective and engaging manner (for us, not just for our learners!), and perhaps we can see why page 17, exercise 3 of our beloved coursebooks seems, more often than not, like the better, more attractive and safer option. Fair enough. But playing it safe doesn’t change the world, taking risks does. Unless you’re a surgeon, of course. Or a pilot. Or a tower-crane maintenance officer. We don’t want them taking risks and dabbling in spontaneity just to liven things up a bit.
Besides, finding (or making) time to prep materials doesn’t have to be a chore if we view it as a way to ultimately make our job easier in the long run, and if we see it as a way of ensuring the use of quality material and often (if that be our aim) very student-centred content for our learners. Shouldn’t such prep time be part of the responsibility of being a committed educator anyway – even if it is unpaid time? Still, presumably not everyone wants to be a teaching nerd, or particularly likes their job that much – and that’s absolutely fine and easily relatable for many, no doubt. But shouldn’t even those teachers barely above minimum wage and with four kids, and those with an admirable and professional sense of “having a life outside of their teaching” still be equally committed to such a beneficial use and investment of their time – instead of, say, over relying (and overdosing) on AI tools such as Diffit? Couldn’t we all benefit from regular time-management courses as well? Some tricky, slightly intimidating, and very context-bound questions, that’s for sure! A quote springs to mind from a recent podcast by Chris Williamson (who was quoting someone else): “What can the present me do today that the future me will be grateful for?” – words to that effect anyway. A catchy and relevant anti-procrastination question, and one that would surely do more good than harm if we were to ask it to ourselves every day.
Oh, by the way, Diffit is great fun and definitely a most welcome time-saving tool (which is essentially a content-generating and powerful text/video/article summarising free resource). There, that’s the main takeaway from today. You’re welcome.
An over-reliance on reading and listening
What about the learners who need and demand the written form? What about those that enjoy their head-down studying? What about the people that need the uncluttered, calm, reflective reprocessing opportunity that reading gives them and the safe learning time it offers them to digest and internalise language at their own pace? What about those people? Well, of course, the use of storytelling within the classroom doesn’t have to be one-dimensional with a heavy focus just on receptive skills all the time (see points 6 to 13 above – HLT, 10/23), it can also be a multifaceted beast that incorporates the other active skills as well. But is there already an overreliance on reading in our classes? Could every story or text also become a listening activity just to mix things up? Do stories have to be limited to just these two skills all the time? Finding that balance, being flexible, and being confident enough in making and learning from good decisions (as well as less successful ones) on how to modify and use stories and texts in class efficiently – and all peppered with a healthy dose of methodological variety and creative endeavour – is both a complex and difficult dilemma to contend with. It’s all relative. An ability (and willingness) to wrestle with such issues is, unquestionably, one of the key skills of an effective, competent, caring, and professional TESOL teacher – and, obviously, not just regarding the use of stories, we might add.
“…it is down to the individual educator to ‘get a feeling’ for and to ‘be tuned in’ to what is plausible and required (and even allowed) for his/her learning context.”
There is no slick update running in the background to be had here, or a just-add-water solution to such a question, and it is down to the individual educator to ‘get a feeling’ for and to ‘be tuned in’ to what is plausible and required (and even allowed) for his/her learning context. Does it feel like I’m sitting on the fence a bit with this point? Fence it is then while I wait for that background update.
An expected negative habit
If stories are carelessly overused in class, students may begin to view them as something normal and expected, and the stories might even lose their intrinsic magic. Furthermore, if we only use stories as ways to set up teacher-heavy grammatical analysis to prime them and pre-empt next week’s grammar test (or those damned omnipresent gap-fills again – see point 5, HLT, 10/23), then here too, and rightly so, learners may well lose faith in the archetypal appeal of storytelling and see it as simply another language task with endless exercises dripping off of it ad nauseum. Such an approach could quite easily undermine any hard-earned trust that had been present between the learners and the teacher beforehand; an undesirable outcome – even catastrophic – for the once healthy learning environment. Another nail in the coffin of storytelling, for sure.
Like anything obsessive, an overzealous enthusiasm for stories (ahem, not like that ever happened to me – oh, no, not me) must not be taken to the extreme and become almost oppressive, an imposed relationship; this would only have a harmful effect in the long term. A careful consideration of one’s teaching situation and the learners present is, of course, key to the decision of where, when, and how often (and even if at all) to use stories – just as such a conscientious awareness is key for basically all decision making that could ever come up in a class (to state the obvious).
“A careful consideration of one’s teaching situation and the learners present is, of course, key to the decision of where, when, and how often (and even if at all) to use stories…”
But what about the drama queen and everyone else?
It is certainly a healthy challenge to think of all the ways to successfully placate the many minds when using stories in a classroom; although, somewhat contentiously, that might just be seen as a pointless endeavour by some (“The majority wins.” “…according to so-and-so’s research…” “I did a Stories-aren’t-for-everyone teacher training course. So there.”). That said, by attempting to tailor stories to the needs of the different learners in “normal” sized classes (those fortunate enough to have manageable numbers of learners) the teacher can perhaps discover exciting and unexpected new ways to use the material – just as some learners might discover new ways to interpret and engage with stories thanks to the teacher’s tailoring and experimentation. For example, stories can be “told” through drama techniques incorporating whole-person learning. In this way, the teacher might have a better chance of not leaving any one learner out (as well as potentially terrifying some of them!). The teacher can cater to learner differences in terms of personality, age, and language competence, and also give certain learners an opportunity to build a multi-sensorial relationship with the language whether that be through listening to it, illustrating it, rewriting it, creating a comic strip, photo-story, or actually performing in their own stories and making their own short film, animation, (or a combination of some of these approaches) and so on – there’s enough variety for everyone to be involved in some way. Caution is certainly needed throughout such activities, and we have to remember that even though mostly positive inclusivity abounds nowadays, we also live within the tricky age of countless “new” psychological conditions and trauma too. Ah, the easy life of the language teacher. In through the nose, people…then, very slowly, out through the mouth.
Stories are teacher-led not student-centred
Simply telling a story to our learners for the sake of telling a story or because we are so infatuated with the tale ourselves is, perhaps, not the most productive way to use stories in class – although undoubtedly alluring, and they can certainly fill up any unwanted or unexpected lulls in class (we could go into why such a thing happens or should not happen in a class in a future email if you like). The more gifted storytellers among us who constantly use story-time in their classes so successfully and that are the envy of us all are also few and far between. Thankfully. (Just kidding – relax!) Those with perfect diction, compelling delivery, pro-grade voice-over skills, knick-knacks, props and realia, and lithe gymnast-like “bodytelling” techniques to accompany their stories with kinaesthetic glory that put us all to shame as we stumble through our own tellings (forgetting and leaving out key bits, sounding more like HAL 9000 than Stephen Fry etc.) are most definitely classed as a teaching minority – if not a teaching anomaly. And yet, many people often only see such a virtuoso raconteur’s performance as a purely teacher-led affair where the learners contribute little or next to nothing before, during, or after the masterful telling. And while that may sometimes be the case for the more egomaniacal teachers as well as the stalwart and excessively blinkered Krashenites among us (ahem, I, er, don’t know any of them, do you?), it certainly doesn’t have to be the case for us normal stuttering yarn-spinning mortals who simply want to share a funny anecdote and to then observe its linguistic features with our learners – to find an emotional connection to the people in the room via authentic storytelling and genuine reflection; some sort of kindling of curiosity, a consolidation of not only language competence but also course-defining and friendship/trust-developing rapport. You know, almost as if such a thing were a natural and well-established sociological phenomenon spanning countless millennia in human history. Imagine that! What madness…
Of course, the storyteller must not be guilty of telling stories just because they like the sound of their own voice. The use of story shouldn’t be so much about the teacher’s dramaturgy and eloquence (both important aspects, without a doubt – just not the predominant goal of the telling), but rather it should be more about generating curiosity, instilling a sense of wonder about the power and sound of language itself. It should be about the pleasure and surprise in a carefully constructed plot twist, the beauty of the unexpected (and expected), the fundamental process of discovering or reencountering the sound and feel of language – the need for familiarity, the empathic connection to the protagonist, the need to truly feel what a language can do and to appreciate its rhythm and embrace its transcendence; and all of that through the story – because of the story itself. The teacher’s justified/unjustified enthusiasm for using stories must not become detrimental to the class atmosphere. Conceivably, though, there is a case for saying that if such enthusiasm is subsequently transferred over and fed back to the learners themselves, then that may inevitably become beneficial to the class on the whole (said the egomaniacal teacher justifying their egomania to the egomaniacal teachers out there!).
“…these powerful subjective interpretations happen simultaneously while the storytelling continues to be a shared collective endeavour…”
It is certainly fascinating to consider that when a story is told to one hundred people, that story becomes a hundred equally valid individual stories; each one processed internally by those one hundred people who douse the story in their own experiential data and sociocultural hues, soak it in their own sensorial preferences, and pepper it with personal emotional connotations; all of these powerful subjective interpretations happen simultaneously while the storytelling continues to be a shared collective endeavour in a room, a class, a conference hall or a theatre, and (for better or worse) on a screen. That is the beauty of what stories can do to us and what we do to stories on both an individual level as well as a collective one. There is a powerful communal sense of pride in the sociality of our stories and that’s the fundamental reason why they work so well in reminding us of our not-aloneness and in joining us to the nowhere of the collective unconscious. Wait, the “nowhere of the collective unconscious”? Funny, that sounds exactly how the British Council classified one of my classrooms in an audit some years ago – although maybe they just mentioned the word ‘unconscious’, or was it simply ‘no…’? It slips my mind which now. Probably both.
Or maybe they hate it
Perhaps the story we’ve selected for our lesson simply isn’t as enchanting as we think it is. It is true that a story only exists when someone hears the telling of it (we can include reading here too), and it is also true that the listeners have every right not to like it too. However, that dislike can still become an important exchange, an analysis, a critical language learning opportunity, as well as a chance for them to learn how to express their dislike (in the appropriate manner) and why. Such a seemingly disheartening episode could quite easily become a valuable and insightful peek into the personality of the learners – just as it could also go a long way in helping both the inexperienced and experienced teacher’s own awareness, personal development, and as a way to gauge levels and idiosyncrasies (especially when dealing, for example, with a new monolingual class and culture) that must then be carefully recorded and used as invaluable data by the sensitive, conscientious teacher further down the line (again, to state the obvious). A practice that, unquestionably, everyone involved benefits from. Furthermore, any dislike of the story doesn’t necessarily stop the story from still being a great place to learn lexis, or where they can familiarise themselves with the sounds and rhythm as well as the beauty of language – albeit within material they might feel the urge to push against and intellectually veer away from. Once again, as mentioned in point 9 above, only by embracing the negative and trying to understand it and come to terms with it – use it even – can we then truly understand and appreciate the positive – and the intimately intwined relationship this classic, inescapable, deeply-entrenched, and eternally fascinating antagonism possesses; the Yin and the Yang, night and day, Jung’s Shadow, and so on. As above as below...
TTT (Titillating Teacher Tales)
Just because your long-winded colleague Amelie loves to run through her natty weekend anecdotes at the beginning of every class (before getting her students to do the same in pairs, mind you) that doesn’t mean that she is self-centred or denying the learners their grammar explanations or even looking to waste time. Maybe she is modelling authentic personalised language in the most natural way she knows through communicating something real and personal. Perhaps she is getting them into the lesson, pre-empting and priming, or maybe she is carefully using the anecdote (which is a story, let’s not forget) to both recycle language and to activate schemata, or even to simply calm everyone down, to tune them in, wait for the latecomers, or simply to shut them up (yes, you read that last one right). It’s about relevancy.
"L'important n'est pas de convaincre, mais de donner à réfléchir."
(Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, performance by Audrey Tautou, UGC Distribution, 2001.)
Just because Gattegno’s the Silent Way can often be successful in language teaching – when applied correctly – that doesn’t mean the teacher should never talk at all. Just because some teachers are natural (nervous) chatterboxes, that does not mean he or she should, likewise, keep excessively schtum. Aren’t most TEFL classes advertised as “communicative” language courses? What could we possibly mean by communicative if not, erm, communicative? What ever happened to the input hypothesis anyway? Has it been discredited? Have we missed another meeting?
Just because learned well-meaning teacher trainers and our director of studies once told us that TTT should be kept to a minimum in class to facilitate STT blah blah blah and that such a mantra has then dogmatically and recklessly been applied to every level and all activities we decide to ever do – especially concerning the use of stories – that doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Besides, Amelie is just trying to selflessly help everyone she can, but who’s going to help Amelie then, hmm? You see what I did there? Look, because in the film Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain, she always tries to…oh, it doesn’t matter.
Stories don’t teach anything, they just waste valuable class time
By providing learners with challenging, new, and just-out-of-reach (as well as accessible) language, exposing them to content in context, emphasising visual connections to language and how meaning is conveyed through physicality, building auditory phonetic associations and an appreciation of phonaesthesia, demonstrating concatenation and pitch contours, the sophisticated dynamics of pragmatics, the nuance of inferring, allowing them to feel an emotional connection to language and its implicit or explicit meanings above and beyond lexicogrammatical analysis, giving them the opportunity to review and re-see previously encountered/studied language, and yes, also for the sheer love for the art of storytelling (and the simple pleasure of just enjoying the story as it flows over and soaks into us), by doing all of these things, we are exposing our learners to a meaningful, vibrant, and living language that they can really get to grips with. Such things can – and should – be part of the dedicated educator’s toolkit and are anything but time-wasting and are most certainly a very long way away from being non-educational aspects of acquisition.
“It is not subject matter that makes some learning more valuable than others, but the spirit in which the work is done.”
(Holt, 1964, p.293)
And it depends on what we mean by “stories”. As mentioned through points 6 to 10 (HLT, 10/23), stories can quite splendidly take on many forms. Just look, for example, at the unique storytelling technique of YouTube channel Kurzgesagt: In a Nutshell. It’s like watching an infographic come to life – not everyone’s cup of tea, for sure, but it can make something apparently quite dull and complex spring magnificently into life in the most accessible way (or maybe the channel’s 21.6m subscribers are all bots and immature men so we should discard it and its childish animation?). Or what about the undeniable feeling of personality in the Heider-Simmel psychological animation from 1944 where geometric shapes really do seem to eerily come to life and become animated? Think of the semiotic storytelling power contained within any given photograph: the subject (and its so-called ‘punctum’), and the relationship to the other visible elements within the confines of the frame (not to mention all the meanings that the observer holding or looking at the photograph brings with them) and how all of that works almost magically with what is just beyond the outside of the frame – what has been left unsaid, so to speak, what had been crudely cropped out and left to assumptions and inference thanks to the limitations of either the film format or the sensor size being used; the storytelling potential of the unsaid out-of-frame elements in photography is an untapped and very powerful catalyst to student-centred creative writing and expression wherever the student may be from or however they were brought up. After all is said and done, how could any one story not ever teach (or mean) something to someone somewhere? I feel as though I need to say “sometimes” as well here – not that I have anything against “somehow”. There, said both.
The allure of AI
AI will be an essential part of learning in the years to come, there’s no denying that – and its support should be welcomed and integrated carefully and cautiously – just like any new technological resource (and as with any new resource or technology, there will also be some justified trepidation and concern). But as of yet, there is no paid or free AI writing assistant currently available (to the public, that is!) that is able to successfully produce a truly engaging story full of witticisms, puns, overlapping subtext narratives, allegory, subtleties of nuance and metaphor – that doesn’t simply feel emotionless and disappointing (but, of course, that could change from one month to the next when we think of just how fast it is developing – I’m fully aware that this sentence won’t age well!). It is still early days for AI-generated texts – AI is still in its infancy – and let’s hope the euphoria surrounding AI soon wears off (which it surely will when AGI wipes us out accidentally on purpose in c. 2034 after accidentally on purpose creating the “good” Skynet…) and we can start to use it more efficiently as a collaborator, as support, and not as a creator.
“Unsurprisingly, such creations are without any real soul or believable complex characters and definitely without any trace whatsoever of a real writer’s voice.”
We must be mindful of the over-dependency and the attractive novelty of AI-generated texts and the fact that at first glance they appear so perfectly and magically rendered in only a few seconds – oh so appealing, so lifesaving to the modern TEFLer without a doubt. But, as is so often the case, the devil is in the details. When used in the language classroom (and if only superficially checked beforehand) such texts consistently reveal themselves to be weirdly written, lacklustre, and very often frustratingly factually inaccurate – the so called AI “hallucinations” (that Cambridge Dictionary recently felt the need to honour as word of the year, 2023). Unsurprisingly, such creations are without any real soul or believable complex characters and definitely without any trace whatsoever of a real writer’s voice (even when you prompt it to write in the style of, say, Jane Austin, or Murakami, Kafka – and certainly nothing like Nick Cave as Nick Cave beautifully pointed out in his November 2023 letter). To paraphrase a colleague: “…an almost insulting blandness to the writing…effectively taking the joy out of using stories or any AI-generated text…the only good thing was the linking devices – even if they are always the same ones!” Consequently, the teacher ends up basically re-writing the whole thing defeating the point of using the AI in the first place! Those bold premature bragging rights of such avant-garde and self-aggrandising teachers so soon become hollow echoes of embarrassing vainglory. All that glitters, and all that. Please get in touch for any clarifications and, ahem, if any personal anecdotal evidence on this particular AI matter is required. (Take my word for it: there’s a massive face-palm emoji here.)
Slightly suspect material
It is fair to say that most teachers do not possess the linguistic prowess of an Oscar Wilde, the daunting psychological understanding of a Dostoyevsky, the complexity of a Virginia Woolf, nor the erudition of a Richard Dawkins, much less the eloquence of a Salman Rushdie (but good for you if you do possess such qualities – you must be the life and soul of the party, as well as a bit of an oddity). Even the most extensively educated English-literature-graduate-come-TEFL teacher (if they were being honest) will admit to often struggling to produce a sufficiently cohesive text about what happened at the weekend (I have Amelie’s number if you’re interested) let alone a well-structured and compelling story to be used in class to ‘teach’ the effect, say, of voiced and unvoiced phonemes on regular past tense verb suffixes for example. Still, admittedly, just because a text is prosaic that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not going to be useful, there’s certainly some truth in that.
Writing is notoriously hard for most people. Not everyone is a sentence-producing machine like Stephen King, or a showman of prose like Dickens, and constructing suitable written materials that seamlessly incorporate previously encountered language, pertinent content, well-crafted syntax, useful and engaging comprehension questions all cohesively put together as a readable whole is, possibly, just as difficult (if not more so) for a busy teacher to produce than it is for an author to write a novel in the log cabin they’ve rented for 4 months in the outer Hebrides. Well, maybe not. So, perhaps the argument for telling a story over writing one should be considered here, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that telling a story from memory far outweighs the use and impact of reading a story aloud to our learners (although, slightly tenuously, there is also plenty of evidence to suggest that when our learners read aloud themselves it is enormously important for their memory, recognition and so on; such a tool should certainly not be discarded due to our own dread of reading aloud and our own underwhelming delivery). Reading aloud takes plenty of getting used to for most of us and it takes plenty of practice, that’s for sure. It certainly takes time, but it’s worth it in the long run. (Notice how I adamantly refused to use a third ‘plenty of’ there…A veritable rebellious writing genius. I’m hoping you can hear the dour sarcasm here, right?)
The chosen text needs to be of a sufficient quality to be justifiable, of an appropriately usable level, and, first and foremost, beneficial to the learners and their learning (and perhaps the syllabus too). It is true that there are many programs and apps that can assist us with our writing to, at least, get it to resemble a semi-cohesive and acceptable piece of classroom material. It would be wise to remember, though, that clients who invest large amounts of money into our courses might well have every right to disagree. They might even call some homemade material below-standard especially when compared to the admittedly attractive-looking coursebooks that march around our classrooms pickled in their own reverence. And, with the risk of incurring the wrath of many far more articulate TEFL teachers out there than this one writing, these paying customers’ firm expectations are not always unfounded either (once again, feel free to get in touch for some, ahem, personal anecdotal proof on the matter – that is, if this article isn’t proof enough, by Jove!). So, regrettably, that might just well be the last line that broke the storyteller’s back; that final nail in the coffin of storytelling in our classrooms…
Text as a precursor to testing
The fact that not enough of us are upset about the prevalence and almost criminally blind acceptance of proficiency tests in TESOL equating to actual language acquisition (that seems to permeate everywhere and sadly infect almost everyone involved) is, some might say, a veritable teaching travesty. And I wholeheartedly agree with them.
Do we only have ourselves to blame for this truly sad and tragic way to engage with text, with language, and with stories? Perhaps we are guilty of the bystander effect or of simply sticking our heads in the sand. Are we waiting for someone else to stand up and make a change as it’s too risky to push it – plus, of course, the real risk of losing our jobs? Better the devil one knows. Or, more plausibly, are we guilty of bookending language and our learners between this incessant need to test all the time and our ignorance of the proper use of what the more diagnostic tool of achievement tests could be used for?
“The testing tail has for too long wagged the teaching dog.”
There’s no denying that testing has come a long way from the decontextualised, generic, and soulless discrete-point testing of English that was prevalent some 70 odd years ago. And thank God for that – not that we are entirely free from its stubborn influence today, mind you. Notwithstanding the clear shift towards more pragmatic, integrative, and communicative (that word again!) tests over the last couple of decades by the likes of the big guns such as Cambridge Assessment (including IELTS), or Trinity, International House and so on, all the soulless standardization is still there (to a lesser extent with Trinity, one might argue).
Testing has its place, of course, and we all need to accept and get used to conformity in society, to the pressure and motivation of targets, and to accepting unpleasant “necessary” parts of any project that we undertake. Fair enough. But that shouldn’t be at the cost of assaulting our stories and turning them into something that they were never meant to be: vacuous vessels, stripped and mutated, impoverished; or used to obtain samples of candidate language which are then assessed by marginally interested strangers with a scale somewhere (I have a dear friend and colleague who is perhaps the exception to the rule in that respect; I hope she – and any other writing examiners out there – can forgive me for this little, cheap dig). A tragic loss and clear misuse, we might argue, of the richest and one of the most easily attainable resources at the teacher’s (and learner’s) disposal: the stories we constantly cannot avoid creating.
Testing (meaning the use of achievement tests not proficiency tests) should be seen as a diagnostic tool that enables the teacher to see and pinpoint which areas the learner(s) need help with; this would then suggest to the teacher where the syllabus needs to be adjusted to accommodate that particular area of concern. Does that sound like anything that examination bodies nowadays are interested in to you – or that is reflected in their heavily proficiency-testing-only tests? They are, after all, simply businesses – well-oiled and professional ones at that, but ones that shouldn’t be our primary concern; we should be focused on the business of teaching, the business of helping people to understand a language and not only how to get them through a test at the end of a course. These types of exams should be considered as the consequence of a course not the reason for it.
“Are we trying to reach minds, or reach targets?”
It does beg the question, though, of are we actually teachers or merely sophisticated testers when it comes to attempting to facilitate credible second language acquisition in our classrooms nowadays? Are we more interested in washback or backwash in our classes? Are we trying to reach minds, or reach targets? Perhaps it is simply our fate, our eternal Sisyphean condemnation as teachers: to struggle up the language learning hill with our learners only to be perpetually pushed back down under the weight of bureaucracy, audits and budgets, and the (semi-delusional) presumed necessity of exam prestige.
But such flavourless testing hegemony must surely take a step back – just as the imminent AI tutor is, without a shadow of a doubt, taking a step forward while wringing its virtual hands together with glee as the contrary seems so much more likely. As Professor Alan Maley (the veritable storytelling legend) in his famous haiku-like eloquence once said, “The testing tail has for too long wagged the teaching dog.” Just look at the vivid, contentious, and quite alarming story held within – and saturated throughout – that beautiful and deceptively simple sentence and its crisp cadence and its distilled essence. If only more people could learn to be that succinct with their writing…ahem.
I wonder, will there be a moment, paradoxically (and absurdly), when we start to mythologise testing and its peripeteia? And are we sure that is really a story – or irony – that we want to be part of? Don’t worry, I doubt that would ever happen. Still, at least it might make testing that little bit more interesting, a little bit less of a mundane story than the one being told today in many of our schools. Fortunately, I have learned from many colleagues over the years that sample tests can also be easily rendered more interactive with a few methodological tweaks and tinkering and they can also become a genuine font of new language – yet another place to learn from. As mentioned earlier, any moment can be a learning moment if we are totally present and focused on what’s happening and what that means to our learners.
Summary and conclusions
The art of storytelling is something that every one of us has deliberately or inadvertently been exposed to in the myriad of forms it can comfortably inhabit; stories are not limited to or restricted by language – they can operate as shadow puppets, silent movies, mime, music, modelling with Play-Doh, or LEGO, photography, and drawing or painting (although all of these possess their own language of a kind – even, arguably, a universal celestial language – but, naturally, a combination of some of these with the language of words and sentences seems to work better in a classroom). Storytelling is something that every single one of us does and is able to do (whether we want to or not) – always and forever, eloquently or laboriously, effectively or incompetently, consciously or not; our stories are relentless, and we are nothing but the latest iteration and glorious sprinklings of those stories, “the great cosmic narrative” as Rovelli might call it. These are stories – indeed, we are stories – that the Universe has been telling itself for 13.8 billion years (or only around 6,000 years according to some). It would be an insult to the Universe if we were to not tell its stories – although, it feels to me that we really don’t have much choice in the matter. Hmm. However, that does bring up the fascinating question of whether the Universe is quite literally the biggest narcissist of them all though; or perhaps it just underlines our ridiculous and incessant anthropomorphisation of absolutely everything we set our tiny eyes and minds upon. Right, there’s your homework: 2,500 words on our esoteric relevance/insignificance to the numinous within the underlying narcissistic tendency of the Universe by Friday. Word-processed. Thank you. Don’t use ChatGPT. Or Bard.
So, doesn’t such an undeniably powerful human (or cosmic) prerequisite have a right to exist and claim a constant spot, to dance gloriously, to continually inspire, to be the bringer of emotions, the bearer of lexicogrammatical fruits – so to speak, and to be seen as an obligatory component in any dynamic classroom reality – not to mention in our daily, non-academic interactions as well? It seems that even the most stoic and introverted recluse among us will never be able to escape the universal incessant need for stories and their cathartic, transformative, as well as meditative and wisdom-imparting power. All stories are significant; all stories need to be told. This omnipresence, this unquenchable need that stories seem to have to exist, is, quite spectacularly, one of the oldest and most poignant stories there is: narrare necesse est. There’s literally no escaping it.
However, the fact remains that the fundamental power and inescapable presence of all these human stories in our everything – not to mention how the very architecture of the brain itself relies on story – simply means that stories are not only an absolute must as a natural and engaging resource for our daily existence if not survival (see the In The Beginning section of this article - HLT, 10/23), but also as an essential tool within our communicative classroom from which a healthy intimate relationship with language can be nurtured; a place where legitimate study and observations help raise necessary awareness about language that can then flourish, be appreciated, encouraged, and ultimately acquired, as well as – one would hope – subsequently applied beyond the pleasant coddling confines of that fleeting classroom.
“We, and all our beautiful, pointless, and poignant transitory thoughts and stories – whether they are evidence of our unique brilliance or just manifestations of our collective delirium – are all brewed in the eternal cauldron of Story that unites – and ignites – every single one of us as it does every single atom.”
Storytelling is something that we have all been doing – something we have all been compelled to do or even biologically programmed to do – philosophically and ethically, spiritually and religiously, whimsically and sombrely – since the beginning of time; since the beginning of what we have come to call culture and our collection and conservation of it, and most likely long before any of that too.
So, let’s be brave enough to incorporate stories joyously into our lessons – let’s not be hindered by fear and ignorance as to what stories might contain (especially when viewed through a context-twisting, ideologically deranged and dangerously misaligned benevolent contemporary lens), but rather focus on the engagement, language, curiosity, and even the sense of wonder and connection that stories can generate in our classrooms and instil within the people present there. We should embrace these stories, pay homage to them, milk them for all their worth; an invaluable shared heritage that should never be forgotten – and most certainly mustn’t be confined to the solipsistic madness of an Instagram or TikTok “story”, the hell that is the mobile phone (“…the cell phone is the pool that the narcissist drowns in.” to quote Dr Peterson; feel free to conclude the rest of this paragraph in Dr Peterson’s epic Kermit-like voice – with an elongated emphasis on the final “that”), or likewise reduced to the tyranny of testing in our classrooms – and most definitely not relegated to simply being ignored thanks to some kind of pathetic made-up anathema which is symptomatic of the infantilization of our everything nowadays. Some storytelling legacy that.
Allowing ourselves to be taken away by a story and the storyteller, to experience new thoughts and feelings and to create imagery deep inside us, is just as beneficial, if not as divine, as anything else we do on this planet. Stories make us, define us, and can change us too. The Republic, The Holy Bible, On the Origin of Species, The Alchemist, The Watchmen, The Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, and Silent Spring (amongst so many other storytellers: Saramago, David Lynch, Rowling, Primo Levi, Kubrick, Tolkien, Abigail Shrier, Fellini, Orwell, Alan Moore, Bergman, Joyce, Hitchcock, Nabokov etc., etc.) have all contributed to how we think or at least challenged the way we view the world we live in, especially the West in this case. To Kill a Mockingbird didn’t just change the way people thought – it changed the way they felt.
The German fairy tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarves isn’t simply a cute story about pretty girls and dwarves (my word, that sounds weird!) it teaches us the powerful and necessary story of the death of childhood – the death of innocence – the often harsh reality that is the blossoming of the female, and how an excessive self-awareness of one’s own natural beauty can actually be harmful. Jack and the Beanstalk isn’t just about the sin of greed and attempting to become rich through theft due to a lack of a father figure being around, it’s about the mother – or archetypical Female – as the liberator, the eternal saviour (just as, conversely, Rapunzel could be seen as a tale of the female – or the archetypical Mother – as the overprotective oppressor); all apparently simple fables about the anything-but-simple power of transformation.
The wonderfully surreal tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight isn’t simply a hallucinatory psychedelic escapism (although it may at first appear to be – just as so many “dated” fables initially feel to us when we take them at face value), it is the creative interpretation and symbolic manifestation of our ancient and profound relationship with adapting to the seasons – and recognising the changes in them and the hardships and hope they bring with them; the seemingly bizarre challenge in the story (spoiler alert!) of ‘taking a blow’ – ‘cutting off’ the Knight’s head (a challenge set exactly on the Winter solstice) that does not actually kill him – is nothing but pure symbolism: the transitional end of one moment and the beginning of the next, to inaugurate the new year cycle essentially – all nestled within an engaging and easily remembered narrative; as Josh Robinson in his 2023 essay about the Green Man in folklore puts it “…the notion that within the annihilation of one phase emerges the genesis of another, an eternal cycle of death and rebirth.” – which, of course, is one of the oldest and most deeply rooted of archetypes for humanity. It is anything but gratuitous “toxic male” violence, or the oppression of silently screaming flora for that matter. What’s more, Sir Gawain’s integrity and loyalty – just as his refusal to be tempted by the pleasures of the flesh – should also be self-explanatory within not only the context of that story, but in the still very relevant message it subtly lays out before us today. The potential for learning is there if we look for it – if we get out of our own way and allow our learners to engage, interact, and build a deeper relationship with such traditional storytelling material. Bravery isn’t always foolhardiness; it could signify the death of one type of teacher and the birth of another.
"After nourishment, shelter, and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world."
The Scorpion and the Frog isn’t just about how apparently deceitful and ignorant a scorpion is – or how wrong it is to trust another soul – it simply reminds us of the irresistible and often harmful instincts that reside in all things. In the Grimm’s The Frog Prince, the point of the story lies not in the delusional thinking that frogs could be possible mates for gullible princesses – no, its true meaning lies in the necessity of keeping promises – even those with intolerable consequences (call me old-fashioned, unromantic – or even slightly sadistic, but I prefer the original tale where she hurls the frog against the wall instead of kissing him! The evidently not-too-prescient Grimms didn’t manage to foresee any issues with “toxic femininity” and left this aspect in their original version; should we now be calling them misogynistic for that? Were they obviously slaves to the patriarchy by leaving such violence untouched in their collection as a way to continually undermine the female? Should we really have to start burning their books and denouncing the writers with distaste and an anachronistic alacrity?). By adding in the importance of observing prohibitions and respecting traditions, being faithful, and the need for integrity (once again) into this kind of story, we can then start to understand why such seemingly puerile stories actually contain such universally appealing traits for all of us (often on a subliminal level); these tropes, morals, and beliefs are all deeply and inescapably rooted in our folkloristic anima. We are the stories we seek to forever tell.
The Crucifixion of Christ isn’t just a tale of how mean the Romans were – although, there are fewer deaths as nasty as that – it is the ultimate multifaceted tale of the incarnation of sacrificial love, forgiveness, redemption, and salvation, (as well as the necessary reminder of Evil at its absolute worst that we must constantly face and acknowledge to then be able to transcend). Such is the enduring power, fascination, and transformative quality of our stories – which can be seen/felt through the many religious, Biblical, shamanistic and prehistoric tales that have managed to survive with us up to and into the present. The intriguing malleable nature of how these stories evolve, morph, and continue to move through time with us just goes to show the unquenchable, universal, and archetypical nature they seem to possess and that we seem to be unable to live without.
Just look at the lovely The Three Little Pigs which isn’t just about the durability of bricks but more about the duality of work and play and the ups and downs of both; it’s also about the contrast between laziness and diligence, the roles that independence, perseverance, and responsibility all play in our lives, let alone the power of collaboration; stuff that children need to learn and that, as adults, we always need to remember. But let’s not use it, it’s offensive and derogatory towards pink pigs (and excludes the many other types of equally valid pretty pigs and bold wild boars too – not to mention the undervalued glory of their hybridization), or because it portrays women (single parents) in such a bad light. Or perhaps, since writing this, red bricks have now come to be seen as symbolic building blocks of Western privilege – or our current attempt to rebuild a new Tower of Babel or some such (more like a ‘tower of momentary Babbling’). In a world where simple words can apparently and irrationally equate to violence and microaggressions, perhaps it is time to vehemently and unashamedly reclaim these words and stories from the precipice of such absurdity. “And we’ll huff, and we’ll puff…” Oh, please, enough already.
“Books may be burned, accounts may be demonetized, mouths may be sealed, but stories can’t be stopped.”
All our stories are so wonderfully caressed by the reminiscences of our past; things that are so deep, undeniable, and eternally relevant it would seem (and something that the infantilism of our morally immature society would do well to remember and take heed of). Our stories, at first glance or first hearing, may seem to slip under the collective awareness radar; but their true nature and meanings remain resolute and unwavering if we give them a chance, and if we are willing and open enough to unpack those meanings. We could never really be rid of them – as much as we try to doctor and censor them or label and tar them with current fears and trendy virtue-signalling ideologies, the truth will always shine through. Books may be burned, accounts may be demonetized, mouths may be sealed, but stories can’t be stopped.
Pretty soon, there may come a day when we realise that dark matter is nothing but the invisible gossamer threads of consciousness – or the celestial strings of The Cosmic Man, or Brahma, or Pangu or something as yet undiscovered – that weaves throughout the universe connecting all time and space and life with the Universal Principal of storytelling. Until that day comes when we eventually see that this vast living cosmos-spanning mycelium network is nothing but the very stories of the Universe interwoven within itself, it appears that we’ll just have to persevere with the stories we do have right here and right now – whether they are evidence of our unique brilliance within the noosphere or just manifestations of our collective delirium within the cold heart of the Matrix; the beauty of those stories is no less diminished or falsified by either hypothesis.
We need to be courageous and to welcome stories (back) as a perfectly valid classroom resource; it is our duty to keep them alive and to hopefully stop this incessant bickering, this crippling feeling of endlessly walking on eggshells when it comes to using stories in our classrooms – however wonderfully rainbow painted on Friday’s arts and crafts workshop those eggshells are. We should be mindful not to fall out of love with the only stories we have – and certainly not the ones that came before, and most definitely not the ones yet to come. And even though we’ll all soon be begging for the arbiters of reality when it comes to the AI-generated everything that looms on the horizon, I’m still pretty sure that that same AI will never be able to sublimate or repress our innate need to create deep archetypal stories – however slick and shiny its own writing may soon appear to be or how perverse our not-so-reluctant acquiescence to it may well become. The music of the spheres will always find a way to manifest itself. We have to believe in that – that silent majesty, that deeper underlying entrainment - that often invisible constant with its meanings and truth running through all things. To paraphrase (or ‘distort’ might be more appropriate) a quote by G. Mahler: “Our stories and storytelling should not be the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”
“We read the myths of the ancient Greeks or the folk stories of American Indians, but we fail to see any connection between them and our attitudes to the “heroes” or dramatic events of today. Yet the connections are there. And the symbols that represent them have not lost their relevance for mankind.” (Jung, 1964, p74)
And, above all, perhaps it is time to start a new chapter – an epiphany even – in the multifaceted stories of our TESOL teaching pedagogies and experiences. It is time to (re)tune in to the ancient art of storytelling, to let stories feature more dominantly in our classrooms, to let them inspire and teach, to allow them to settle gently but firmly upon the minds of the listeners, to let stories be created and then allowed to blossom once again, just as they have always done, unavoidably, everywhere else in our lives and throughout our own brief but magnificent histories.
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Story Telling Today: Part 2
Bink Venery, UK and Italy