Teaching as Storytelling (5): What happens

So, if teaching is like storytelling, first you must commit passionately to the storyworthiness of the story, and thus arouse expectation, engagement, curiosity. These dynamic states must be resolved, to a degree, but it must not happen too quickly, or where’s the story?

Out of this tension emerges the second emotion – suspense. Suspense is an open state, and at the moment and degree of your choosing you must give (or allow) (at least partial) closure. But you must not do so in quite the way your reader expects, or ultimately you will disappoint. (A nice irony and a Wildean motto for living: to fulfill expectations exactly is indeed to disappoint).

As in narrative so in inquiry. First you must excite and engage, then make them wait. You must provoke questions and then not answer them. Or not all of them. Sometimes your answer might be ‘I don’t know’. And sometimes, ‘I’m not going to tell you.’

This of course only works if you have already established yourself as someone who does know and can tell – your ethos as a storyteller, in other words.

When I talk to Year 10 students about what’s coming up, I tell them that at such and such a point in the course – usually around the beginning of the second semester – there’s a gap in the curriculum, and I don’t know what we will be doing at that point. It all depends, I tell them, on what happens between now and then.

The use of the word ‘happens’ to describe the work of a class is a little surprising. What could ‘happen’ in a literature class? Why doesn’t the teacher know what’s going to happen?

I tell them that I don’t know what will fill the gap, and I don’t even know how long the gap will stay open. All of that depends. (Of course it depends on student engagement, student thinking, student questions, the quality of the work we are doing. It depends, possibly, on what happens in the world of popular narrative. And what fills the gap – I don’t need to tell you – is arising inquiry; mutual, open-ended inquiry.)

Last year the gap, once it opened, stayed open for the rest of the year. Within it, students compared stories from widely differing points in time and space, history and culture, looking for archetypal structures and variations within them. They chose their reading, and wrote on individually-originated questions – authentic questions arising out of their own identities and personal attractions.

One girl wrote about beautiful monsters – in Bram Stoker and Ann Rice. Another deconstructed Nabokov’s Lolita (and yes, she read every word), comparing it with Frankenstein and The Great Gatsby. Another wondered what happens when the antagonist is part of the same being as the protagonist, and this led to a penetrating analysis of doppelgänger stories by Edgar Allen Poe, R L Stevenson and Chuck Palahniuk. One boy wanted to compare the mental states of travelers returning from traumatic adventures in other worlds or realities, focusing on Gullivers’ Travels and Life of Pi. Another put The Hunger Games alongside the Ramayana, to find out what qualities identify the hero and allow him – or her – to succeed.

In previous years we have had group and/or whole class inquiries comparing structures in Beowulf and ALIEN, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Avatar.

Now this sounds all very well and good, jolly interesting, very impressive, etc. But the question is – Why? Is there some kind of theory behind all these bizarre combinations of texts (quite a few of which seem to be popular movies)? Is there some kind of coherent approach in evidence here, or is it ultimately just another (albeit quite elaborate and bright yellow) great big clay daffodil?

That’s what I want to get on to in my next post and new thread, about theory and inquiry in English (Language A) classrooms.

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Author: Paul Dunbar

I have worked in international schools for the past 15 years, teaching English Literature and Theory of Knowledge in Amsterdam, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City. I'm also a musician, and a bit of a writer. Since 2001 I have come to question literally everything, the default position for an uncrippled epistemologist.

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