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.



Teaching as Storytelling (4): Clay Daffodils

ImageKen Robinson has a great story about a school inspector going round a school somewhere in England or possibly Wales, and finding that in every subject the students were studying daffodils. In Biology they were looking at bulb germination, in English they were reading Wordsworth, in Art they were drawing and making daffodils. The inspector goes up to a small boy who is poking at a gnarled, yellow- tinged excrescence of flaking clay. ‘What’s that?’ he asks. ‘Please, sir,’ says the boy, ‘it’s a daffodil.’ ‘Oh,’ says the inspector. ‘Very nice. And do you like daffodils?’ ‘Please, sir,’ says the boy, ‘I’m sick to death of the bloody things.’

A colleague of mine at a very good English independent school – the Head of History, and a respected historian and author – once said to me, ‘The trouble with your subject [ie ‘English’] is that it doesn’t have a discipline.’

I didn’t argue with him – and wasn’t quick enough to take a pop back at his own discipline. ‘Well, Nick,’ I could have quipped. ‘history is bunk, as someone once said!’

I didn’t, because he had a point – more than a point, he was spot-on. The problem facing the high school literature teacher is that there isn’t really any agreed equivalent of the scientific method to be imparted. Instead, there are all kinds of competing schools, new paradigms touted every generation, a jungle of fads and factions with no deep roots. Among these, we have (apparently) found no dominating theory, no over-arching narrative about narrative to use or push against. We don’t have a paradigm, we have a wilderness of mirrors. And so we have more or less declared high school English/ Language A classrooms a theory-free zone. We are not aware of a theoretical basis for what we do, and in as far as one exists at all, it is a wishy-washy pre-structuralist mish-mash which is at least 50 years out of date and has only survived, like some hospital-dwelling superbug, in schools. Put it under the microscope, and what do you see?

Clay daffodils.


OK, you might say – here’s a theory –

My English class is about learning to write well. It’s about recognizing good writing and learning from it. Everything we read and discuss serves as example and as stimulus for good writing. We learn to read well in order to write well.”

It’s not a bad model.


here’s the problem. It doesn’t support inquiry. 

In English classes we have a lop-sided situation where there’s a strong, fresh educational theory (constructivism) which is effective and adaptable, but we don’t have the literary theory to match it and to enable meaningful inquiry into the subject.

Is our inquiry always to be – what does this text teach us about good writing? Is it to be – is Juliet too young to get married? Is it to be – why don’t we write the chapters that the author decided for very good reasons not to write?

The result of the problem is the inflow of dross to fill the vacuum. The confusion about literary criticism. The alarmingly narrow technical base. The shallow politicization of the subject.

The result of that is in turn the loss of engagement across a broad band of students – the more logically minded, or epistemologically-minded, who find the subject empty for them. The technical and scientific types, who don’t understand what they’re supposed to be inquiring into. Many of the boys, in fact.

We escape the theoretical vacuum by shooting off in other directions, embracing the refuge of other subjects in which we might have little training but which still feel somehow more solid than our own. In my first international school, I encountered a Language A (English) MYP curriculum which seemed to have been designed entirely to support the Humanities curriculum. In the name of inter-disciplinary study of course. Everything we read in English served to illustrate a historical experience. Of Mice and Men when they were learning about the great Depression. A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch when they were doing the Cold War. Easy to justify from the Humanities side – but from the literature side the overwhelming lesson seemed to be that literature can tell us what history felt like.

Or else it’s all about ethics, concern, identity politics and wedge issues.

At its lowest level, of course, it’s about maps, or anything we can put on display. Let’s make a diorama of the inside of Macbeth’s head, shall we? Let’s make it out of cardboard!

I would love to know – how many English teachers have had their class draw maps or even make papier-mache models of the island in Lord of the Flies?

I’m sorry, but that’s a clay daffodil.

Have you ever used Of Mice and Men to have a class debate about the ethics of euthanasia?

Even that – clay daffodil. Sorry. 

Teaching as Storytelling (3): Plot Dynamics

Can you become a rich and famous writer if you’re not much good at writing?

Yes, of course you can – it happens all the time! There are always highly successful popular novelists around who can’t write to save their lives. But they can use plot dynamics.

The dynamics of plotting are the four primary emotional states writers and storytellers of all kinds try to induce. Within these, a lifetime of emotions can be aroused. But first, the writer must be able to induce these four dynamic states:





Expectation means engagement, curiosity, uncertainty, the driving force of all narrative. Wanting to know. In a state of expectation we cannot help ourselves from making predictions and hypotheses – imagining the future. We are full of questions: what’s going to happen? Why did what just happened happen? Even in a less plot-driven narrative, we have doubts and questions about why the author is telling us this at all. Why is this significant? Why is it interesting?

If we seek to define the term ‘story’, we have to say that it is not just a sequence of events. There has to be something about the sequence of events that makes it worthy of narration. It can’t be ‘The alarm clock woke me up, so I got up and came to work. I worked all day and then I went home, ate, watched TV and went to bed.’ That’s a sequence of events, but it’s not a story. (It’s not even a life!)

To earn the title of ‘story’, a sequence of events must be worth telling, and to be worth telling it must involve a change of state. So if you got fired at work, OK, that’s a story. Or fell in love, even. Or murdered your boss, whatever. But first and foremost the storyteller must passionately commit to the story-worthiness of the story. Its narrativity, to use the jargon.

Even if the story starts in the most mundane possible way, there is a contract that the author must fulfill, an expectation that if I stick with this, I will… be made to laugh / cry / find out / understand / be amazed / amused/ horrified.

However, these expectations must not be met too quickly. All linear art – music, narrative – works by arousing and satisfying expectations. But – such works must exist in time. They have to take time to unfold, and during that time the audience must be in suspense, the experience of an as yet unfulfilled expectation.

The storyteller delays. A storyteller slows down, just when you’re desperate to know. A teacher must be prepared to wait.

A teacher waits… have you ever done that, without telling them what you want, just wait to see what the students will give you? Wait to see how long it takes them to realize that what you want is questions.

Which you should quite probably refuse to answer.

Teaching as Storytelling (2) Gap Theory


On the eve of publication of The Great Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald removed more than thirty pages from the novel. This was at the ‘galley’ stage, when the author is sent proofs to check for errors before printing proceeds.

The pages Fitzgerald struck out consisted mainly of Gatsby talking to Nick about himself. By taking them out, the novelist created a gap in his narrative, posed the question implied in the title, and preserved the mystery surrounding his central character, the millionaire socialite who does not attend the parties he throws. It is this man-shaped gap which has driven the fame of his masterpiece in the 88 years since its publication.

As in narrative, so in inquiry – it is the gaps which drive engagement. The gaps are where the imagination plays. Reading is a creative activity; narrating a collaboration between storyteller and listener.

But you can’t have a gap by itself, of course. It has to be a gap in something. Through the outsider Nick Carraway, we observe Gatsby staring at the green light across the bay. We hear his party guests swapping wild rumours about him, we learn of their fascination with this gentleman thug, we wonder why he doesn’t attend his own parties…. a little later we hear his fantastical life-story from his own lips and don’t believe a word of it.

At the last moment, Fitzgerald decided to leave it like that. And so Jay Gatsby remained a living, breathing contradiction, and became immortal.

To create the space for inquiry, you need to plot your curriculum. The word ‘plot’, by the way, is not synonymous with ‘story’. It means the way the story is told – its narrative structure – what we learn in what order, and how – and when (if ever). A storyteller never tells the whole story. As a storyteller it’s good to leave out the boring bits – but leaving out the most interesting bits is sometimes a stroke of genius. 


Teaching as storytelling (3): Gap Theory originally appeared in Time Space Education http://timespaceeducation.wordpress.com/2013/09/10/teaching-as-storytelling-3-gap-theory-2

Teaching as storytelling (1): Time and Space

7425065830_070b33c8b8_cTime and space are the dimensions we live in.

As a literature teacher, my field is narrative, and I point out to my students that all stories must take place in time and space, just as our lives do. A story is not a photograph, but a movie. Narrative is a linear form: it takes time to tell a story, and time within the story must also elapse, though not at the same rate that it passes outside of the story. Likewise, a story must occur in space – it is very difficult to imagine a story that does not have a setting of some kind, that does not take place somewhere. That place is the stage for the story, the performance space the characters will occupy.

All of that is rather obvious, of course, but it points us to the most fundamental questions the storyteller has to engage with. How will I handle time in telling this story? And how will I create space?


In formulating these two questions, I’m not sure I have the verbs right. The idea of ‘handling’ time for instance – is it possible to touch time with your hands? Isn’t that a bit like putting your hands in water and saying that you’re ‘handling’ the water? To handle implies being able to encompass and direct something with your hands – money, for instance, or food. Is it a bit arrogant to speak of ‘handling’ time? And ‘creating’ space?

But the storyteller – the novelist, the film-maker, the poet, the graphic novelist – must do exactly that: create worlds, populate them, fold and unfold sequences of events within them. If your narrative fails to create an imagined space – a storyworld – which the reader can enter, it will be just words on a page, not a world they can enter.

And if that space is not filled with the invisible, dynamic flows of time, your audience will not be engaged.


Is teaching a kind of storytelling?

Yes! And I mean that not metaphorically but quite literally. Teaching isn’t like storytelling – it is storytelling.

If your students look forward to your class, they do so for the same reasons that they look forward to the next installment of a story. (Something might happen in the class which will carry the plot forward. Or not!)

The idea of a course as a narrative and the teacher as a narrator is not just a fancy metaphor. The parallel can have a profound, empowering and literal truth for a teacher, and I’d like to expand on the idea in future posts. If as a teacher you accept that you are a storyteller, not a social engineer, a programmer or a bureaucrat, suddenly there is a great deal you can learn from the art of narrative.

I suppose the first thing to learn is that what you are doing is as full of creative possibilities and challenges as telling a story, whether in the form of a novel, a film, a comic-book, or any of the myriad other forms of narrative. And the first of these possibilities and challenges are:

How will I handle time?

How will I create space?

This post originally appeared in Time Space Education