“Let me tell you a story.” Cover lessons in my primary school would often begin that way. The headteacher presumably had a system for tracking his way through the volumes of magical tales and fables that he brought with him whenever our teacher was poorly. We would sit cross-legged, entranced.
This year the annual hand-wringing over our Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings has been overshadowed by hand-wringing over our projected Pisa rankings. In case you missed it, we’re expecting a fall in literacy. Speaking as a GCSE English resit teacher, who has to endure his beloved paid hobby of talking about stories with young people being described in all seriousness as “torture” or “soul destroying”, I can’t imagine why.
“Let me tell you a story.” Those six words were also the focus of a training session, run by comedian Moj Taylor, which I attended a while back. It was about motivating learners and it highlighted the power that sharing a personal narrative can have in engaging those who would otherwise show no interest. Utter the magic words and suddenly conversations stop, phones are temporarily forgotten, and that student on the back row subtly slips his headphones out. Just for a second… but it’s a foothold. Let me be clear; this was not a training session for English teachers. It was for teachers of all subjects, recognising the universally arresting nature of stories.
Yet the future of post-16 English, especially for economically disadvantaged students whose inequitable prior provision generally precludes them from A-level literature, looks to be increasingly limited to utilitarian functionalism. Stories are deemed an unnecessary distraction for the working class. This is ostensibly justified by the more pressing need for these students to be able to Blu-tack a syntactically correct notice above their retail till or to be able to comprehend a future eviction notice when their landlord decides to cash in his property portfolio.
Policymakers did not achieve their own literacy through functional English. Their childhoods were rich in stories. They had them read enthusiastically by highly literate parents who weren’t exhausted from working multiple jobs. Their shelves were lined with novels and they saw adults modelling reading around them. Their childhood friends were the Hardy boys, the Kirrin children, and the March sisters. But the now-adult policymakers show no hesitation in denying that joy and hope to children growing up in more-challenging conditions than they ever faced.
If anyone really cares about pulling out of our nosedive through the Pisa literacy rankings, then stories need to be embraced as our strongest possible ally for hooking students on reading and writing. Narratives are primal. There’d be no telling video-game designers or music-video directors or TV advertisers or whoever it is that puts together the manipulative back-story montages for the X Factor and its ilk, that stories are irrelevant.
Last week I pointed warningly at the phone I could see one of my learners using under her table. I was met with the anguished response that she was reading something. I prepared myself to deliver my best, most sardonic “Facebook doesn’t count” line, but there was something unusually defiant and vulnerable in her look.
“What is it?” I asked quietly, instead.
There followed an exchange that was made more confusing by the combination of my poor hearing and my certainty that I’ve heard everything before and can’t be taken by surprise.
“It’s Wattpad,” she said.
“No! Wattpad! W-A-T-T-P-A-D.”
It turns out that she obsessively reads fan fiction through this app that I hadn’t previously heard of. I had a quick nose and have to admit that the quality was as good as much that is conventionally published.
“It’s my own little bubble,” she explained. “I love it.”
“She messages me about it in the middle of the night,” complained a friend.
It would be easy to dismiss this as a rare exception, except that a few days later and 400 miles away, I stumbled upon the same thing again: this week I’ve had the privilege of visiting the partner colleges in my project Write On, generously funded by education charity SHINE. Chatting with English resit learners in one class, whose focus and confidence spoke volumes about the high-quality teaching they were benefiting from, I asked if they read much outside of college.
The student right next to me broke into an eager smile. “There’s this app…”
At another partner college, a GCSE English teacher kindly let me loose with her classes of level 1 and 2 construction and engineering students, running a collaborative storytelling game. It was the most fun I’ve had in ages and, judging by their non-stop laughter and highly creative responses, they had a pretty good time, too. The moment when one student’s character took down five werewolves with one bullet, or when a quieter student cleverly inferred the significance of a silver pendant, demonstrated why we should never doubt young people’s ability to create and understand stories. We even had a full, redemptive character arc when heartless bad-boy “Stevie” turned his raft around and paddled back to save his friends.
Thanks to SHINE supporting extra capacity and resources, I feel equipped to go the extra mile in ensuring that students have every chance to embrace stories as consumers and creators. I am absolutely certain it will do more for our Pisa score than surrendering our disadvantaged learners to cold functionalism ever will.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in an FE college. He is an ambassador for education charity SHINE
SHINE’s Let Teachers Shine competition offers up to £15,000 to teachers who have brilliant ideas to help disadvantaged children succeed in English, maths or science