A tale of two stories

10th December 2004 at 00:00
Truth or fiction? It doesn't matter, says John Clarke- what's important is the telling

There's a class without a teacher and no work set. Thankfully, this is a rare call in teaching, but when it does happen, the teacher who is summoned to ride to the rescue must be equipped with that most valuable of tools in the teaching kit bag: the ability to extemporise.

It happened to me recently, when a Year 7 class was left without a teacher after a minor emergency. Without a worksheet to hand, or a clue about what the class had been doing, I decided to tell the pupils two stories about why I was late for school that morning. The first, rather prosaically, involved the failure of a radio alarm, a missing briefcase and a car that refused to start.

The second story, more excitingly, involved my being plucked from the pavement by the claws of a giant eagle. Things looked bleak as I was swept up into the sky and the people and cars below became miniaturised. At least they looked bleak until the eagle suddenly released me and I plummeted earthwards to land safely on the back of a hay wagon that, fortunately, was passing the school gates. So, only slightly bedraggled and only 10 minutes late, I made it.

Which of these two stories is true? I asked the class. They had no hesitation in opting for the first, although they all preferred listening to the second. Stories, then, are useful for explanations, and very useful for entertainment. But as a learning tool?

I have to admit that telling these stories wasn't entirely spontaneous.

They are a kind of homage to Mr Farthing's fact and fiction lesson in Barry Hines's A Kestrel for a Knave (on which the film Kes was based). I had been thinking about the place of storytelling in the curriculum since a GCSE class on writing autobiographies had wallowed nostalgically in the memory of story time on the carpet in infant school. Was that really their favourite memory of early years education? I thought back to the inspirational teacher I had in what would now be called Year 3.

Mrs Proctor read us lots of stories and encouraged us to write them as well; we were happy to do so because, afterwards, we knew there was the possibility of having our story read aloud, or displayed or even taken next door to be read to the class there.

Story time was one of the most exciting times of the week, matched only by Friday afternoon, when the classroom was set out for painting, or the days when we walked up to the school field for games. Stories, art and games involve active participation, expression and imagination, all vital cogs in the curriculum.

But, disturbingly, there have been reports of the national literacy strategy neglecting the role of stories and subsequently failing to improve pupils' writing skills. Set against that, there have been many calls for stories, and not just fragments of texts, to be restored centrally to children's educational experience. One author, Philip Pullman, has urged teachers to tell stories, Another, Gervase Phinn, encourages the "dipping of pupils into a pool of language" and while dead, white, male poets may not carry much credence these days, Ted Hughes regarded stories as "huge charges of reality" that illuminate us and give us energy.

Stories act as touchstones upon our lives. Whole areas of experience are presented through them, whether as soap opera plots or the reporting of celebrity fairytale lifestyles. Consequently, our pupils would benefit enormously from being active participants in their creation and consumption.

What do we learn from Isaac Newton and the incident of the apple? Why was Guy Fawkes involved with a gunpowder plot? Why did Icarus fall into the sea? What can we learn when we share with classmates the story of our first day at school? Stories are a precious possession and, like Prometheus, we should steal this particular fire from the gods.

Incidentally, although many pupils asked about my journey to school on subsequent days, I wasn't late on the mornings in question. Both stories were "made up". It's how I teach the manipulation of narrative perspective and how I tick that particular learning objective box with a clear conscience.

John Clarke is director of language, Swinton community school, South Yorkshire

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