Stories for Thinking is a book full of tales for telling. It contains some 30 stories related in a strong direct voice in uncluttered prose and sentences that are generally short and easy to read out loud. The inevitable lack of colour in this style, particularly apparent if the stories are used straight from the page, is compensated for by the ample scope for extemporary embellishment and idiosyncratic interpretation that it leaves.
What binds the selection together is a common thread in the content that stimulates reflection on important themes such as death, truth, and time. The stories are classified according to country of origin as well as to theme, the latter classification being more arbitrary than the former. Korean, Zambian and Welsh tales co-exist here (England contributes "Marie Celeste", "Catherine Howard", and a folktale about a shoe), but whether the story of Gelert stimulates reflection about anger or remorse, or whether William Tell encourages you to focus on courage rather than freedom is a moot point.
Alongside the stories themselves comes advice on reading them, about asking appropriate questions and on setting rules for group discussion. There are two key questions: one encourages reflection on the facts ("Who was Pandora?"), the other relates to the chosen theme ("Does hoping for things to happen help make them happen?").
All this cerebral activity is aimed at creating what the author refers to as a "community of enquiry". If you want to milk the stories further and set follow-up tasks, there is a list of activities (act, mime, write, draw,etc) to accompany each chapter. Classwork apart, these stories constitute excellent assembly material and although I have yet to use them all for this purpose, so far I have not been disappointed.
Geared perhaps more overtly to the assembly market, Performance Poems provides teaching notes on how to develop discussion on the fundamental issues raised in the anthology (for instance "good versus evil" and the "unknown"); ideas on how to present the poems; and some religious thoughts.Each chapter closes with a "thoughtful moment" and an equally thoughtful paragraph on direct religious links.
Even so, this never becomes a ponderous or wearisomely serious book because the presentation is lively and the treatment light. In the company of poets such as Peter Dixon ("Happy Dogday"), John Rice ("Leisure Centre, Pleasure Centre") and Brian Moses ("Rat Rap"), Walter de la Mare ("The Listeners") rates as the heavy.
Whatever their qualitative weaknesses, the poems do have zap (a number rap) and are clearly fun to perform, which, of course, is the point of the book. Ideas for using background music or hoof beats, visual effects or special lighting, jostle with one another for your attention. This is a book for teachers with a "go for it!" approach, for those who can instantly see the performance potential in Ian Souter's:
munch, crunch, clickety,
whirr, gurr, bong, bang,
Grr, whishity, zip-zap,
listen to the machines, listen to
or Paul Cookson's:
Sitting on my potty with my finger
up my nose
and my nappy on my head.
There are one or two ear-catching pieces here, the gentle "Morning has decorated the park", for example, or the comic "Not the dreaded photo album!", but this is essentially a book for the sound bite generation that exudes a determination to grab one's attention very quickly. Perhaps it is a question of taste, but I felt that many of the poems relied too much on a monotonous thumping beat and, in spite of the religious follow-up, had a superficiality that sold the reader short. Short beat, short line, short thoughts.
Paul Noble is head of St Andrew Church of England primary school, Blunsdon, Wiltshire