At the chalkface: ‘Go on sir, tell us a story!’

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:
Ian Whitwham is a teacher of English, now retired, who spent many years working in the state school system of inner city London

Story-telling is just about the most important thing you can ever do in English. It cuts across class, language, culture and even literacy. Children always want to hear (or tell) a good story. They think they’re not really working. Well, they’re so wrong.

I am wandering down the Portobello when an alumna hails me.

She has recognised my dotard form.

“Hey! Story man! You were the story man.”

So long ago.

“The Three boys and Death.”

Ah, Chaucer. The Pardoner’s Tale. The best story ever told. A killer.

“Still remember it.”

We catch up on things. Lovely.

“Go on, sir. One more time...”

Story-telling is just about the most important thing you can ever do in English. It cuts across class, language, culture and even literacy. Children always want to hear (or tell) a good story. They think they’re not really working. Well, they’re so wrong.

We had story time every day in registration. All you need is silence, a sympathetic atmosphere and deep trust. If someone has the courage to tell her story, you shut up and listen. Attention must be paid. The classroom became Chaucer’s Tavern and I was the Host and we sat on cushions in a circle.

Their stories took many forms – straight narratives, elaborate jokes, shaggy dog tales, barely legal confessions. Sometimes in other languages, sometimes in Chinese whispers.

And personal reminiscence – their experience of war zones was extraordinary. We just sat rapt at tales of Beirut or Sarajevo for example.

And tales of the inner city always worked. “The ghosts in the pillars of Westway” was a humdinger.

Ditto “The Best Excuse for Being Late”. This prompted outrageous yarns of apocalyptic bus rides and “bats on the Northern line”.

Their stories were haunting, necessary, hilarious and even therapeutic. Some pupils were negotiating some very big demons. It was a bit like Alcoholics Anonymous. Sometimes we seemed to be saving lives. They might never be witnessed so indelibly again.

Sometimes I performed. I cultivated a repertoire of cheap tricks – tawdry histrionics, meretricious theatrics, lurid melodrama, penny dreadful suspense, silly voices, worse jokes and bad endings.

Sometimes pupils would finish the stories with their own alternate endings. They booed or stopped me if there were any longeurs or if I got tedious or dull – this is, after all, a form of lit crit.

I did all kinds – Greek myths, fairy tales, Franz Kafka, Shakespeare and personal anecdote. Narcissus and Pandora’s Box were never booed, but The Pardoner’s Tale was always the favourite. I must have told it a thousand times, embellished and embroidered for each individual group.

“Is it true sir?”

They were obsessed with this.

“Course it is.”

“Really, sir?”

“Course – all stories are true...”

Every pupil has a story to tell. Story time should be compulsory.

“Oh alright... once upon a time. There were three boys, horrible Chelsea fans as it happened...”

Never fails.

  • Ian Whitwham is a teacher of English, now retired, who spent many years working in the state school system of inner city London. He has written for SecEd since 2003. Read his most recent articles at http://bit.ly/2UIMd1O


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