At the chalkface: Once upon a time…

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Most pupils knew a story – folk tales, cautionary tales, moral fables, shaggy dog stories, dreadful jokes, personal anecdotes and fabulous lies. The least literate were often the most articulate.

I’ve just become a granddad. Hurrah for me – but isn’t this rather outside the parameters of this column? Perhaps, but it does prompt some pedagogical speculation. As I gaze at the swaddled blob, lost deeply in the land of Nod, I wonder how long she’s got before some clot wants to measure her or visit on her tiny person some drear, improving schemes. Do they even now lurk over the Mose’s Basket, like those horrid bats in Goya’s Sleep of Reason? Avaunt!

In the meantime – say, for five years – couldn’t we just have larking about and storytelling? The best education a child can get – especially storytelling. Any teacher knows this – Philip Pullman, for example. “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” 

Indeed. When I used to meet all those anguished, tearful adults on parents’ evenings, I wanted to ask them just one question: “Why didn’t you tell your babies more stories?”

It beats everything. I can still recall my primary school teacher, the divine Miss Weston, telling us tots tales of Hades and the River Styx and Orpheus and Eurydice. 

What else did we ever need to know? It should be the same at Big School. I used to have a storytelling class once a week. You just ditch the syllabus. The only target was pleasure. It wasn’t compulsory, but was competitive fun. The classroom became like Chaucer’s “Tabard” pub in the Canterbury Tales. 

Most pupils knew a story – folk tales, cautionary tales, moral fables, shaggy dog stories, dreadful jokes, personal anecdotes and fabulous lies. The least literate were often the most articulate. The more illustrious villains could spin the most shameless yarns. They had PHDs in Inspired Fibbing. They’d been doing it all their lives, composing elaborate fictions about innocence, missing homework – or lateness. 

My goodness, their 52 bus could be beset by hilarious delays – acts of God, explosions, the odd dragon, engine failure or “drivers losing their way, sir”. 

Ho! Ho! And I’ve never quite recovered from a tale of horror from 10th year Amy Supple, Beautician and Nail Technician from Shepherd’s Bush, which consigned Sweeny Todd to the nursery. Pliers. Short, Back and Throat. You don’t want to know. I used to fall back on the Greeks, when it was my turn – the Sphinx, Narcissus, Icarus, Pandora’s Box. You can’t go wrong. The killer was variations on Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale! It never fails. It’s all you need to know. Greed kills.

My pupils didn’t always listen. They sometimes voted me off. But my grandchild can’t. She’s lost in golden slumbers. No matter. “Once upon a time...”

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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