Telling Stories

11 Feb

It is tempting to think that the storyteller has all the power, that we tell or author or construct or manufacture stories.  It is tempting to think that this power is one directional.  Rebecca Solnit suggests that it is not:

“We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or hate, to see or be seen. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then become a story-teller.”

In essence, Solnit is suggesting that stories themselves are imbued with a particular power – a power that can illuminate and obscure, resurrect and rebury, ignite and deflate.  The power is that of persuasion, of emotion, of transformation and of transportation.  Yet, to merely recognise this power is insufficient.  Solnit suggests that we must become active listeners, critical listeners.  She suggests we must question and query and interrogate until, informed and empowered, we can then reimagine stories as our own, infusing new perspectives and new understandings.

It seems to me that these principles are vital for students to understand as part of the Narratives that Shape Our World module in Year 11 Advanced English.  Indeed, it seems that these principles offer a partial response – at least – to the imperative to recreate, revisit and reimagine the narratives that have come before.

 

Commandments

13 Jan

Animal Farm demonstrates, in part, the power of language to invite conformity and obedience.  Indeed, the animals are offered a series of commandments that are intended to guide (and later, normalise) behaviour.  I think it would be interesting to have students compare the commandments in Animal Farm (at any stage of the text) and the ten commandments of biblical fame, exploring the language to understand the linguistic power of the proclamations.  Then, as extension, students could craft their own set of commandments, perhaps ones that would be appropriate in a dystopian world of their own creation.

‘Animal Farm’ as Writing Stimulus

11 Jan

I recently read Margaret Atwood’s article entitled ‘Why Animal Farm Changed My Life‘ and was inspired by Atwood’s discussion of her perception of the gendered nature of dystopian fiction.  Using an extract of the article for stimulus, I want to invite students to reimagine and adapt Animal Farm for the modern day, offering a new perspective.  Hopefully, this will allow students to demonstrate knowledge of the conventions of dystopian fiction while also encouraging them to be creative and innovative in their own writing.

Understanding Voice

5 Jan

What does it mean to use one’s voice?

Why is one’s voice powerful?

How do we recognise our own voice or that of someone else?

 

The questions above are important ones for students to answer in the junior years as they move towards a senior syllabus that increasingly demands that they demonstrate a personal voice and perspective in their writing.

To encourage students to engage with these ideas I want to show them an extract from Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall, using it as stimulus for class discussion.

 

‘Do the other kids make fun of you? For how you talk?’

‘Sometimes.’

‘So why don’t you do something about it?  You could learn to talk differently, you know.’

‘But this is my voice.  How would you be able to tell when I was talking?’

 

 

Introduction to ‘Animal Farm’

3 Jan

I am about to teach George Orwell’s Animal Farm to a class that comprises a number of disengaged students.  With this in mind, I am keen to provide opportunities for students to participate in discussion and demonstrate knowledge of the text.

I recently happened upon a slide show in which students were provided with the opening of a cartoon strip about Animal Farm and encouraged to complete the cartoon strip as a means of demonstrating their knowledge of the first chapter of the novel.  I like this activity, but would probably elect to broaden it further.  For example, I might ask students to also identify key quotes for each panel of their cartoon strip.  I might also be inclined to ask students to reflect upon the different ways language (chosen quotations) and visual cause them to receive/understand/appreciate the ideas of Animal Farm.

How do we enter literary worlds?

9 Nov

The new Extension English HSC course requires students to engage with a common module entitled ‘Literary Worlds’.   One of the questions that I think students should consider is: How do we enter literary worlds?

In order to answer this question, I think it is important for students to engage with a range of texts, exploring how their introductions in particular constitute an invitation to responders to step outside their known universe and immerse themselves in someone else’s fictional creation.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for example, begins with the following lines:

“124 was spiteful.  Full of baby’s venom.  The women in the house knew it and so did the children.  For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims.”

Here, the invitation is made through the information missing and the questions which, like the occupying presence, demand to be heard and answered.

Isabel Allende’s ‘And of Clay Are We Created‘, in contrast, demands our involvement through the emotive and evocative imagery:

“They discovered the girl’s head protruding from the mudpit, eyes wide open, calling soundlessly.”

I think it could be helpful to students to engage with a range of literature, unpacking how these appeals are made (in the opening lines) and strengthened as the texts continue.

I also think students could find it interesting to explore how composers transition from one world to another within a text, changing setting or emotional state.  A text that would be interesting to look at in this regard is Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West.  In this text, doorways are literalised as pathways into new worlds, and metaphors of birth are leveraged to communicate the significance of these transitions.

Reading as a gateway to empathy and solidarity

9 Oct

There is an emphasis in the new senior English syllabus on why people read and how what we read helps us to better understand the world, human experiences, and ourselves.  With this in mind, I am thinking of asking my students to read ‘How to be a good man: what I learned from a month reading the feminist classics‘.  As suggested by the title, the article explores how the reading of feminist classics can help a man to demonstrate solidarity in the era of #metoo and also begin to better understand the complexity of women’s experiences.

I think it would be an interesting activity for students to craft their own list of texts that should be read if someone wishes to better understand a particular issue, idea or group.  I would be inclined to broaden the task out, allowing students to identify (and later read) novels, short stories and poetry.  I would also be inclined to ask students to read as many texts as they can, developing a system for evaluating what they have read in order to make meaningful recommendations.

How do narratives shape our world?

30 Aug

As part of the new year 11 Advanced module ‘Narratives that shape our world’ students need to explore how and why narratives matter.

When asked ‘How do narratives shape our world?’ my students flagged a number of interesting ideas:

  • Narratives offer a way of organising and understanding the complexity of human existence; structure, cause and effect, motivation and character allow us to relive and understand significant experiences.
  • Narratives offer windows into the worlds of others.  Here, narrative devices help to develop the reader’s empathy and compassion.
  • Narratives enable us to understand how universal human experiences are re-imagined across time and space.
  • Narratives prevent us from feeling alone; by being exposed to the experiences (fictional or otherwise) of others, the perception that someone is different, ‘other’, or isolated dissolves.

 

Peer into the List of Pairs

8 Aug

My list of textual pairings now offers over 210 combinations!  I have tried to craft the list so that it offers a mix between what schools might already have in the book room and texts that could be purchased to supplement existing stock.

Telling Stories

27 Jul

In the introduction to my Penguin Books edition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet the following quotation appears:

“The telling and retelling of stories is our main means for getting some insight into and control over our circumstances.”

It seems to me that sentence could be replicated exactly in an introduction to Othello.  Indeed, that text is preoccupied with the telling of stories.  In fact, it is through the telling of stories that Iago is able to consolidate his power over Othello and a range of other characters.

It would be interesting to see whether students studying the ‘Narratives that shape our world’ unit in Year 11 Advanced feel that this statement is an accurate representation of the purpose of storytelling.