Here is a wonderful look at story-telling from Andre Klein. This interview was set up as a supplementary backdrop to my upcoming ELT-T MOOC webinar, ‘The psychology of story-telling in ELT’.
Please read, enjoy, and answer my post-class question which I’ll post at the end of the article.
Image credit: Joe Ormonde Sheosamh
“If you don’t know the trees you may be lost in the forest, but if you don’t know the stories you may be lost in life. —Siberian Elder”
Danger and disclaimer
The wisdom and beauty of Andre Klein’s words will have you tossing coursebooks out of your school windows. I am in no way responsible for the ensuing subterfuge and Andre made sure to sign his own disclaimer before sharing his true feelings here;)
It may make you feel like a carefully sculpted character in a two-dimensional reality screaming to crack the marble and breathe anarchy into the status quo.
Most of all, though, you will just be carried away by these words and thoughts, as I was. When you can describe story-telling in hypnotically beautiful ways, then the ‘why’ of the story seem less important than the fact that it just ‘is’.
Stories are natural expressions of the human spirit. For me, the depth and spirit of education must spring from here.
As an Edupreneur, carving out my early niche in online teaching and tentatively marking out my own digital footprint online, I must say that the best thing I ever did was buy Andre Klein’s book, “A mindful guide to online living”.
Ever since then I have been reading his books, and we have been collaborating in one way or another. It was Andre who helped me to set up my website through his amazing blog and publications, and he certainly helped me to make the decision to start publishing my own work. I owe a lot to Andre Klein in many ways, as do other Edupreneurs who have benefited from his work.
In a way, I think that it’s fitting for freelance teachers working on the cutting edge of education to reach out to teachers everywhere. We have taken the risks, done the soul searching, and lived to tell the tale.
Thank you Andre Klein for the courage of your convictions and your own special brand of trail-blazing in ELT. Most especially, thanks for helping me to hitch up my own wagon and get out there on the pioneering trail of ELT publishing.
So, without further ado, Let the interview begin.
1) There are so many different approaches to teaching these days. What makes story-telling special as a way of reaching out to students?
There are indeed many ways to learn a language today, from working with online instructors to gamified apps and self-study software à la Duolingo and Rosetta Stone. And yet, a problem for many language learners (especially beginners and intermediates) is to find authentic learning materials.
The practice sentences and worksheets found in textbooks and online learning apps are designed to convey basic vocabulary and grammar structure. They work as advertised, and yet, they are often utterly devoid of cognitive and emotional relevance for the learner.
Similarly, the way most textbooks or courses work, is that colours are taught before shopping, or present tense before past tense. While it certainly can be helpful to isolate and magnify moving parts in order to improve one’s understanding, in everyday life, languages are rushing at us in an untamed hodge-podge of mixed grammar, vocabulary and dialects.
I believe that story-telling is one of the best ways to prepare learners for these encounters with free-ranging language. Why? First of all, a good story catches the attention of the reader or listener. Contrary to a functional sentence designed to hammer a particular topic into a student’s head, a story is a living and breathing reflection of the target tongue.
Secondly, stories allow us to bypass the surface features of a language (syntax, morphology, phonetics, etc.) and cut straight to the core of the communicated message. We often tend to forget that vocabulary and grammar are not an end in themselves but a means to communicate. Stories have the power to remind us why we’re learning a language in the first place: to express and be impressed.
Furthermore, stories are one of the most “sticky” forms of human expression. Every culture and language has myths, legends and stories which have been retold, remembered and re-imagined over the course of thousands of years.
Just as language learning apps tap into the addictive qualities of gamification, we can “exploit” the sticky qualities of story-telling in order to better commit words, phrases and expressions to memory. Since a good story evokes feelings and thoughts in the recipient, it’s much easier to remember and retrieve language-learning related elements because they are emotionally or imaginatively charged.
2) From all of the books you’ve published what has been the most inspiring student/teacher feedback?
I’ve received a lot of feedback about my German learning stories from both teachers and students. Of course I’m always happy to hear that people find these stories helpful, but I think one of the most memorable moments was when someone wrote that these stories helped him to “learn without noticing”. It’s the Trojan Horse aspect of language-learning through story-telling. You take a story into your head and heart, without noticing all the prickly and scary bits. And in the end, they don’t seem so scary anymore.
Also, I continuously hear from language teachers around the world that they’re using my books in their German classes, both in high schools and adult learning courses. It’s very surprising, because I neither work with big publishing houses, nor do I have any traditional media coverage. But I know from experience that if students are sometimes bored with learning materials, teachers are a hundred times more bored, having to go through the same exercises and texts myriads of times. Therefore, good teachers are always looking for new and refreshing course materials.
3) Do you think that writing is a ‘calling’, something that you just had to do?
There’s this famous Rilke quote which comes to mind:
“This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose…” – Letters To a Young Poet
Image credit: Joe Ormonde Sheosamh
For me, every day that I write is a good day. However, I’ve also become painfully aware of the necessity for disciplined routine, as J.G. Ballard once said: “Unless you’re disciplined, all you end up with is a lot of empty wine bottles. All through my career I’ve written 1,000 words a day – even if I’ve got a hangover. You’ve got to discipline yourself if you’re professional. There’s no other way.”
4) Would you say that the status quo keeps creative teachers down and that we should all take more risks for the sake of ourselves, our students, and education in general?
I would ask differently: do we really want more freedom for ourselves, our students and our education in general or would we rather make do with the status-quo than risking what we have?
Just two days ago I talked to a German high school teacher. As most teachers in the German Federal Republic, he’s a civil servant which entitles him to stable working conditions and a pension. He explained to me that there’s even an option for teachers to go on a one-year paid sabbatical. However, he added, only very few teachers make use of this option, because it’s frowned upon to leave one’s post, and it might jeopardize certain perks like being able to freely choose one’s schedule, etc.
In my own “career” (the word somehow always makes me think of horses running around in circles) working towards more freedom has certainly paid off. And yet, freedom and uncertainty are but two sides of the same coin. For what kind of freedom is it, if everything is predictable? I don’t think it’s possible to have real freedom without risking a certain way of looking at the world. Once you make that plunge, you’ll have to swim!
5) Personally speaking, I’d like to see story-telling extend into drama, theatre, comic-making and creative writing on the parts of students – student-led creativity. How else could you see story-telling bringing more magic into the learning experience?
For me, the border between being a reader and a writer has always been a fluid one. If students learn to appreciate stories in their target language, they already have one foot in the process of writing their own. I’ve already spoken about this on my blog earlier that I learned English through stories and before I knew it, I was writing articles, stories and books myself. To me, writing and reading do not feel like separate activities: one is nurturing the other.
Ultimately, stories have great value far beyond the classroom. As recent studies have shown, regular exposure to strong narratives can make us more emphatic, more imaginative, more emotionally and cognitively aware. And perhaps, in the end, we may even begin to loosen our grip on preconceived notions about our own lives and instead look at our own existence as tentatively told stories — nothing set in stone — as narrative streams shift in constant flow, developing, intertwining, unraveling and reconnecting.
I was only joking about throwing away course books. You don’t need to as you can simply transform them and bring them to life. Think of a vocabulary lesson you will need to teach from your coursebook and briefly describe how you can convert it into an interactive story-telling exercise.