Story-telling Interview with Fitch O’Connell
I love it when different aspects of my work come together, and various strands of influence and inspiration meet in one multi-conceptual project. This is what it feels for me to be interviewing Fitch O’Connell as part of my contribution to the English Language Teacher-Training MOOC on WizIQ.
My topic is ‘The Psychology OF Story-telling in ELT’. I was preparing the finishing touches on my presentation when I saw Fitch O’Connell posting about his new book on facebook. Inspiration just walloped me on the head there & then, and I knew that it would be magical for us to learn more about Fitch’s insights, story-telling work, experiences and outlook on life.
The more I work to create, search and discover the heart of teaching and learning, the clearer it is to me that we must meet the minds of trail blazers who have paved the way before us. This keeps inspiration alive and shifts the realms of possibility around us. The more inspired we are, the more this will spread to our students. Enjoy this interview with Fitch O’Connell and feel the magic of spirit, life and rapport inherent in the wonderful world of story-telling.
I will post my pre-class question at the end of the interview.
Fitch in story-telling mode
1) Story-telling in ELT is very important to me and you are one of my main inspirations. Your BritLit and Word powered initiatives have set precedents in ELT for an organised approach to literature and creativity in the classroom. However, your writing style is what I most admire.
Who is/was your inspiration for making ELT more creative all over the world?
There are two distinct ways I can answer that. The first involves the way that I was taught myself by a couple of highly motivating teachers from my school days, which made most aspects of learning so engaging and so rewarding that it put the majority of my teachers to shame (both teachers taught English, coincidentally) and consequently this led to the way that I tried to teach in my early days in state schools and later in ELT. Analysing the approach that these inspirational teachers had on me, I recognise that they knew they were teaching children rather than teaching English, and they involved us, the students, in the process. We were treated as contributors to the process – we were all involved (albeit at different levels) in our education, teachers and students alike – and consequently we gained a sense of ownership about what we were doing. I loved that, and I wanted it to happen with my classes when I started teaching. Often, though, the course books and other materials we are obliged to work with restricts our ability to do that so I had to create a lot of my own stuff, and eventually I tended to abandon course books and the like (in spite of howls of protest from the bosses) and use only new materials – often created for one use only, for a specific class at a specific time. I was often inspired by the pioneering work of Alan Maley in this quest. But that only explains what I did, for my own classes. The inspiration for widening the scope came initially from a body of Portuguese state school teachers from APPI (the national teachers association) who wanted a new approach to the problem, as they saw it, of ‘extensive reading’ in language teaching and who were prepared to work with me to see what we could come up with. I worked with a small group of these teachers as well as many one-off ‘contact’ groups around the country and we tried out various approaches. The result was the BritLit project, which seems to have gained a lot of attention.
Fitch and writer Melvin Burgess when they did a series of amazing events together with kids and teachers at the Hay Festival in Segovia, Spain
2) Can you share one idea to encourage teachers everywhere to enhance their own creativity as teachers and content developers?
It’s very easy to get caught up into a process of process and dull routine and this goes for content development as much as anything else. For me, I am always looking for the idea that makes my heart beat just a little bit faster, that seems just slightly loopy, or unusual, or – often – just fun. I suppose the message is ‘go one step further than you’ve been before’ every time you are developing. Don’t be afraid of the unknown. Often, that which now might appear useful but fairly routine was once a novel, untried idea. Go for it!
3) How does story-telling increase emotional intelligence, which, in turn, enhances language acquisition?
Professor Kieran Egan has done a lot of useful work on this, and I would recommend his ‘Teaching as Storytelling’ as an essential handbook. He writes for Primary level teachers but his message is applicable to all levels of learning. Basically, stories are part of our psyche as human beings – I think that one day they will discover the ‘story-telling gene’! The youngest of children – even those barely grasping language – can relate to stories and, most importantly for us teachers, they can relate to the inherent structure of stories. There is a recognisable pattern which all stories share in one way or another. In its simplest form it consists of exposition of an idea which involves a binary opposition, the resolution of that conflict and the changed state as a result of that resolution. Fairy tales, for example, have that formula well worked out. This means that there is a recognised vehicle on which we can hang ideas (the characters, the plot etc) and for learners this is a safe mechanism – it’s a scaffold, if you like. This allows readers or those being read to the luxury of becoming emotionally involved in the story – rooting for the goodies, celebrating the downfall of the baddies (or vice versa!) and this is also why no two people hear the same story or have the same mental images about it. This level of engagement is essential, because it allows the reader/listener to transcend the restriction of the meaning of each individual word, or unfamiliar syntax or grammar, because it has a wider context in which meaning can be found. The language acquisition part becomes internalised, and thus is stronger than if it were externalised. Some teachers don’t like this because it is largely invisible, and they don’t seem to be in control. My answer is that the learning is done by the student and we need to trust them, far more than we often do, to take responsibility, conscious or unconsciously, for that. That’s what my inspirational teachers taught me.
4) In your experience, what’s the difference between a class of students who regularly listen to, write, and collaborate via story-telling and drama, and a class that just uses course books.
It would be better to hear this answer from the students themselves. I have seen or heard about difficult classes turned around by using creative narratives effectively – not just my own, but hundreds of examples in classrooms around the world. One of the aspects not to be underestimated is the effect that this kind of work has on the teachers. I have had countless teachers tell me the same message – ‘it has changed my teaching and my professional life’. This tells me something else – it tells me that their students are experiencing something quite different, and exciting, because their teachers have changed and are excited themselves! It’s worth pointing out that when engaged in this kind of narrative work, it become almost impossible to separate out the four skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking. They all get wonderfully jumbled up together. This helps to make the whole process a lot more realistic than a false separation between them
5)What differences do you see in the behaviour, outlook and language abilities between these two types of students?
There are some students who thrive better in the more formal, course book orientated environment, that’s for sure. But in my experience these are a very small minority – 5% or less. This isn’t the initial figure when you first try out this kind of work – students tend to be quite conservative and changing methodology can be stressful and they mighty resist it at first. Don’t give up – they’ll soon come round to it and start to improve in so many ways. If I had to choose one thing that was noticeable about students who use the creative method over those who don’t it would be their inner confidence. This sense of ‘ownership’ that is inherent in stories, in the sense that stories belong to the person who is receiving them as much as the person giving (it’s that ‘inner narrative’ at work again) and this soon transfers to the language being used. You can’t separate the story from the language being used to tell it. In my view, one of the most important things we can teach language learners is confidence in their ability to understand and use the language – the rest comes from that and if we don’t achieve a level of confidence then the rest is really fairly pointless. Using narratives creatively does that.
6) How would you advise me and teachers like me to continue your great work and spread the art of story-telling around the world?
The next bit of the project that I find I’m involved in now (as a freelance) is encouraging a new wave of stories based on local traditional tales. This can be especially useful in countries where there is no tradition of book reading. I’ve recently been experimenting with this with a group of wonderful teachers from Tunisia and part of what we did was to take familiar figures from traditional tales (like, in the this case, the Berber anti-hero, Joha, a character known by children across North Africa) and wrap them up in modern versions of the traditional story. There’s a project yet to unfold related to this, which is where we put a local story teller together with a native English speaking story teller and put the two versions of the two stories together, with illustrations, for younger children. So there is a huge amount of work that can be done by teachers all over in collecting these locally known stories and making modern versions of them, and then sharing them to other countries and cultures. Wouldn’t it be grand to have a book full of such stories? Or two? Or a hundred such books?
7) Can you tell us something about your new book and the novel you are writing?
Fitch in pensive mood
The new book is called ‘Rice & Chips’ and it’s really an extension of what I’ve been doing for some time and is simply a collection of things I observe around me. This really came from my assertion in training workshops about us, as humans, being surrounded by stories all day every day, and I was challenged to tell these ‘ordinary’ stories. But people aren’t ordinary and what goes on around us most of the time is extraordinary – if you only look properly. So ‘Rice & Chips’ is a collection of 15 stories about things that (genuinely!) happened to me or that I observed in Portugal, where I live, in recent years. I tend to see humour in most things, no matter how serious, and I hope that comes across in the writing.
The book in the pipeline is an attempt at a more serious novel. I’ve written a distinctly unserious novel before (about a language school, incidentally) but the new project, which I hope to finish sometime next year, has at its heart the extraordinary English millionaire of the 18th century, William Beckford, and his love affair with, and in, Portugal in the last quarter of that century. I’m trying to tell the tale partly from the perspective of the Swiss doctor who travelled with him on his adventures. He met an Irish girl in Lisbon, and I’ve woven her brother into it, as well as a certain amount of tussling between the English and Irish in Portugal at the time! I’m using the original journals that Beckford kept about his trip (which are extraordinary reading in themselves) but there’s a heck of a lot that students of Beckford won’t recognise because I made it all up. I don’t know how it will end yet as the characters haven’t informed me (that Irish lad is keeping things close to his chest at the moment).
Both books have a Portuguese element because it is where I live but also because Portugal has been good to me for the past 20 years or so, and I think I owe it something.
Special thanks to Fitch O’Connell for the privilege of hosting his words and ideas here for all of us. One thing he mentioned really stands out in my mind. I will share it during our class.
What stands out for you?
(Pre-class question for ELT-TMOOC participants)
Mention one thing from this interview that stands out in your mind, resonates with you most, and that would influence you to make story-telling a big player in your teaching repertoire of approaches.
If you already do a lot of story-telling with students please share an idea here and/or add to what Fitch had to say.