People love stories. 100 000 years ago, human language started to develop and our ancestors started to share stories. It is something we have encoded in us, something that dates back to those times when hunters sat around the fire, telling tales of bravery and reliving the moments of victory over the animals that fed them, or predators that wanted to feed on them, or nature, which didn’t care about anybody. I am sure that those first stories were all about survival. Later, stories of far away lands, unknown creatures and treasures turned into myths and people risked their lives to see if the myths were real. That is how powerful stories were.
Teaching languages is all about stories. You can’t teach a language without teaching literature (actually, you can, but it would be very, very sad). Teaching English grammar offers plenty of opportunities to do so while telling/reading/listening/writing a story. You can find a story in every English course book. Little children learn English while listening to stories, rhymes and fairy tales. All of this is great, but it is not what I have in mind when I think about the power of a story in teaching.
I usually teach teenagers. Those students that many of my colleagues describe as complicated, rude, bored, indifferent, lazy, stupid. Yet somehow, I saw them become interested. Engaged. Not all of them, not every time, but they changed their attitude. They didn’t change it because of some revolutionary teaching method. Or interactive exercises, exhausting PowerPoint presentations, or complicated grammar tables. They started to listen when I shared stories with them. When I told them about my experiences, my failures, when I told them about books that I’ve read and how I felt about it, about the characters, about my emotions. When I shared inspiring stories of people who changed the world a little, who made it a better place. And finally, when I started to listen to them. To their childhood memories, family and love problems, their fears and worries, their dreams. I let them play, create and invent without the fear of making grammar mistakes and getting bad grades. They lost the rebellious teenage pose. After time, they didn’t want to make mistakes. They wanted to get better. They wanted to be heard. Not all of them, not every time, but they changed their attitude.
Thinking about the power of the story, it reminded me of one summer. I was around 7 years old and I spent a week of that summer in a camp where my father was an instructor. It was a voluntary activity organized by his company, a camp for the employees’ kids. I was one of the youngest kids there and most of my friends were older boys, from 10 to 14. For me they were heroes, they taught me how to fish, set fire, make slingshots and stuff. I adored them. And then, one evening, it was raining, we couldn’t go out and play, everybody got bored and I brought an old tape player I used for listening to fairy tales and sometimes my father would record his own fairy tales about dolphins and Tarzan and I listened to those when I went to bed. So I brought the tape player and played my favorite story from that time – Cinderella. I didn’t expect the boys to be interested in that story, but they sat around, even the tough teenage boys and they listened. The next day we listened to the story of Sleeping Beauty. I remember how it fascinated me. Bunch of wild brats mesmerized by a fairy tale. It was almost as the tape player was Orpheus, the mythological musician and prophet, charming the beats around with his music. The same way I am now taming my students every year. Teachers have this incredible power to captivate the students’ attention, to show them the beauties of the language and through the language the beauty of the world around.