Where is my tribe?

My book, Imagined Worlds and Classroom Realities, is written and published.

There is a part of me that wants to leave that project behind and get involved something new. But the unpalatable reality is that I need to be involved in the publicity and marketing for the book. My colleague Anita Collins has designed a webpage for me, at steveshann.com,  and I know I need to get out there and let people know about the book.

My website

My website

But who? And how?

A couple of nights ago, some neighbours came to dinner. One of them told us how a gardening project she was involved in at a local primary school was helping to turn around some disaffected kids. I asked her if she’d ever thought of becoming a qualified teacher; she’d be very good.

‘I’m way too cynical about schools,’ she said. ‘There’s so much pressure to teach the syllabus, to conform, and there are so many demands and rules and procedures that have nothing to do with good learning.’

Afterwards, I realised that she, and the many teachers who struggle to reconcile their ideals and visions with the everyday realities of the classroom, are the people I’m writing for. It’s the struggle I’ve been involved in all my teaching life. If it’s true that we write the book that we wanted to read, I’ve written a book of non-cynical stories, of stories that suggest that no matter how oppressive or pervasive ‘the system’ seems to be, teachers can keep their vision alive, their ideals in tact. The classrooms of these teachers are vibrant places.

On the long drive back from Melbourne last week, I listened to an interview with Seth Godwin  where he talked about marketing and finding an audience. He suggested that the first step in any successful marketing is finding your tribe, the people who are interested in the same problems as you are, and who want to know your solutions.

My tribe is made up of those teachers, many of them new to the profession, who are scared that the system will snuff out their ideals and their visions, and want to hear a more encouraging story.

My new book

book cover draft 1 JPG copyI have been silent here for a while, finishing my book and getting the manuscript to the publishers.
It’s now there and in production.
The publishers and I have been working on the cover and blurb. Nothing is set in stone as yet, so if anyone has any feedback on what you can see here, I’d love to hear it.

The blurb

Stories matter. Stories speak about complex aspects of our lives that intuitively we know are important but for which the language of rational discourse is often inadequate. Stories draw on archetypal structures and evocative language in ways that create affect: they penetrate,  provoke, and disturb.

This is a book of nine stories about teachers and students. A young woman sits in her first teacher-education lecture and wonders what kind of a tribe she is joining. A preservice teacher clashes with his mentor teacher on a practicum. A teacher and students inhabit an online space with unpredictable consequences. Sally discovers the Universarium. Joseph writes a story that undoes his therapist. Sylvia struggles to free herself from an oppressive discourse about the nature of teaching. Two siblings support and console each other through their complex inductions into classroom lifeworlds.  A secondary student goes missing and police, the media and his teachers wonder why. A teacher-education academic wrestles with elusive ideas in order to prepare a lecture that he hopes will make a more-than-passing impact.

There is no other book like Imagined Worlds and Classroom Realities. It not only tells nine gripping stories; it also both positions these stories as part of a growing scholarship about story-telling, and provides practical ways of using the stories in teacher education and professional development.

Steve Shann is a teacher and writer with over forty years experience in primary, secondary and tertiary classrooms.

Keywords: Classroom lifeworlds, mythopoetics, teacher education, story, affect

Getting published

On the 6th of February last year, I wrote the following in a post on this blog:

This morning I began a story which I’ve called ‘Sally and the Universarium’. It’s unfinished and unrefined, and perhaps unwisely I’ve decided to post what I’ve done so far. Spurred on by a rather pleasurable hubris,  I’ve imagining myself as a try-hard Dickens, and am hoping that by publishing this first ‘installment’, I’ll feel a healthy pressure to finish the story quite soon … though I can already feel it slipping out of my control and wanting to go somewhere other than where I first intended it to go.

Over the following ten days, I wrote seven installments of the story, then took it down from the blog, tidied it up a bit, and sent it off to a journal.

This morning the journal arrived (Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education) with my story in it.

Seeing a story or article in print is a special pleasure. But there’s always that worry that it then sits there, between the covers of the journal (or whatever the electronic equivalent is), alone and unread.

So I thought I’d write a quick post today, giving a link to the story, and to the other four articles I’ve co-authored over the past few years.

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 11.09.56 am Sally and the Universarium

This is a story, set sometime in the future, where Sally and her classmates visit an unusual building, the Universarium. Their guide, Wilson, takes the school group through a series of rooms – the Science Room, the History Room, the English Room and so on – which turn out to be very different from what Sally was expecting.

 Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 11.10.23 amBoth Alike in Dignity (co-authored with CeCe Edwards, Libby Pittard and Hannah Germantse)

In September, 2012, I discussed, with three of my former Graduate Diploma in Secondary Education students, the possibility of writing some educational fiction together, as a means of exploring some of the tensions and challenges of the practicum experience. The result was a story about a lesson that Allan, a preservice teacher on his first prac at Nullinga High School, gives to an English class. His task is to introduce Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, while his mentor, Susan, observes. Allan loves words and loves Shakespeare and he comes to the lesson with some optimism, despite previous behaviour problems with some of the students. He has a detailed and imaginative lesson plan, and, from his point of view, the lesson goes remarkably well. Susan, however, is critical. The story is about what happens next.

 Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 11.09.01 amCommunity and conversation: tackling beginning teacher doubt and disillusion (co-authored with Hannah Germantse, Libby Pittard and Rachel Cunneen)

Based on the teacher education course experience of two students (Hannah and Libby), this is a partly playful (we made academics like Deborah Britzman, Jean Clandinnen and Margaret Somerville into characters in some of our scenes), partly heartfelt attempt to highlight the continuing importance of flesh-and-blood, face-to-face contact between staff and students (and student and student) in this era of online learning.

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 11.07.51 am Mythopoetics in the English Classroom (co-authored with Rachel Cunneen)

 This is an article based around letters written to each other about English teaching. The language of story and poetry, mythopoetic language, is at the heart of our English discipline. It is language designed to enrich our comprehension of our inner lives, a language that helps us to see beyond the literal, beyond the world revealed to us through other disciplines like science
and mathematics, history and geography. In this it shares an epistemology with the other creative arts, though our medium – the language of words – is different. Our mythopoetic discourse helps us see the world more fully.

 Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 11.08.23 amAgitation and Animations

At the beginning of 2010, I taught a first-year undergraduate unit called ‘Literacy for Teachers’. Something of significance in relation to the students’ learning seemed to have happened during this unit, and this article is an attempt to write about it.

This ‘something’ is quite difficult to pin down. Descriptions of content, structure and student responses are relatively easy to write about, and tell a part of the story. But there’s an elusive something else.

This ‘something else’ is connected to the lived life of the classroom: the moments of uncertainty and embarrassment; the false starts (by teachers and students); the yearnings and little risks taken; the personal projections and identifications; the wrong assumptions; the missed moments. The agitations and animations. These agitations and animations, felt and expressed more in passing moments than in statistics and questionnaires, have always seemed to me to be essential elements in the learning drama.

I’m working this year on the manuscript of a book of short stories, to be published by Sense Publishers. Some of the above will be included, together with other stories set in secondary schools and universities. The book is tentatively called Imagined Worlds and Classroom Realities.

 

 

A hot afternoon in a 1971 classroom

Some stared off into the distance, a couple squabbled half-heartedly, half a dozen had their heads on the desks (was Michael actually asleep?), and even the most conscientious were struggling to keep their minds on the rather mundane exercise I’d set for them. Well, it hadn’t seemed mundane when I was planning it the night before; in fact, I’d managed to convince myself that this activity would, finally, allow the students to get their teeth into something enlivening. But it hadn’t really worked.

We’d shut the windows to keep the hot February wind out of our classroom, but this only made it worse; after a lunch hour tearing around outside, twenty-five sweaty boys meant that they brought the heat in on their bodies. All day – no, if I was honest, all week! –  I’d struggled unsuccessfully to engage them, and I was beginning to think it was time to abandon the attempt.  Maybe it was best just to see out the afternoon and try again tomorrow.

This was 1971. This was my second year of teaching and I hoped it would be a fresh start after a challenging first year at a different school. I was desperate to find some way of focussing the intelligent energy I was convinced was there, though up til now I’d seen only flashes of it. The boys were usually compliant, most of them keen to please and wanting to continue to succeed (as most had done at this Melbourne private school), but there’d been little real intellectual excitement.

And, right now, there was none. Just lethargy. Going through the motions. Waiting for the bell. I could feel it in myself.

Then Andrew, something of a class clown, climbed up on a desk, apparently intending to open one of the high windows in our stuffy classroom. There was a long rope attached to this high window, installed make it possible to open the window without climbing on the desks, but Andrew wasn’t a boy who liked to do things the obvious way.

‘Andrew,’ I said rather irritably (and perhaps more loudly than was necessary). ‘Get down from the desk.’

A slow smile spread across his freckled face. He had my attention. He looked down from his vantage point and saw that he had everyone’s attention. He grabbed hold of the dangling rope and put it loosely around his neck.

‘Is this a hanging offence?’ he asked.

We all laughed.

I looked around the room. Where a moment before the boys had been listless and unconnected, suddenly they were alert, focussed, engaged. It was what I’d been hoping the exercise would have done, or any number of things I’d tried during those early weeks.

I very much wanted to prolong the moment, and, not quite sure where this would lead, I had an idea.

‘You are on trial, Andrew English,’ I intoned in a voice that I hoped sounded like some 19thh century judge, ‘for the wilfull act of attempting to hang yourself by the neck until dead. Take your place in the dock …’ I hastily moved one of the desks so that it sat in relation to my ‘judge’s’ desk where a dock in a courtroom might be. ‘… and subject yourself to the full might of blind British justice.’

Andrew’s smile broadened. Then he made a half-hearted attempt to look awed, bowed his head, and solemnly got off the desk and sat himself down in the ‘dock’.

I sat in the judge’s chair and hastily appointed a lawyer for the prosecution, another for the defence. Other students became character witnesses or observers, court reporters and the like. The ridiculous nature of the alleged crime – attempting suicide – was never questioned; we’d suspended disbelief.

For the next hour or so, our classroom was transformed, the heat forgotten. I watched as a group of lethargic 11 year olds transform themselves, in an instant, into a galvanised team attempting to creatively cope with the excitingly unexpected. They put on new voices, adopted new body language, created (in that hour or so) a new space shaped by their imaginations and ability to think on the go.

All of that happened 43 years ago. I think it’s possibly fair to say that I’ve spent the last 43 years trying to understand that moment better, and to find ways of building what I glimpsed at then into my teaching. Dull minds became intelligent, spent bodies became animated. Something significant was triggered, released, harnessed.

One way of describing that moment would be to say that a story was told that captured imaginations, got into bodies, agitated molecules, and changed the way an environment was constituted. A story did something. It became an actor, an agent, a mover, in our classroom. We became infected by its presence and found ourselves being carried along by a momentum that hadn’t been present before the story made its entrance.

During the past 43 years, I’ve come to know better (but never understood enough) about the ways in which a story acts in and on the world, and how this capacity of a story to do its work can be used in classrooms to release and focus dormant energies. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I moved into secondary English teaching and then, for a period of about ten years, into psychotherapy, where those who came to see me – often adolescents or primary aged children – would tell me stories and we would work with them.

These two moves – to secondary English teaching and psychotherapy – were, as I said, perhaps unsurprising, given my professional preoccupation with the potential power of story. Yet in both those professions, I found myself being diverted from my earlier insight that a story is a free agent, an actor, a do-er of things in the world. In both secondary English teaching, and then in psychotherapy, I found myself being unconsciously seduced by the notion that a story is less an agent of unpredictably but exciting change, and more an object to be understood and studied from a disciplined distance.

The Queen’s Journey: Meditation 1

In my last post, I wrote a version of the story ‘The Queens Journey’. It’s probably the story that has had the biggest impact on me in my life, and the one I’ve told the most often. I thought I might use this post (and perhaps the next couple of blog posts) to wonder aloud why this might be so.

I remember at school (now over 50 years ago) never being able to feel that scientific explanations of the world were satisfying. When we studied light, or energy, or momentum, or the periodical table, there were always questions unanswered. At the time, I couldn’t work out what the questions were, except they had something to do with, ‘So what is it that causes all of this to happen?’ When we were studying photosynthesis, for example, or life cycles, it seemed that the scientific explanations always stopped short of explaining what it might be that lay the heart of all these processes, what it was that animated them, gave them life, set them going, made them happen.

I went to a religious boarding school (prayers every day, chapel at least once and often twice on Sundays), and perhaps I might have believed that the answer lay in the Bible or in the stories the chaplains told us. But I wasn’t convinced of this either. Both explanations – the scientific and the Christian – seemed to stop short of venturing into the territory that seemed most interesting to me, territory which seemed connected to uncertainty, complexity and mystery. Nor did either of these two explanations talk to each other. There was lots of talk about complexity in science and mystery in chapel, but neither was quite what I think I was sensing was missing (though I had no words for it, no real way of articulating this to myself or anyone else).

Much later in life, I was introduced to Jung’s thinking, and then, through him, to the world of Western philosophy and discussions about ‘the thing-in-itself’. All that seemed much more interesting. What animates the world?  ‘Nature naturing’ (Spinoza)? Will (Schopenhauer)?  ‘The will to overcome’ (Nietzsche)? These seemed attempts to name what seemed to be left out of the scientific and Christian explanations. These seemed to be attempts to enter into a kind of grappling with mystery, complexity and uncertainty.

Then I remember seeing an interview with Joseph Campbell where he talked about the masks of god, and how we humans are not capable to looking directly at the source of all being, but can only get glimpses through contemplating masks and signs. At around about this time I began to realize that this is what certain kinds of stories did for me. They gave me glimpses. I remember writing in my Masters thesis the undoubtedly unoriginal (but new to me) insight that it made sense to think of our DNA as being animated by the same energy, and being structured by the same patterns, that we find in the big stories. Or at least that in telling and hearing these big stories, we were somehow ‘in the presence of the life force’. And that this was about as close as we would ever to get to being able to think about this ‘thing-in-itself. Or at least as close as I would ever get.

For me, the story of the Queen’s Journey is a story about what’s in our DNA.

I imagine DNA as being characterised by all these little electrical charges, full of attractions and repulsions, operating according to patterns that we experience all the time and yet which feel mysterious. We sense our lives being shaped by unknown forces, and at the same time we operate as if it’s we ourselves who are calling the shots. Active and passive. Potent and impotent. Attractions and repulsions. Impulses and resistances. Possibilities and limits. Lots of opposites, lots of tensions. Jung’s writing is full of them.

So is the Queen’s Journey.

On meandering: the Queen’s Journey

IMG_0543

There’s a wonderful old story that was told to me by my PhD supervisor, and which I’ve now told to many different groups of students. I’ve found myself thinking about this story over the past couple of days.

It’s called The Queen’s Journey.

It’s a story about a king and queen who rule over a good and prosperous land, and who hear one day of the coming to power, in the neighbouring country, of a wicked, evil heathen lord. Full of indignation, the good king raises an army and marches along a straight road leading directly to the borders of the neighbouring country. But the wicked, evil heathen lord has got wind of his loud approach, and his armies are waiting in hiding in a mountain pass near the border; they attack the armies of the good king, capture him, and take him back to their castle, where the good king is thrown into the deepest, dankest, darkest dungeon, and is left there to rot.

The queen, of course, is distraught. Day after day and long into every night, she sits by the window in her chamber, fretting about her missing husband and wondering if there’s anything she should do. But what is there to do? She already knows that a rescuing army would have march through the narrow mountain pass, making an ambush likely. Yet she can think of no better plan. And her fretting increases tenfold when a smuggled note from the king arrives. ‘My plight is desperate,’ it says. ‘Time is short! The time for action is now!’

The queen sits by her window, day after day, racking her brains, trying to think of some plan. Her advisers make suggestions, but none of them seem feasible; in her bones, she knows that there must be a way, but she hasn’t heard it yet. Day after day she sits there, trying to still the rising panic, and eventually she is able to look out her window, to see and hear the river that rushes down below, to see and hear the leaves rustling in the breeze, to see and hear the birds in the branches and in the sky. Day after day she sits by the window, until, one day, she knows what she must do.

The queen gets up from her place by the window, and she goes over to an old chest which has sat unopened in a corner for many years. She takes out a lute, which she hasn’t touched for years, and an old troubadour’s costume, which hasn’t worn since before her marriage to the king, when she used to secretly disguise herself as a troubadour and sneak out of her father’s castle, to sing unrecognised at local market days. She had once been a gifted musician; it feels good to hold the lute once more.

The queen leaves the palace, disguised, by a back entrance, and makes her way down a meandering track to a village nearby. This route takes her no closer to the lands of the wicked, evil, heathen lord, but this does not matter. She has a plan. She sets herself up in a town square, sings a few songs (not so well), and soon a small crowd has gathered. She invites others to sing when she has finished. She is offered food and board for the night.

The next morning, she continues along the dusty track to the next village. This time, she sings a little more confidently, and her fingers move with more familiarity along the frets and strings of her lute. Again she invites others to join in, and she learns some new songs. Someone tells a story. Another talks with her about lute playing. Again she is offered a meal and a roof over her head for the night.

And so she continues, traversing the country, along all the winding village roads, until eventually she reaches the mountain pass between the two countries. By this time her repertoire has grown and her old skills have returned. News of this extraordinary musician and storyteller now precedes her, and she finds that there are crowds waiting for her in the villages and towns that she passes through.

And news reaches the wicked, evil, heathen lord, sitting alone in his castle, bored and despondent, needing a distraction. He sends soldiers to bring this travelling troubadour to his palace. He orders the troubadour to entertain him. The queen gives the performance of her life, and even the cold hard heart of the wicked, evil, heathen lord is touched. There are tears in his eyes. He pleads with the troubadour to join his court. He offers the troubadour gifts and incentives.

But the queen refuses. ‘I must keep travelling,’ she says. Again the wicked, evil, heathen lord offers her gifts. ‘All I wish for,’ she says, ‘is that I may have a companion, a prisoner from your prisons, to accompany me on the road.’

The wish is granted. The queen is taken down into the dungeons, and there, in the deepest, dankest, darkest cell, she sees the king, body emaciated and covered in sores, lying on a bed of filthy rags and straw. The smell is appalling. ‘I’ll take that man,’ she says.

The king is brought back into the fresh air. Physicians tend his wounds, attendants nurse him back to life. After a couple of weeks, he is able to walk again. After a month, he is ready for the road. Still, he does not know the identity of his rescuer.

The two set off, visiting again all the villages and towns, along the same meandering paths and byways. This time, of course, the queen is welcomed and feted. The performances are breathtaking, but always the queen invites others to join in on her songs and to teach her new ones. Always there are stories told.

Almost exactly a year after the queen first set off on her journey, they reach their castle. The queen is still disguised; the king still ignorant.

At the castle gate, the king offers his rescuer gifts and titles. ‘You have saved my life,’ he says. ‘Whatever you wish for that I can grant, will be yours.’ Again queen refuses. ‘Just saving your life and bringing you back here to your castle is reward enough.’ They part.

The queen hurries to the back entrance of the castle. She takes off her disguise and is recognised by the guards at the back gate. She hurries up the back stairs, back to her room, and she throws troubadour guise and lute into the chest and resumes her seat by the window. And she soon hears the king’s footsteps approaching her room.

The door is flung open and the king stands there, his face red with rage. ‘How dare you!’ he bellows. ‘How dare you sit there, idly, while I languished near to death in a dark and dreadful place! How dare you sit there, doing nothing!’

The queen stands. She goes to the chest and produces the costume and the lute. The king sees. The king understands.

King and queen embrace. The king and queen embrace for a long, long time.

Indeed, if the truth be told, the king and the queen are still locked in that embrace.

Story as agitator

 The issue of impact has been troubling me. My kind of writing is unlikely to have the kind of impact that shows up on citation indexes. Perhaps I can strategically place my articles in high-ranking journals but that’s not the kind of impact my kind of writing is really after.

What am I after?

I want to agitate, complicate, induct and animate. When I write those words, who am I thinking of as the audience? Who am I wanting to agitate, unsettle, induct and animate?

It’s teachers and education students, people in the field, rather than the readers of journals (though, that’s not entirely true; I do want to find and involve myself in an academic community discussing the kind of methodology I’ve been exploring here). But essentially the audience I’m wanting to reach are the teachers who come to my workshops, my students here at UC, my past students.

A former student responded, last month, to one of my stories in a way that has become familiar to me.

Oh my god, Steve [she wrote in an email]. Your story. Just finished it. I am left feeling… feelings. …  I read the first half of the story, then I had a break for a few days, came back and started again from the beginning and [scribbled] comments as I read … questions and thoughts and connections. It started to feel like a conversation between the margin and the story because everything I commented on somehow came up later in the story, and a couple of times I just had to write “yes!” … [It] is so heartbreaking and raw… raw like a nerve.

I said this response was familiar to me. It reminds me of the teacher who threw my book, School Portrait, across the room after reading the opening chapter, then finished it and needed to get in touch with me. Or the person who moved house to live in Canberra after reading it, because she wanted her children to attend the school I’d been writing about.

Impact. I know my stories, my scholarship, my writing, can have impact; it’s a very different kind of impact from the one valued by universities.

But is it?

One of the things I’ve come to know about myself is that people value the way I sit quietly in a conversation until something emerges. This is connected to Somerville’s ‘methodology of postmodern emergence’, and what I’m calling a mythopoetic methodology. I’m imagining myself in a bigger research team, investigating (to use the example I’ve been using in these last posts) the tension between professional learning, higher standards and greater accountability, and making a contribution to the team’s understanding of the issues by drawing attention, in a number of ways, to the lived lives of actual teachers. One of the main ways I’d do this would be to write fiction, to tell stories concocted in my imagination but sourced from my (and other teachers’) experience, and told in such a way that certain issues or factors sitting partly in the background, factors rendered invisible by the garish bright light of the rational intellect, might come into view.

Secondary English: lost in the forest?

As with all good mythopoetic literature, a folk story is  layered enough to contain many meanings, and the story of Hansel and Gretel is no exception. This morning it came to mind as I was thinking about an article I’d just read about English teaching.

First the article.  It is called ‘The Challenge of English’, and it’s written by a senior English teacher at a Victorian private school. (It’s a school that I have a family connection with, as my grandfather was its Headmaster for a while and my father was brought up on its grounds.) The author gives advice to Victorian students beginning their final year of English studies.

First he describes the nature of the English course. It is, he says, ‘an English course that develops a variety of language, interpretive and writing skills. It is a course based on the use of language; every outcome has language at the heart’.

He then explains how best to tackle the course.

There is an implicit metaphor in the way he describes this course, that of a scientist observing, dissecting, describing and analysing an object.

Students need to have a mastery of their texts [in order to develop] insights into the key themes, characterisations and ideas of the text. [Students need to] have a thorough understanding of the structures, features and conventions used by writers or directors to construct meaning …. In what ways do the narrators present their stories and what are the limitations of their narration in respect to biases, personal beliefs and their world as they understand it? This is the sort of question a thoughtful VCE student should be asking. [With the section of the course devoted to the language of persuasion], the task of the student is … to surgically analyse [the language of texts] to demonstrate an understanding of the ways language and visual features are used to present that point of view.

This is all good, sound advice. Given the nature of the English course, and the way student responses are marked against explicit and measurable outcomes, to advise anything different would be irresponsible.

But the subject has wandered far from where it has its home. And that’s where the story of Hansel and Gretel comes in.

***

Hansel and GretelIn the story, all at home is not beer and skittles, and the children – Hansel and Gretel –  are forced to leave and venture into the forest. They attempt to find their way back, but in the end are lost deep in the forest where, desperately hungry and tired, they stumble across a small house, tantalizingly made of bread, cake and sugar. As they begin to eat the house, an old woman comes out of a door, a woman who seems kindness itself.

The old woman, however, nodded her head, and said: ‘Oh, you dear children, who has brought you here? Do come in, and stay with me. No harm shall happen to you.’ She took them both by the hand, and led them into her little house. Then good food was set before them, milk and pancakes, with sugar, apples, and nuts. Afterwards two pretty little beds were covered with clean white linen, and Hansel and Gretel lay down in them, and thought they were in heaven.

It turns out they’re not in heaven at all, but in the clutches of a cannablistic witch.

Then she seized Hansel with her shrivelled hand, carried him into a little stable, and locked him in behind a grated door. Scream as he might, it would not help him. Then she went to Gretel, shook her till she awoke, and cried: ‘Get up, lazy thing, fetch some water, and cook something good for your brother, he is in the stable outside, and is to be made fat. When he is fat, I will eat him.’ Gretel began to weep bitterly, but it was all in vain, for she was forced to do what the wicked witch commanded

What was it about the newspaper article that had me thinking about the story of Hansel and Gretel?

It’s been my sense for some time that secondary English teaching, as it has been represented in curriculum documents and assessment protocols, has lost its way. It’s been cut off from its home (more about that later), and, in its search for some kind of recognized position alongside valued school subjects like maths and science, has tried to establish itself within the neoliberal discourse. It’s found itself feasting on a house made of cake and sugar. It has been seduced by the promise of rubrics and measurable outcomes into thinking that its real value lies in its potential to raise literacy standards and teach communication skills. For a while outcomes and rubrics gave us some relief, some welcome bread and cake, a sense that we could explain to the students what we were looking for and how they could succeed in our subject. But, instead, we find ourselves in a place where we’ve lost touch with our true home, the deeper essence of our discipline.

Which is what?

I’d like to come at this (in an attempt to do what good stories do) meanderingly.

***

Last weekend I read Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry.

There’s so much in that book that made me think, both about my own life and about the world in which I live. That’s the thing about great books, isn’t it; they make you think, they help you to see more, they give you words for feelings or intuitions that until then had remained below the surface. They help nudge us towards a greater connection with the world: the world out there or the world inside.

At one point Winterson has one of her characters say:

I have set off and found that there is no end to even the simplest journey of the mind. I begin, and straight away a hundred alternative routes present themselves. I choose one, no sooner begin, than a hundred more appear. Every time I try to narrow down my intent I expand it, and yet those straits and canals still lead me to the open sea, and then I realize how vast it all is, this matter of the mind. I am confounded by the shining water and the size of the world.

This reminds me of Digger in David Malouf’s Great World,  who was ‘dizzied by the world. He could never, he felt, see it steady enough or at a sufficient distance to comprehend what it was, let alone to act on it. ‘

And this, in turn, reminds me of Spinoza, who said that our limited faculties mean that we are only able to comprehend a miniscule portion of what is, a tiny bit of the vastness that only ‘the eye of eternity’ can take in.

Reading these things doesn’t just help me make sense of my own confusions. They connect my experience to that of others. I am consoled that it’s not just me that finds things so complex, so dizzying, so endless. Reading these things tells me something about the nature of the world. Ironically, I end up knowing more, being less dizzied, more able to join in.

I do not read these books in order to dispassionately observe, dissect, describe and analyse. They are not objects like that. Instead they are minds with which I strive to have some kind of relationship; they are voices I listen to in order to know more about the world that I’m in. The focus here is not on the text-as-object, but on what happens when I, as reader, open myself up to a conversation which involves trying to see the world as the writer, or one of the writer’s characters, might have seen it, or to understand something more about a character’s – and therefore a human – experience . I’m not outside, looking in at the text. The text and I are standing shoulder to shoulder, looking together at the world and sharing thoughts about it.

English has lost its way because its become text-centric. The proper object of study for any discipline is not, as the article implies, the text; it is the world in which we live, and we enter into a relationship with useful texts only in order to help us understand that world just that little bit better.

***

I want to explore this idea some more in my next post.

What is a story? What does a story do?

Over my teaching life, I’ve thought a lot about stories: what they are and what they do.

Initially my interest was in what they do. I discovered, pretty quickly in the early days of my teaching, that telling a story to my primary school students could calm a restless class, produce a kind of hypnotic spell over challenging students, and create a dream-like space that seemed to build relationship (between me and my students?) and community (a sense that we’d together taken part in some kind of meaningful and pleasurable ritual?). Stories worked, and as a young teacher I grabbed hold of anything that seemed to work.

I began to wonder, then, why stories worked. What are they? This led to an interest in the ideas of Freud and Jung, Joseph Campbell and James Hillman. Stories, these writers told me, were products of the unconscious. Just as myths were imaginative attempts to make sense of the way the world seemed to be, so stories were ways in which we gave shape and words to impulses and intuitions that came up from what Campbell once called the unsuspected Aladdin caves beneath the floor of the comparatively neat little dwelling that we call our consciousness. [1] Telling stories, then, seemed to be an exercise in giving voice to truths. Stories were versions of realities that couldn’t be named – and were in some ways therefore inaccessible – in other ways.

During the 90s, I trained and worked as a psychotherapist, and I would often ask the young people who came to see me to tell me a story. One day, for example, a 15 year old boy [who I have called here Joseph] experiencing some unsettling internal and external conflicts in his life, created on my study floor a little scene with two small boxes, and then told me this story:

There’s the evil and the good, and between them is the sea and at each end of sea there are two boxes of mystery. At one side of the sea there are the good things, the sweet smelling, the comfortable and the good ruler. On the other side, there is the evil and it’s all enclosed in bushes, a sense of not letting the rest of the world know what’s going on inside. There are the sour smelling things, the funny and evil kind of things, and an evil kind of a ruler. And also on the evil side there is a part that the good side has conquered, and its armour is being taken off and it is being exposed and converted to the good. And in the middle of the sea, and between the two sides, there is a sun which is a meeting point, not very high where neither will fight, like a conference area where they talk.

It seemed to me at the time desperately important that I understand this story, and that more generally in my practice that I understand what stories are. Were they products of the unconscious which, when brought up into the light, released some kind of energy? Were they clues to internal conflicts which needed to be addressed and in some ways resolved? Were they indications of a teleological impulse which, when identified, allowed the story-teller to move forward more confidently? What was a story?

Slowly, though, I came to believe that it was less important to answer the What is a story? question, and more important to focus on the question What does a story do? As I worked with Joseph and with many others, I came to see that stories do many things, and that principally the sharing of stories helped to create a network of relationships: human, spatial and intellectual.  To tell a story is to attempt to create a relationship, and attempt to mate with the world. As I put it in my thesis:

My fifteen-year-old client Joseph tells me a story. It’s an exciting story and I rush off and include it in a talk I’m giving to the local Jung Society. But then my next session with Joseph is unexpectedly flat, I have a disquieting dream and I find myself wondering if I somehow missed the point of Joseph’s story. So I talk to my supervisor Giles and I tell him the story (and the story of my confusion) and Giles tells me a story or two of his own. At our next session Joseph tells me some more stories (by now I’m using the word ‘story’ to describe many different kinds of things) and the stories I tell him back have incorporated in them some Joseph-bits and Giles-bits. This three-way story-telling (with cross-fertilisations) continues for over a year and I then write a thesis (another story!) about it.

I’ve recently needed to think again about these two questions: What is a story? What does a story do? I’m involved in a project where we’re creating some fiction set in educational settings, and there’s renewed internal pressure on me to think about the nature of the stories we are about to write. What are they? Are they attempts at representing suppressed or unrecognized truths? Is that their potential value? Or are they, like the stories told in my psychotherapy practice, attempts to create an affect, attempts to create (both amongst the members of the project team and amongst readers of the stories we produce) a series of conversations and networks of relationships? Are we wanting to name truths, or create responses?


[1] “For the human kingdom, beneath the floor of the comparatively neat little dwelling that we call our consciousness, goes down into unsuspected Aladdin caves. There not only jewels but dangerous jinn abide.” Joseph Campbell The Hero with a thousand faces

The mythopoetic function of storytelling

We dimmed the lights for the 150 education students in the lecture hall, I paused for a few moments to get myself out of the day-to-day and into the storytelling space, and then I began.

Once upon a time, a strong and powerful Tzar ruled in a country far away. And among his servants was a young archer, and this archer had a horse – a horse of power, a great horse with a broad chest, eyes like fire, and hoofs of iron.

Well, one day long ago, in the green time of the year, the young archer rode through the forest on his horse of power. The trees were green; there were little blue flowers on the ground under the trees; the squirrels ran in the branches, and the hares in the undergrowth; but no birds sang.

The young archer rode along the forest path and listened for the singing of the birds, but there was no singing. The forest was silent, and the only noises in it were the scratching of tiny four-footed beasts, the dropping of fir cones, and the heavy stamping of the horse of power on the soft path.

“What has come of the birds?” said the young archer.

He had scarcely said this before he saw a big curving feather lying in the path before him. The feather was larger than a swan’s, larger than an eagle’s. It lay in the path, glittering like a flame, for the sun was on it, and it was a feather of pure gold.

Then he knew why there was no singing in the forest. He knew that the firebird had flown that way, and that the feather in the path before him was a feather from its burning breast.

The firebird, the horse of power, the Princess Vasilissa

For the next 30 minutes or so, I told the story that I had been learning pretty much off by heart. After it had finished and I got back to my room, I found that a colleague who had been present at the lecture had sent me an email.

You broke all the rules, you know. Academics don’t begin a year’s course like that. It was uncomfortable, unsettling, and I watched as, at the beginning, a number of the students in the lecture hall reached for their mobile phones, or swapped puzzled looks. I was uneasy myself, and found myself struggling with my own cynicism and impatience. At first I wanted the story to move faster. Yet I found that your story-telling put me in a different time and place.  I’m not sure it’s my time and place, but once I let my resistances loose from their moorings, once I dropped my cynicism and doubt, I did notice that I’d entered the dreaming realm, where connections are made and many things are possible.

In the week that followed (last week), I listened to the students as they talked and wrote about their reactions. A couple were incensed by the implicit sexism or questionable political and moral messages.

… it did irk me that the archer got an entirely happy ending and did not seem to learn any particular moral lesson – he did the wrong thing initially picking up the feather, then he captured a beautiful innocent bird, then he kidnapped a girl, whilst the Horse of Power solved all of his problems for him and the archer triumphed and reaped all of the rewards in the end.

Others were impatient with all the repetitions, and talked about how, in today’s world, stories are told quite differently, not just with words but with sound and fast-moving images.

My response to the story was less about what the story could mean and more to do with my own feelings while listening to the story. I found it hard to settle into listening mode and felt myself more interested in the responses of the people sitting around me. Some people were concentrating on Steve and you could tell that they were listening intently. Others around me were fidgeting and seemed to be looking to others for reassurance. It was a strange situation for the majority of the lecture. For most of us, storytelling without accompanying images or sound is uncommon.

Some enjoyed the ‘time and place’ created by the story and found themselves thinking about it afterwards.

… it seemed to reflect one of the assumptions that I bring to the course and that I had been thinking about, that (in my opinion) some of the real learning that I have done has been facilitated by something that was stressful – whether it was a test, exam, trying something new, getting out of my comfort zone, being wholly responsible for something – and this is both in education and in employment.

Finally, many wondered why I had told it, and what was the moral of the story. This is a common reaction, an offshoot (I believe) of our living in a society that values the instrumental above the mythopoetic. We are taught (partly through the stories we are told when we’re young) that every story has a moral, that the purpose of storytelling is to teach children the rational rules of living together. We have lost touch with the other function of stories (and dreams), which is to put us in touch with the mythopoetic. This is less to do with how we ought to live and more to do with how life (even the life of the invisible and unconscious) actually is. Stories are like dreams. They reflect (often in weirdly wonderful ways) hidden realities about life.

At the beginning of the story, the Horse of Power tells the young archer ‘Don’t pick up the feather. If you pick up the feather, you will know the meaning of trouble.’ The archer picks up the feather, and the Horse of Power then guides the young archer through all the trials that comes his way. This is enormously confusing if you’re looking for the moral of the story. Should we listen to advice, or ignore it? Should the archer have been punished for picking up the feather, or rewarded?

But if we approach the story in a quite different (mythopoetic) frame of mind, it’s not confusing at all. If we think about the characters in a story as if they are all different aspects of the one consciousness (different parts of ourselves, if you like), then the fact that we have a voice inside us that tells us ‘don’t take risks’ and another that says ‘live life to the fullest, even if that means a less secure existence’, makes perfect sense.

One of the reasons I told this story at the beginning of a teacher education unit is that my students arrive with a cacophony of competing voices in their heads, a mixture of yearnings and doubts about what a university course can give them, of hopes and fears about what this choice to become a teacher might involve. One of the students put it this way:

Perhaps also when we have suspended belief in the real world logic and science, we have left space in our minds for the content of the story to move in, often bringing with it useful knowledge or behaviours. I don’t think it is Steve’s intent to pass on a moral message with this story, perhaps he merely wants us to be left thinking of as many reasons this story could be relevant as possible.