Your story

This week we have a guest post by one of the latest teachers to join our ever expanding pool of  volunteers around the world, Emi Slater. What Emi writes fits in very well with the current trend in the work of the Hands Up Project to focus more on children creating stories, rather than merely consuming them. Over to you Emi…

I cannot believe that in my little village on top of a hill, deep in central England at 7am on Monday mornings I have been hearing and telling such profound and deep stories. I’ve just started working with the Hands Up Project and Nick asked me to work with a wonderful teacher called Sarah Zahran. She is also new to the project and we have had some fun over the last few weeks getting to know each other and the students despite the foibles of the Palestinian internet.  After the first lesson Sarah asked me if it was really true that there were homeless people in Britain. When I told her there were thousands she asked me “but how! you are such a rich country?”. I was reminded of the time I spent travelling around the Soviet Union on the cusp of Perestroika when people in Siberia regularly asked me if it was really true that all British people had servants. That in turn reminded me of Nick’s comment on this blog that becoming global citizens is the only way out of this mess we are in.

We started with Nassreddin and the dinner party – using the Stories Alive version about a farmer who goes to a party in his work clothes and is rejected because of his appearance.  So cross is he that the party guests only accept him after he has been home to change that he starts to pour food into his pockets, his hat and his trousers. When reprimanded for making a mess he declaims  ‘I’m giving the food to my clothes’ . ‘I think you invited my clothes to the party – not me!’ Sarah had chosen it and it seemed so perfect for a group of 13 year old girls who would presumably be interested in clothes and self-image.

But their responses turned out to be far from such shallow trivia that so often preoccupies British teenagers. By our first lesson the girls had already written out the story, drawn their own pictures and were enthusiastically retelling me the story with their pictures on line. I was blown away by their enthusiasm and asked Sarah if the girls could write down their responses to this tale.

By the next lesson the girls had written their own moralistic tales, illustrated  and even adapted them into mini plays – one about a poor black family who helped the white people despite how badly they had been treated by them, one about a man who, having lost his legs on his journey to work in England, was mocked by his own son for begging because he was too ashamed to return home, one fable depicting the ever increasing divide between rich and poor and one about a man who put a spell on some boys to stop them throwing stones at old people.  I was slightly at a loss – the stories were already so wonderful and they had already illustrated them and performed them! It seemed wrong to start picking them apart and working on language or correcting them or even developing or editing them. The girls voices were strong and clear across cyberspace and I didn’t feel right interfering with such honest, important stories. I felt like I would be threatening the whole delicate and important ethos of the Hands Up project if I started behaving like an “english teacher”. And so it occurred to me that the only thing that might perhaps be useful for the girls was to hear my version of their stories. Partly for language learning purposes (obviously by recasting and extending I was creating more complex sentences which might perhaps be useful for the students to hear and perhaps work with later) but the key reason was confirmation. Confirmation that I had understood their stories correctly, and this not just on a linguistic level but on a human communication level – did I really “get” what they were trying to tell me?  I tried to imagine what it would be like to hear someone Russian (the foreign language I know best) tell me a story that I had tried to write in Russian back to me. I decided it would probably be thrilling and so I suggested it to Sarah. The girls in Sarah’s class seemed to like my version of their stories and you can see them nodding at various points in the video. Is this them responding to my confirmation or is it because they liked or were interested in my version of their story from a language perspective?  And of course they were only my versions.  Certainly I could try harder at it making them fuller, rounder, more vocabulary rich but as Nick has been consistently saying on this blog the simplest things so often work best.

The original story created and told by Palestinian learners of English in a girls school in Jerusalem suburbs, Palestine 

A reformulated version of the same story told by Emi

6 thoughts on “Your story

  1. Thank you Emi. What you say about confirmation is spot on. Retelling a student’s story is powerful in different ways:
    you show that the student’s voice is heard, is important and that you value what they have created
    the student hears a more advanced speaker of English retelling their story using their words and learns about lexis, grammar and pronunciation through your recasting

    I take issue with two words in Nick’s introductory comment ‘merely consuming’. When students listen to a teacher or a classmate telling a story, they can, if we encourage it, be fully engaged as language learners and human beings. I think I know what Nick is getting at: it’s what the listener does both inwardly and outwardly in response to the story that has a real impact on their learning.


    1. Yes – good point David. I totally agree with you for disagreeing with me 🙂
      Listening to a well told story isn’t consumerism at all – in terms of activation of imagination it’s one of the most stimulating things that we can do as teachers of language.


  2. This is such a beautifully simple idea Emi and Sarah but it completely encapsulates what I think good teaching is often about…

    1) the learners’ produce a text
    2) the teacher reads or listens to their texts, and then repeats it back to them in a more advanced/corrected format
    3) the learners notice and/or reflect on the differences

    In order to make the most of stage 3, I wonder if it would work to get the learners to look at their original texts and see if they want to make any changes based on what they noticed?


  3. Hi Nick and David, Thank you very much for your comments. I totally agree with David that consuming is much more than consuming! And with Nick that the simplest things are best in teaching.Presumably why so many people find Dogme so engaging. Of course as we know with Dogme the simplest things are often the most challenging for the teacher – challenging in a good way.

    So much must have been going on in the girls minds when they were thinking about and creating these stories – I wonder how much was thinking in English? It would interesting to hear from Sarah more about the actual creation – were they speaking or indeed thinking in English while they were creating them? And yes indeed I think you already know I found their interest in my confirmation of their story very moving as I was telling it. What is quite interesting is that I had not prepared my re telling at all – it was literally off the cuff with no thought gone into it before hand at all due to my own other work commitments. And it was early in the morning and I wasn’t exactly in my best story telling mode! In fact I was disappointed that I hadn’t had time to retell the stories using more sophisticated, colourful language myself .On the other hand perhaps if I had prepared it more in advance my own spontaneity would have gone which perhaps in turn would have led to a more turgid retelling …. your thoughts ? It would be interesting to know your thoughts and Sarah’s because of course if I ask the girls to notice the differences and make changes accordingly you could say that if the girls change their stories then they become more my version than their version – on the other hand of course they are language learners and wish/need to improve their English – so it’s an interesting dilemma methinks ….


  4. Yes, it is an interesting dilemma Emi. In fact I think it’s one of the central dilemmas we face as teachers; to what extent do we encourage learners to say what they want to say, and to what extent do we attempt to shape what they are saying. It’s something I’ve worried a lot about throughout my career, and I’ve experimented a lot at both ends of the cline and in the middle. At the moment I’m quite interested in frameworks which follow up very free output with some kind of shaping like TBL and dogme and test teach test. This is also why I think our playwriting competition is a good idea.


  5. Yes I couldn’t agree more. I guess we all agree that frameworks work ( having boundaries when bringing up children for example or skeleton lesson plans) but as you say how much we actually “feed” language to our students is always such an issue for me too. I agree the playwrighting competition is a wonderful way of addressing that. I think perhaps also that there is something else going on here too. Some kind of deep fear on my part of my role as a white middle class “westerner” reforming/ recasting the words of “oppressed” children in the Gaza Strip . It just feels strange , like I am telling them what to say – as if in some way my words are more valid than theirs. I would love to hear what sarah has to say about that. Also wonder what JJ Wilson might have to say about that after his plenary at IATEFL.. Perhaps them teaching me Arabic in return would solve this feeling? As you are doing. Anyway it will be exciting when we start working on the plays after Ramadan.


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