The Art of Storytelling; Tales of a Summer Abroad

Introduction:

I stepped off the plane at Heathrow airport a stranger in a foreign city. My story begins right here. I had never traveled outside of the country before. Unfortunately, this must have been obvious for I fell prey to, not one, but two financially damaging encounters. The first happened not three feet away from the airport. I took in the bustle of people as I waited for the legendary red bus to arrive. A man next to me was talking on his phone. A woman in a business suit glided through the crowd, no doubt on her way to an important and glamorous business meeting. The bus had arrived. My first warning sign should have been the fact that the bus driver motioned me onto the bus before distributing the rest of the tickets outside of the bus. As I sat in the second to front row on the left hand side of the carriage, I overheard the man’s conversation with a few other passengers.

I noted that one young man had purchased a two-way ticket for over ten euros less than what I had paid. As the bus driver dropped me off, I kindly asked if I could have the same fare for a two-way ticket, but was told that it was too late. Confused, but still excited to have finally arrived in Oxfordshire, I wheeled my luggage in the direction of Exeter College. During my journey to the spot located on the map, I stopped by a small store with postcards advertised on a display outside. Remembering my parents’ request to send a postcard when I arrived, I entered the shop. As I attempted to make change in order to pay for a scenic view of Christ Church, the shop owner took the money and handed back a few small coins. It was not until later that I realized I had lost at least nine euros in the transaction.

When I finally arrived at Exeter College, I took a deep breath and took all of it in. Luckily the people here were both friendly and thoughtful. I learned so much in my classes, which you will be privy to if you venture beyond this page.

                                        

The Art of Storytelling…

The art of storytelling is an essential part of teaching that imparts a lesson in an informative yet engaging manner. For this very reason, I should not have been surprised that one of the courses that Oxford offered for the teachers attending the summer seminar in July and August of 2015 was entitled, “Personal Presentation Skills and Fluency through Storytelling.” I knew at the time I enrolled in this course that it would be interesting, but I underestimated just how important a skill storytelling is for teachers. I decided to collect stories from teachers for my culminating MALS thesis, essentially weaving together beautiful stories from the ultimate storytellers. I hope in this essay to impart how the art of storytelling shines through the interviews I conducted in my thesis research.

One of the things that Adrian Underhill taught us during the course was how to use gestures to emphasize significant points in our stories. It is interesting to me how great a role this can play in setting the context for a story. I reflect on this fact now as I edit my oral history thesis, because this paper does not have the benefit of showing the hand gestures that helped them communicate with me so eloquently. It strikes me that oral history is both incredible at preserving stories, but it also has its limitations. Based on what I learned about intonation of one’s voice and the ability to pause to create suspense, I am surprised by how much is lacking in the thesis document that I have before me. I still believe in the power of oral history; however, I just find it interesting food for thought.

Another subject of conversation that we covered in the seminar was how to control the speed of our voices to impact our storytelling. A common lesson that is often taught in drama is that if what you are saying sounds slow to you, it most likely sounds regular to those in the audience. I had flashbacks to various acting camps while listening to Adrian speak, because he taught us that there is power in talking slowly. You can increase excitement and suspense by talking slowly so as to emphasize certain parts of the story. As I mentioned, there is also power in the pauses that you leave in between sentences. You can get people interested in what you are about to say next.

One of the most interesting things about this class was the ability to see people improving over time. Adrian set up the class so that we worked with a different partner every day to tell the story we had been assigned. The first few days we were allowed to use the pages, so the feedback mostly had to do with arm gestures, where to place our pauses, and the speed of our voice. It was fun to see the run-throughs of many different people and then witness the final performances on the last day of class. I was amazed by how much a few of my partners had improved. I was able to see just how much of a difference the minute detail suggestions changed the story. This may even have been the reason our professor set the class up this way.

For example, one of the girls staying in my building told a story about a boy who journeyed into the woods outside the border of his village. He ran into an alligator trapped inside of a net. The alligator pleaded with the boy to help him get free. He explained how sad and lonely he was trapped by the river all day every day. The boy took compassion on the alligator and heeded his request. Unfortunately as soon as the boy removed the net from the alligator’s mouth, he opened his big jaw and trapped the boy. Confused, the boy lamented, “Why would you do this to me when I just helped you escape?” The alligator replied that this is how the world works.

Not five feet away stood a bunny rabbit who had witnessed the entire chain of events. The rabbit was smart, and so he reasoned with the alligator. “Your logic is sound, Mr. Alligator, but I wonder if you would permit the boy to go back to his village and urge other members of his town to come down to the river. Then, instead of one meal, you would have many meals and would not have to wait for the next person to wander down here. The alligator thought for a moment, and then opened his jaw. Okay, fine. I will let you go so long as you can bring me more people from your village. The bunny screamed to the boy, “Run!!!” The boy was easily able to outrun the alligator who still had most of his body trapped in the confines of the net. He thanked the bunny, returned safely to his village, and never wandered into the forest again.

The first time that I heard my classmate tell this story was drastically different from her final performances. Specific examples of how she improved her storytelling ability was by adding arm gestures to demonstrate the alligator’s jaw trapping the boy, and the way she changed the volume of her voice to get suddenly louder when she revealed the alligator’s true motivations for calling the boy over. I reflect on this because there was nothing wrong with the first time that she told the story; however, I was able to feel “taken in” by the tale when she added the improvements in a way that I hadn’t during her earlier practice. I contemplate this fact while editing my thesis because I recognize that the voice intonations and hand gestures are not readily accessible to the reader of my thesis. I would like to take a few of my thesis interviews and go through examples of how the actual tale might differ from what you see on the written page.

Mr. Black is a good place to start. In person, my interview with Mr. Black contained differences that what is seen in his section of my thesis. When I entered the room, Mr. Black was wrapping up the end of the school day by throwing a soft round ball to his students to go around the room and share what their plans were for afterschool. When I entered, he encouraged me to sit at his desk and let me know they would be heading to the bus and carpool in just a few minutes. Sitting next to his desk, I was able to take in several things about his classroom.

One such observation was the fact that he had hung particularly impressive school assignments on one wall. This said to me that he valued his students’ work and was quick to motivate them through praise and positive feedback. This in itself is significant due to the fact Mr. Black himself references that a lot of people probably think he is tough on the kids in his interview. Although this honest reflection is followed by an explanation that he would never say something to a student that he wouldn’t say to his own kids, some may look at this interview and picture a teacher that is stern and maybe even cold. Looking around the classroom, I am able to see that this is not the case.

During the actual interview, I was able to learn more about Mr. Black that went beyond the words that he said. His voice was calm and confident. I could tell by the way he looked me in the eyes that he was being honest with all of his answers. He was not trying to impress (I try to avoid this in all of my interviews by explaining beforehand that all answers are anonymous). If anything, I got the impression that he wanted to help other teachers who would be in a similar circumstance and recognized that brutal honesty about the parts of his job that were not so great could positively impact other classrooms.

Another interviewee who may come across differently in the paper than she did in person was Miss Emerald. Miss Emerald was the Montessori schoolteacher who taught inside of her home. This was one of the handful of interviews that I conducted spontaneously. I was driving home from a nearby elementary school when I saw a sign for Montessori school. This was the beginning of my interview process, and I was eager to get a Montessori teacher so I pulled into the driveway.

I observed several things by being there in person. The first of which is that the teacher was not actually watching the kids. The property held two houses, one of which was bigger and presumably where she lives, and the other was closer in size to an outdoor shed. I heard noise coming from the shed, so I walked to this building first and knocked on the door. A few kids were in the shed playing and gathering toys that they then brought over to the main building. I asked if I could speak to their teacher, and they showed me the way into the house.

Miss Emerald was in a back room holding a wireless home phone in her hand. When one of the girls (I got the impression this may have been her daughter based on their interaction) led me to her teacher, Miss Emerald seemed slightly annoyed (which is very understandable due to the fact we did not have a meeting set up so she was not expecting me). I explained that I was a Dartmouth student doing research on what it is like to be a teacher and asked if I could do a short anonymous interview to ask her a few questions. Miss Emerald seemed hesitant but agreed. The answers that she gave during the interview expressed somebody who is very relaxed and calm. For example, she talks about how peaceful it is to be a teacher: “We are totally present with one another. It is just every peaceful. I can’t even describe the feeling. I love being with the kids and connecting with them.” However, in real life she was not as relaxed and seemed rather guarded and slightly defensive (again this is understandable due to the surprise factor).

One of the main things that you couldn’t get from just reading the interview itself was the fact that Miss Emerald seemed distracted and, although she was teaching from the comfort of her home, she was not keeping a close eye on the children. They could have easily wandered off onto the street and Miss Emerald would not have been aware of it. This just reinforces what Adrian taught me in Oxford because you really can drastically alter the content of the story without changing any of the words. There is a strong influence based on the way that the presenter carries himself, as well as the storytelling tools previous mentioned such as voice pauses and hand gestures.

Another interesting class that intersects with the thesis interviews that I conducted concerned how technology can be used to augment class instruction. I very much got the feeling that technology was seen as an ultimate good during this course due to the fact we learned how it can not only supplement teaching but transform what the teacher is able to impart on her students. Therefore, I was surprised when conducting my interviews just how many teachers were able to reach students without using any of this technology. On one hand this makes me feel that perhaps we are headed to an even brighter future, but I can’t help but wonder if there is anything lost when we use technology in the classroom. For example, kids today are born into a world in which iPhones and screens are a daily part of living. I wonder if school should be a place to unplug. Then again, if kids have adjusted to an electronic way of seeing the world perhaps it would be a disservice to their education not to introduce the wide realm of possibilities that technology offers.

Computer programming is a respectable profession, and learning how to code has greatly assisted individuals like Mark Zuckerburg in their careers. I also believe that it would be hard for school to compete with kids’ attention if they are acclimated to using technology so much at home. School is already viewed as boring by most students, and it would be a shame not to adjust to the culture in a way that allows kids to get excited about learning. In fact, there are educational apps for children now so that often times they are learning in their free time without even knowing it. For example, my younger sister was playing with a shopping app where she can design her own boutique and set prices for her clothes. She does simple math on the screen in order to finalize the sale. My younger sister has been open with me about not enjoying math, so it is astonishing to me that she could actually choose to do math in her spare time. It also makes me think of the great responsibility that teachers have. Sometimes, kids who are struggling with a topic can have a huge breakthrough if you present the same problem a different way. This is something that I heard in quite a few of my interviews.

Miss Lauren talked about connecting math to her students’ every day lives. She would have them write their names in bubble letters, or draw objects, on a sheet of grid paper and then have them calculate the perimeter and area of the sheet. Sometimes it only takes shaping instruction in a new and exciting way to get kids interested and able to grasp the material more easily. I was able to hear how much she cared for her students in the tone of her voice as she detailed all of the activities she planned for her students. I was able to see it on the walls, which were lined with inspirational quotes and artwork made by the children.

Another subject that is fruitful for discussion is Miss Flower. Miss Flower is rare after the previous two in that she comes across as more of herself in the interview’s transcription than by the in person impression that I received of her. When Miss Flower welcomed me into her classroom, I was slightly taken aback by the clutter and overall messy appearance of her room. My first impression was that this is a teacher who doesn’t really care about her job; however, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Also, the tone of voice that Miss Flower used and her demeanor may have demonstrated that she wasn’t altogether interested in the conversation we were having, and yet the actual stories that she provided showed someone who is extremely motivated to go above and beyond in the classroom.

The reason that this is fruitful for discussion is because it shows that although there is something lost when one reads a story on paper—all of the presentation elements which strengthen the story that I learned about in Oxford—you are sometimes able to get a better sense of a person when you aren’t distracted by things like the monotone intonation of the teachers voice. Teachers like Miss Flower may not have the benefit of being good presenters, or entertainers, but they have so much content in their stories of teaching that it is able to transcend the appearance of her classroom or my first impression. This fact gives me hope that oral histories may be just as amazing as I thought. The benefit to having a written word is that you are not biased by how good of a storyteller the person is. Sometimes the person with the least presentation skills can have the most story content, and in these cases it is better off not to be distracted by things like tone of voice or how their classroom looks.

There is a saying that a person can’t judge a book by its cover, and I am thankful for that. Although there are certainly benefits to improving one’s storytelling abilities, I am left with the realization that content is what makes a story special. If you have it, then no matter of poor presentation skills can take it away. If you don’t, then even the best storyteller will be able to do no more than entertain. Oral Histories have their limitations; however, the ability to transcend time and space to connect personal accounts of historical events cannot be undervalued.

In conclusion, I believe that in spite of the limitations that a written account of oral history provides, it also creates an open space where judgments based on race or one’s appearance do not have the power to taint the opinion of the reader. This is a powerful tool, and one that should not be underestimated. There is a popular saying not to judge a book by its cover; however, I believe this trap occurs more commonly outside of the spine bounding of books. How often do we filter the comments of other people based on the type of clothes they are wearing or, unfortunately some people do this, the color of their skin? In addition to helping us preserve the past, oral histories provide a rare opportunity to purify the perceptions we have of these stories. This alone makes them a valuable tool.

 

 

 

Synthesis:

As I reminisce on this experience, I am left thinking of the story of that crocodile. It is a lesson one doesn’t want to learn, but is infinitely better off for having done so. Had I been privy to this knowledge before stepping off that flight, I would have saved some money; then again, the lesson that it afforded enhanced the storytelling for me in a way I may not have experienced had everything gone smoothly. I left the United Kingdom a little bit wiser, and it went beyond the knowledge that I learned in the classroom. As I stepped foot on American soil once more, I ran up to hug my husband and used the good old American dollar to buy myself a snack. I was home.

 

 

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