Tagged: story

Teaching as storytelling (3) – Gap Theory


On the eve of publication of The Great Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald removed more than thirty pages from the novel. This was at the ‘galley’ stage, when the author is sent proofs to check for errors before printing proceeds.

 The pages Fitzgerald struck out consisted mainly of Gatsby talking to Nick about himself. By taking them out, the novelist created a gap in his narrative, posed the question implied in the title, and preserved the mystery surrounding his central character. It is this gap which has driven the fame of his masterpiece in the 88 years since its publication.

 As in narrative, so in inquiry – it is the gaps which drive engagement. The gaps are where the imagination plays. Reading is a creative activity; narrating a collaboration between storyteller and listener.

But you can’t have a gap by itself, of course. It has to be a gap in something. Through the outsider Nick Carraway, we observe Gatsby staring at the green light across the bay. We hear his party guests swapping wild rumours about him, we learn of their fascination with this gentleman thug, we wonder why he doesn’t attend his own parties…. a little later we hear his fantastical life-story from his own lips and don’t believe a word of it.

At the last moment, Fitzgerald decided to leave it like that. And so Jay Gatsby remained a living, breathing contradiction, and became immortal.

To create the space for inquiry, you need to plot your curriculum. The word ‘plot’, by the way, is not synonymous with ‘story’. It means the way the story is told – its narrative structure – what we learn in what order, and how – and when (if ever). A storyteller never tells the whole story. As a storyteller it’s good to leave out the boring bits – but leaving out the most interesting bits is sometimes a stroke of genius.

Teaching as storytelling (2)

Green chapel


by Paul Dunbar

It is New Year’s Eve, and in the great hall at Camelot the court is assembled for the traditional feast. At the head sit King Arthur and his Queen, Guinevere. Along three sides of the hall, seated at tables groaning with food, the Knights of the Round Table and their ladies, finely dressed, wait for the feast to begin. Suddenly, the great doors of the hall crash open, one of them coming off its heavy iron hinges, and into the hall rides the huge figure of a warrior.

He is big – maybe eight feet tall – and his horse is in proportion, their combined height forcing him to duck his head as he passes under the arched door. He is naked to the waist, heavily muscled, and his hair comes down to his shoulders. In his left hand he carries a sprig of holly, and in his right a formidable battle-axe. From head to foot – his hair, his skin, his eyes, everything – he is green.

He advances to the centre of the hall and looks down at them all, surveying them imperiously. (Do it.)

‘Which one of you,’ he says scornfully (do the voice!) ‘is the famous King Arthur?’


It’s an old story, which exists in one anonymous manuscript version dating from the late 14th century – and it’s how I began my first lesson as an English teacher in London, with a group of 11-12 year-olds. The poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written in a northern English dialect by an anonymous contemporary of Chaucer, had fascinated me as an undergraduate, and I knew it well enough to be comfortable spinning it from memory, acting it out and improvising the comic elements. The kids seemed to fall straight into the comfortable, hypnotic routine of being told a story.

The terrifying Green Knight issues a mocking challenge to the Round Table – he says he is doing this because he has heard tales of their courage and honour and doesn’t believe a word of it – and the challenge is this: for the King, or one of his knights if he himself is too cowardly, to take this axe and strike off the Green Knight’s head with it. On the condition, of course, that he who accepts the challenge must submit to a return match in one year’s time.

The knights gather around the King and tell him that this must be a trick and to let one of them take the challenge for him. A young knight named Gawain is desperate to prove himself, and is given the honour. The Green Knight dismounts, hands Gawain the axe, and kneels down in front of him, flipping his long hair over his head to expose his neck. And now you mime the beheading, the weight of the axe, the downward trajectory of the blade, and go into slow motion as you describe (just as the original does) how the blade sheers through skin, muscle, gristle and bone and strikes sparks from the stone floor – how the head rolls messily across the floor and under the tables, making the ladies scream and kick out at the head as if it were a football – and how the headless body of the Green Knight, pumping out green blood, nevertheless remains kneeling, and then reaches out and grabs the head by the hair.

Then you mime it getting to its feet and holding up the head, turning it to face Gawain.

The eyes come open, and the head speaks: ‘I will see you on the anniversary of this day, at the Green Chapel.’ Then you’ve got the business of the Knight remounting his green horse, holding his own head and an axe (not easy – try it!) and this time not having to duck as he passes under the arch – the sound of the great hooves clattering across the stone square and thundering into the distance, and the shocked silence in the hall.


There’s not a lot that I still use from my first year in teaching, but I do the story of Gawain whenever I’m with that age-group. Wherever the students are from, they can identify with the concepts of honour, temptation, courage and shame dramatized by the story. In order to be a knight, Gawain must uphold five vows – fidelity to his God and to his King, of course, protection of the weak, and, crucially for this story, the vows of truth and finally chastity. Yes, you have to explain what that is, and you can make some comedy out of Gawain’s struggles to maintain this last vow. The story has got a strong outline, and you can interrupt the narrative at will to explain and discuss things without disrupting its momentum too much.

Anyway, Gawain doesn’t know where the Green Chapel is, so he sets off months in advance, on his horse Gringolet (you can build up his relationship with her a little bit as you go along) – and travels north, through the wild lands between England and Wales. He faces many dangers (make them up, but make sure you mention wodwoes – half-human wildmen types) and by Christmas he’s exhausted and half-starved and doesn’t have a clue where he is, though we can locate him in the Dane Valley on the Cheshire /Shropshire border in Northern England, where buried deep in the woodlands is a secret church almost impossible to find.

Gawain comes to a clearing in the forest where a beautiful castle stands, and he approaches to ask for hospitality. The lord of the castle is (in my version) played by Brian Blessed, and I have recently awarded the role of his beautiful young wife to Olga Kurylenko. There’s also an ugly old woman in the castle, the mother of Sir Bertilac de Hautdesert (Brian Blessed) apparently, who doesn’t do much, but it’s important to mention her because she might come in handy later. His host makes Gawain feel completely at home, and encourages him to come hunting on Boxing Day and the days after that. Gawain declines, explaining that he needs to rest and to pray. Bertilac accepts this but proposes a wager – he will exchange whatever he catches on the hunt for whatever Gawain has received during his day at the castle. Gawain is a bit puzzled by this but shakes on it. Next morning he is awoken at dawn by the sounds of the hunt clattering around in the courtyard and galloping away, and as he tries to go back to sleep the door of his room opens softly and in comes the lady. She sits on the edge of the bed and tells Gawain that she fell in love with him the first moment she saw him, and begs him to take her away from her husband, who she says is cruel and monstrous to her despite his bonhomie and good humour in public. Gawain, like a good knight, tells her this can’t happen, but she cries and begs him for at least a kiss, and eventually he lets her kiss him.

When Bertilac returns from the hunt, Gawain goes out to meet him in the yard, to find himself presented with the carcass of a fine-looking stag, as per the wager, which he had forgotten all about. And now some of the kids are ahead of you, as Gawain realizes that he is honour-bound to give Brain Blessed a kiss. Very embarrassing.

Pretty much exactly the same things happen the next day. We’re in a threefold sequence now, and of course the second phase establishes a routine which the third will break. The hunt sets off, the lady comes in to Gawain’s room, she cries and pleads and he ends up letting her kiss him again. Twice. Bercilac comes back with a dead boar (or whatever), and Gawain gives him two kisses.

On the third morning Gawain, in my version, is lying there in full armour with his visor down. He feels her sit on the bed, lifts his visor (do it) says ‘Go away!’ and quickly snaps it shut. But it’s different this time – she apologizes to him for putting him in a terrible position, and tells him she will not touch him or cry. So he confides in her – tells her about the Green Knight and his pledge to bare his neck to the axe in a few days’ time. And yet he still doesn’t know where the place is – the Green Chapel. When he tells her this she looks terrified, tells him he mustn’t go there. The ‘Green Chapel’ is only a few miles away but it is a terrible place, and nobody who goes there ever comes back. He says he must, since without honour he would rather be dead. But she says she knows how to save him. Wait here. A minute later she comes back into the room with a piece of green silk in her hands – a lady’s belt, actually, but she tells him that it is magic and that its wearer cannot be physically harmed. She tells him to wear it under his armour.

Bertilac has caught a fox. Not such a good day. And he doesn’t even get a kiss from Gawain this time, as his guest has not been fortunate enough to receive anything at all during his day at the castle.


OK, we’re into the last bit now. The story is really in three parts: the challenge, the journey, and… the third phase will break the routine, because, as per Sam’s comment on my Part 1 of this, it will soon be time to hand over authorship. But first, Gawain has to explain about his death-match to Bertilac, who is very sad and tries to talk him out of it, to no avail. So Lord Bercilac provides Gawain with a servant to guide him to the Green Chapel, and they set off at dawn with Olga staring wistfully out of a window in a tower probably, and the old lady (don’t forget to mention her) somewhere in the background smiling secretly.

Now you have to make the atmosphere more forbidding as the servant leads Gawain deeper into the forest. The landscape gets rockier, the trees darker, the light thicker and greener as they go on. Until they come to a point where the path descends between two big rocks, and twists out of sight into some kind of gorge or ravine. Here the servant stops and turns his horse. ‘That’s as far as I take you,’ he says. ‘You’re on your own from here.’ Gawain thanks him, and the servant rides away, back the way they have come. Gawain pauses for a minute and then nudges Gringolet onwards, and they take their first steps into the ravine.

And that’s where you stop. You can end with the servant’s words if you want – ‘That’s as far as I take you. You’re on your own from here’. The kids will hate you for a minute at most, as you start to discuss their way forward in finishing the story. You can feed in whatever ideas about narrative you want to at this point. The obvious things seem to be, first of all what could happen – the ‘horizon of expectation’ created by the story so far. What’s possible in this story? Secondly, reincorporation – things that could come back into the story that we have nearly forgotten about. And thirdly – what’s going to happen to poor Gringolet (sob)?

I highlight the importance of pace. I tell them they’re going to write their ending in two goes, and that in the first part (their next homework) they have to write x number of words or pages but that nothing is going to happen, except that Gawain is going to move from where he is now to wherever and whatever the ‘Green Chapel’ turns out to be. If the going gets too rough, he can tie Gringolet to a tree, or (better) release her, and carry on on foot. He’s going to see things, hear things, smell things, think things… but nothing’s going to happen yet, OK? You’ve got to build up some suspense. Suspense – the only reason there were three days of hunting, not two. Or one, for that matter. You’ve got to slow it down.

Slow it right down, walking into that place. You’re in no hurry to get to where you’re going, are you? Would you be? Your reader might be impatient to know the ending, but you can play them along. Maybe only a few minutes will go by in your x number of words, and that’s good. You’ve got plenty of time to think about what’s going to happen when you get there – and what the ‘there’ will be like. Will the Green Chapel be some kind of temple? A ruin, maybe? Or not a proper church at all, but a cave, or… maybe this is it, the ravine itself?

‘I see no church,’ thinks Gawain in the original. ‘This is more like a place where witches would gather.’

Slow it down. Play with time. Create the space.


Engagement: Teaching as Storytelling (Part 1)

By Paul Dunbar, IB Literature and Theory of Knowledge Teacher

Time and space are the dimensions we live in.

As a literature teacher, my field is narrative, and I point out to my students that all stories must take place in time and space, just as our lives do. A story is not a photograph, but a movie. Narrative is a linear form: it takes time to tell a story, and time within the story must also elapse, though not at the same rate that it passes outside of the story. Likewise, a story must occur in space – it is very difficult to imagine a story that does not have a setting of some kind, that does not take place somewhere. Place is the performance space the characters will occupy.

All of that is rather obvious, of course, but it points us to the most fundamental questions the storyteller has to engage with. How will I handle time in telling this story? And how will I create space?


In formulating these two questions, I’m not sure I have the verbs right. The idea of ‘handling’ time for instance – is it possible to touch time with your hands? Isn’t that a bit like putting your hands in water and saying that you’re ‘handling’ the water? To handle implies being able to encompass and direct something with your hands – money, for instance, or food. Is it a bit arrogant to speak of ‘handling’ time? And ‘creating’ space?

But the storyteller – the novelist, the film-maker, the poet, the graphic novelist – must do exactly that: create worlds, populate them, fold and unfold sequences of events within them. If your narrative fails to create an imagined space – a storyworld – which the reader can enter, it will be just words on a page.

And if that space is not filled with the invisible, dynamic flows of time, your audience will not be engaged.


So is teaching a kind of storytelling?

Yes! And I mean that not metaphorically but quite literally. Teaching isn’t like storytelling – it is storytelling.

If your students look forward to your class, they do so for the same reasons that they look forward to the next installment of a story. (Something might happen in the class which will carry the plot forward. Or not!)

The idea of a course as a narrative and the teacher as a narrator is not just a fancy metaphor. The parallel can have a profound, empowering and literal truth for a teacher, and I’d like to take the idea forward in future posts. If as a teacher you accept that you are a storyteller, not a social engineer, a programmer or a bureaucrat, suddenly there is a great deal you can learn from the art of narrative.

I suppose the first thing to learn is that what you are doing is as full of creative possibilities and challenges as telling a story, whether in the form of a novel, a film, a comic-book, or any of the myriad other forms of narrative. And the first of these possibilities and challenges are:

How will I handle time?

How will I create space?

A story of international-mindedness in action

A while ago, my Dad lived and worked in the Philippines (now he runs Bali Center for Artistic Creativity in Ubud, Bali). He often tells the following tale:

Once, my Dad and a friend of his were traveling in Mindanao (a violence-stricken island in the South of the Philippino arhipelago). They were staying in a hotel in the main city on the island and were having a few beers on their balcony. Dad’s friend became quite animated about something, made a big gesture with his arms and sent the bottle flying off the balcony and on to the balcony below (the exterior of the hotel resembled rice terraces). They looked over the balcony to see a terrifying sight: a humiliated general of the local military rubbing a bump on his head and wiping beer from his dripping face. To make things worse, he was surrounded by a large number of soldiers who had their guns trained on the faces of the two foreigners peering at them! Moments later, the door was knocked in and Dad and his friend thought they were facing certain death.

“I apologize a mllion times,” said my dad’s friend and then bowed down in front of the general who had no option but to accept the apology.

“Allow me to make up for my terrible mistake by paying for you and all of your friends to eat drink and play pool tonight.”

The general graciously accepted, they all became bosom buddies and the two lucky foreigners were escorted to the airport by a military convoy the following day.

I think this is a fantastic illustration of international-mindedness. My Dad’s friend fully understood the value of face and what he needed to do in order to “give face back” to the disgraced general in front of his subordinates. Someone less aware of the culture he was in might have been less confident, might have gone on the defensive, might have made poor excuses or might have become haughty and superior about the “fuss over nothing”.

Have you got any similar stories?

The world we live in…

This is a photo of Susan from the American International School Dhaka reading “14 Cows for America” to the group.

One of my colleagues, Trish, gave me this book on the bus to the workshops on the first day and I decided it would make the perfect start to our workshop. Not only is it a very powerful story with beautiful artwork, it is also a wonderful illustration of the global village that we inhabit today, the global village that our students live in and need to learn to understand.