Magazine article English Drama Media

Telling Tales: Classical Stories in KS3 English: Bob Lister Introduces a Project Designed to Develop Speaking and Listening in KS3 English, Arguing That Homer's Iliad and Ovid's Metamorphoses Offer Classes Storytelling Opportunities That Are Hard to Match

Magazine article English Drama Media

Telling Tales: Classical Stories in KS3 English: Bob Lister Introduces a Project Designed to Develop Speaking and Listening in KS3 English, Arguing That Homer's Iliad and Ovid's Metamorphoses Offer Classes Storytelling Opportunities That Are Hard to Match

Article excerpt

The art of storytelling is something that connects us in a profound way with our earliest ancestors. It's one of the most important, most humane, most liberating and most democratic things that human beings can do, and it should have a central place in every classroom. The Iliad is the best story in the world--no question. I have told it myself dozens of times; I've listened to it, read it, been thrilled and uplifted and terrified and moved and inspired by it for most of my lifetime.

Philip Pullman, letter to the author, 7/7/02

The best thing about the Iliad is that from the beginning there's pure excitement.

Y6 boy, St. Joseph's School, Dagenham

In this article I describe a curriculum development project, Classics through the English Curriculum (CEC), which seeks to promote the teaching of classical mythology at KS3 through storytelling. The CEC project challenges the prevailing assumption that the natural place for teaching myths and legends is at primary school: the combination of strong storylines and challenging themes makes them excellent material for the KS3 classroom.

On my main PGCE placement thirty-five years ago, I shadowed an experienced teacher whose mesmerising lessons on Greek mythology remain fresh in my mind today. Stories which I had mostly encountered at university as background to reading classical texts dramatically sprang to life in his Y7 classroom. I can vividly remember his retelling of the story of Tantalus --the 'butchering' of his hapless son Pelops on the front desk, the anxious glances from the classroom door to check the gods' arrival, Artemis' horrified expression on tasting the stew, the gods' compassionate reconstructive surgery, and Tantalus' eternal punishment--and these lessons underpin my conviction in the value of giving KS3 pupils access to classical mythology through storytelling.

The CEC project and the development of speaking and listening skills

The CEC project was set up by the Cambridge School Classics Project (CSCP) to test the validity of this conviction. It is a two-year project involving five secondary schools (three in East Anglia, one in the Midlands and one in London) and has three main aims in the first year: to investigate KS3 pupils' responses to oral retellings of classical stories; to develop schemes of work and support materials for an oral retelling of Homer's Iliad (described below) and selected stories from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Schools have been provided with CDs of the stories; and in return they are developing schemes of work and ideas for activities which CSCP will compile and in due course make more widely available.

Underlying the CEC project's development of the curriculum materials is a belief that much more needs to be done to help pupils develop their speaking and listening skills at secondary level. This was a plea made by contributors to the debate about future directions in English in issue 20 of English Drama Media. Amy Druce, for instance, was dismayed that 'the attitude that values written language over any other mode is entrenched in the subconscious of not just English teachers, but society at large'; and Barbara Bleiman wrote of the overwhelming arguments for giving speaking and listening much more serious attention, saying that 'if one thinks about the role of English in developing skills for work and life, the ability to communicate orally is of the greatest importance in almost any walk of life'. Indeed Robin Alexander argues that these skills provide the single most important key to education:

... talk is much more than an aid to effective teaching. Children, we now know, need to talk, and to experience a rich diet of spoken language, in order to think and to learn. Reading, writing and number may be the acknowledged curriculum 'basics', but talk is arguably the true foundation of learning. (Alexander 2004: 5)

Given the vital importance of developing pupils' speaking and listening skills, it is frustrating how--little progress has been made in this regard since the mid-1960s when Andrew Wilkinson first coined the term 'oracy'. …

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