Spinning stories

by Chintan Girish Modi

When a colleague of mine introduced me to a little story book called Mr Forgetful, I read it with great delight and amusement. It seemed like the perfect thing to share with children, both for its simplicity and its capacity to induce laughter. On my second reading, I was struck by the idea that one story could inspire many different stories. This led to a project for students of Standard VI at Muktangan as part of their continuous and comprehensive evaluation. Here are some pointers to help you try out the same project in your school.

* Read out the title of the story to your students – Mr Forgetful. Ask them to think about the title and guess what the story might be about. The objective is to get them to reflect on how a title can often throw light on the plot. Elicit answers and put them up on the black board in the form of a mind map. If something sounds silly or weird, do not reject it outright. You have offered students an opportunity to use their imagination, and they might want to let it run wild as they predict what lies in store. It is often great fun to hear the amazing range of things students come up with. There is a lot of scope for laughter in the classroom as they share their thoughts. And there’s just so much more material for stories of different kinds to take shape!

This is what a mind-map could look like: [A box in the middle of the blackboard saying ‘Mr Forgetful. Arrows jutting out of the box, pointing in different directions. Each arrow corresponds to a student response — 1. forgets his house address 2. forgets to do his homework 3. forgets to switch off lights and fans 4. forgets to have a bath 5. forgets what his mother sent him to buy from the market 6. forgets to brush his teeth]

* Having sparked off your students’ curiosity, read out the story slowly and carefully, pausing wherever required, modulating your voice in keeping with the emotions being expressed. This willould help them appreciate the nuances of the story, the little details that create impact and hold them captive as listeners. Do not explain anything at this point. As a teacher, this is a difficult urge to resist – the urge to explain, for fear that the student may not understand. And in the bargain, we sometimes over-explain, and foreclose the possibility of any surprise. It’s true that not all students may challenge themselves to listen between the lines, make meaning on their own, and trust their individual interpretations. However, there is no harm in beginning to challenge everyone a little bit so that they are nudged outside their comfort zone to learn. Just read with expression. Questions, if any, can be answered later. Ask them to listen carefully, to not get stuck if they don’t understand the meaning of a particular word. Encourage them to guess the meaning from the context.

The story cannot be reproduced here owing to copyright restrictions but here is a summary:
Mr Forgetful is about one day in the life of Mr Forgetful who lives in Forget-Me-Not Cottage. He woke up, trying to remember what he had been dreaming of. However, he was unable to recall any shred of detail. He got out of bed to go wash his face but he forgot the location of his own bathroom and walked into the wardrobe instead. He tried to make himself some toast and eggs for breakfast but owing to his forgetfulness, he ended up with burnt toast and hard boiled eggs. Thinking of the lovely day, he walked down to the post office to buy a stamp for a letter he had forgotten to post for three weeks. However, he forgot to shut the door behind him. At the post office, he got himself utterly embarrassed because he forgot why he had come there all the way from home. Thankfully, Mrs Parcel saw the letter in his hand and guessed that he might have come to buy a stamp. On his way back, Mr Forgetful encountered a policeman who entrusted him with a message to be passed on to a farmer. The message was “There’s a sheep loose in the lane!” Fearing his own forgetfulness, Mr Forgetful repeated the message over and over again, hoping never to forget it. However, the message he eventually passed on was, “There’s a goose asleep in the rain!” Of course, the message did not make any sense to the farmer. Mr Forgetful tried hard but in vain. Eventually, the farmer decoded the message on his own when he saw the sheep. Sitting in his armchair at the end of the day, Mr Forgetful struggled to recall what a funny day it had been. What a pity! He couldn’t remember a thing.

* Ask the students to write a summary of the story. Tell them to focus on the key events, not the finer details. The idea is to focus on the attribute or quality of forgetfulness and pick out examples of incidents that illustrate this quality in the character. Quick recall – that’s all!

* Ask each student to choose an adjective and create a character possessing that quality. For example: Miss Naughty, Mr Happy, Miss Kind, Mr Cruel. These are just examples. Ask students to come up with adjectives. Fill up the blackboard with all the adjectives they come up with. Each student is expected to now write a story in such a way that the quality chosen by them is embodied in the characterization, and highlighted in the events and dialogue.

* Write along with your students. It is a great way to enter their shoes, and feel what they feel like. It is also tremendous fun. You cease to be just their teacher. You become a fellow writer, a comrade of sorts. They will welcome your participation and gain confidence to write their own stories and share them freely. Here is an example that I wrote:

Mr Hungry
I was recently in Hyderabad on a short weekend trip. On the way back to Mumbai, my train journey was quite interesting thanks to a fellow traveler whose name I’m unable to recall. I like to think of him as Mr Hungry. He boarded the train in a hurry, and soon as he settled down, a huge packet of chips came out of his big bag. He munched on the chips, making a crackling sort of noise which announced to everyone around that in their midst was a giant packet of chips that would never run out of supplies. To their surprise, the chips were over. The packet was thrown out the window, and Mr Hungry dug into his bag. Out came a bar of chocolate. He bit a large chunk, instead of relishing it in tiny morsels the way you and I might. Mr Hungry was oblivious to the people around. He cared little about what they thought of his gluttonous way. Soon as the bar was over, Mr Hungry walked to the basin at the end of the compartment and washed his face. He came back looking refreshed and ready for another meal. “Bhelpuri le lo! Bhelpuri!” cried a young man in a uniform. Mr Hungry asked, “Kitne ka diya, bhaiyya?” For twenty rupees, he got himself two servings of behlpuri. All of us watched in mild surprise and great amusement. A loud burp informed us that Mr Hungry had had his fill. He tucked himself under a blanket and fell asleep. I too fell asleep in some time. When I woke up, it was almost time for me to get off the train. Mr Hungry was wide awake, feasting on alu curry and a stack of puris.

* Encourage students to think of their story in visual terms. Words are not the only means to tell stories. Let them sketch and paint, make speech bubbles, write dialogue, make props, even put up a skit! Once you throw open the basket of options, they’ll add some more! You won’t run out of ideas, only periods on your school timetable!

This article was originally written for Teacher Plus magazine, and was published in their June 2012 issue.

About Muktangan: Muktangan is an educational programme in Mumbai. It is an initiative of Paragon Charitable Trust, working in close partnership with the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai across 7 municipal schools.

The author worked as English faculty in the Language Department at Muktangan from June to December 2011. He can be reached at ‘chintan.backups at gmail dot com’