Tell Me a Story

Mere days away from completing our goal, my students are ecstatic to finish.  Along with our reading and viewing today, the senior members of our Traveling Party (Bombur, Dwalin, Kili, and Bilbo) recorded their speeches.  These students are a little more sentimental about coming to the end of our journey because this is their last year as elementary school students.  In a few more days, they will be graduating from sixth-grade and moving on to secondary school.  The bonds of this experience will not be severed by a move to another building though.  My students and I have all pledged to stay in touch next school year and make a date to see The Hobbit:  The Desolation of Smaug together when it arrives in theaters this December.

My sixth-grade students had an interesting perspective on their speeches that their younger counterparts did not.  These children chose to summarize Lord of the Rings, as if they were telling a story to someone.  While some of them may have embellished a bit or misinterpreted some information from the text, I realized how well Tolkien’s works adapt to oral storytelling.  Many of my students come from countries where stories and folklore are passed down from generation to generation through oral traditions.  Keeping this in mind, it makes sense why these students may have chosen to express their experiences reading Tolkien in this manner.

While summarizing Lord of the Rings would be a challenging task for anyone to accomplish in just a few brief moments, I think my students did a fair job.  It is obvious which portions of the book or film made the most significant impact on them, by the events and characters they chose to focus upon.  These students also represent a cross-section of comfort levels when it comes to oral proficiency in English.  Bombur (who has only been speaking English for a year) manages to tell his story with reasonable fluency, while Dwalin (who has lived in the US for two years) is clearly more comfortable expressing himself orally.  Their remarks are in sharp contrast to those of Kili and Bilbo, who have spent most of their lives in American schools.

As I was recording their remarks, I found myself captivated by some of their words, particularly Kili‘s.  Kili was giving more than just a book report.  She was choosing to make the story her own and made it so engaging that you feel compelled to listen to her.  This is the very “hook” that Tolkien provides to his readers.  By creating fascinating characters, rich settings, and a world steeped in fantasy and mythology, Tolkien enchants you with his words.  As a master of literary devices and figurative language, my students have noted Tolkien’s use of similes and metaphors throughout their reading of Lord of the Rings.  I was delighted to hear Kili use a few of her own similes as she summarized her favorite parts of the book.  I also found it interesting that both Bilbo and Kili commented that Tolkien made them feel like they had literally stepped into the world of Middle-Earth.  This is the mark of any master storyteller, who possesses the power over his/her readers to subtly blur the line between fantasy and reality in their minds.

Story is the most powerful tool for a writer and one that I often use, as a teacher, to initially break down the barriers that students often put up when encountering intimidating language.  Shakespeare is another writer whose works I choose to use with my young ESL students.  If I began introducing my students to Shakespeare by handing them a play filled with “scary” words such as thee, thou, and hurly-burly, they might run away in fright.  I always draw my students in by telling them the stories of Shakespeare first, and once they’re hooked on the characters, then I move on to the language. By that point, they find the stories so riveting, their curiosity moves them past the unknown words.   As I’ve taught Tolkien this year, I’ve realized that his works can be introduced the same way.  Yes, Tolkien’s language takes some getting used to, but as my students have proved this year, the powerful stories behind them provide a lure that is so irresistible, the words can’t get in the way.

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