Thursday, February 6, 2014

Spoiler Alert

Imagine beginning the telling of a story by telling the end. Who wants to hear it now? Who wants to hear an outline of the whole story with the basic thread of the plot and details about all the characters before beginning “It was a dark and stormy night…”?

Now it is true that before committing yourself to a long-term relationship with a book and even a short-term one to a film, we sometimes like to get a short synopsis and overall feel for the territory. Mystery? Romance? Funny? Poignant? Violent? Sexy? What time period? Where does it take place? And so on.

But mostly we just want the story to tell itself, hook us in with all the variations of “Once upon a time” and all the satisfying diverse endings of “they lived happily ever after— or not” and then let ourselves be carried in the middle by the rhythm and cadence of the flowing language, its music and colors and dramas.

Wherever I teach workshops, be it here, there or anywhere, participants are intrigued by the way I begin in silence, get something moving with gestures and sounds and movements and guide it to some stirring climax without a word being spoken. The very process of teaching becomes like an unfolding piece of music or an engaging story or a lovemaking session— an enticing exploratory beginning, a connected and interesting middle and a satisfying ending. And yet time and again in the United States, people come up to me and confess that they’re not allowed to teach like that because some clever educational guru decided that every lesson must begin by explaining to the students what they will learn today, the key concepts and predictable outcomes. And in some cases teachers tell me that they will be fired if they don’t comply with the script.

Usually I explode in a string of vindictive invectives that betray my impatience with fools and the damage they can do when they rise to positions of authority. And then take a step back and admit that there are times when an overview of what you hope to accomplish is just fine— kind of like the short synopsis mentioned above. The problem is when an idea that might be useful sometimes is elevated to an irrefutable dogma of always. Or else!

I then review the lesson I just gave silently to show how deadly boring and ineffective it would be if I explained ahead of time everything I was about to do. Like the symphony conductor pausing every phrase to tell the audience what was coming next. “That phrase you just heard? We’re going to repeat again a fourth below the tonic.” Or a storyteller giving away the next chapter. “So our hero’s brother enters the story, but don’t get too attached to him, ‘cause he’ll die in the next chapter.” Or Don Juan explaining the sequence of moves he’s about to make. “We’ll start with the kiss and then I’m going to…” Well, let’s keep this a family-friendly blog.

The proscribed school lesson is one big spoiler alert. Let’s teach with more intrigue, more intelligence, more artfulness. If we do… well, I don’t want to give away the ending.

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