My fifth uncle is a 5th/6th grade teacher. On my visit to Taiwan this summer, he told me about how he captivated his students’ interests in Chinese and math class using stories.
A typical school writing assignment is to write an essay on a given topic. Many students find this boring, Mr. Lee said, as they may have no connection to that topic. Instead, Mr. Lee has them tell stories. His assignments include:
- Read photocopied comics with the speech bubbles blotted out and fill them in.
- Write ghost stories. Mr. Lee would tell them ghost stories first (every time he paused his students would know that something scary is about to happen) and he would have them write down the stories after he told them. He told them about the key elements of ghost stories, and then challenged them to make up stories themselves. (He told me some of his stories–see below. See the end for some of his comments.)
One metric to judge a class assignment is how much it allows the students to be creative and surprise the teacher, and his assignments certainly fulfill this.
To teach math, Mr. Lee also looks for stories, often in history. He told his students how Chinese people discovered and used pi: they had to roll wood into wheels (but there was a rule the wheels had to be smaller than the emperor’s). They had to calculate the circumference given the radius: if they used to little wood, the wheel would have a crack, and if they used too much, it would be wasteful. He also had them do activities like making conical hats: often the students would find out they made the hats to flat and have to think about what to change.
He encourages his class to read: every year all the different classes would have a fundraiser to raise money; Fifth Uncle would make sure his class bought books with the money rather than just squander it at McDonald’s (food for the spirit rather than the body), and slowly his classroom has been accumulating books.
Several ghost stories
- Four boys have just gotten their licenses and are going on a trip to Kenting (墾丁). The mountains are to the left and the beach is to the right is the beach. One of the friends rides faster and is soon lost in the distance. He has to pee so he stops his motorcycle by the road and goes into a glade to the right of the road. The other three friends pass by. He catches up to them again, and they see that he has picked up a beautiful girl with long-flowing hair, her arms embracing him as he rides. Really amazing, they think: how does he pick up a beautiful girl just like that? When did they meet each other?
The police stops him and gives him a ticket for two charges: speeding, and not wearing a helmet. But I am wearing a helmet, he said. The girl wasn’t, the policeman said. What girl? the guy asks. That’s weird, I clearly saw you had a girl riding with you, the policeman says. The other three boys, when they catch up, also concur. The policeman’s older companion says: just trust me on this, drop the charge, and he does. The next day the four guys are riding back, and they pass by the place where the guy stopped to pee—and notice a graveyard on the other side. (How could they have missed it on the way there?) They stop and go to look—you know how some graves have pictures of the deceased? The three guys found a picture of the girl they saw: It’s her, they shout. Beautiful, with long-flowing hair. When they get back, they remember that the day they went out was the first day of Ghost Month. Do you know the Ghost Month? It’s the 7th month in the lunar calendar. It’s the month where ghosts have their vacation; they’re allowed to go out and wander. So this ghost decided to hitch a ride to Kenting.
- A girl would go every month to the temple see her grandparents’ memorial tablets (牌位) and worship, and she noticed one of the spaces nearby had a picture of a cute girl, A-mei. They write the date of birth and death on the tablets, and she saw that this girl was the same year as her. Every time she went from then on, she would talk to the girl and tell her anything that was on her mind, anything that was bothering her.
There came a time where she hadn’t gone in a few months, and one night she saw a figure in profile outside her window. This scared her because her apartment was on the second floor; how could anyone be outside? A few days later she saw the figure again, but it was tilted towards her at a 45 degree angle, and a few days after that, she could see her fully facing the window. It was the same girl in the photo, A-mei. Convinced that A-mei was showing up because nobody was visiting her, she went to the temple again to visit her. In the temple they keep a registry; whenever people come to visit someone they have to sign in; she saw that indeed no one had visited A-mei recently. She looked up the address of A-mei’s family and copied it down, and went to visit them to find out what was going on.
At the door, she was greeted by a girl older than A-mei, but too young to be her mother. When the girl asked about A-mei, she revealed that she was A-mei’s stepmother. The stepmother wasn’t close to A-mei so she hadn’t gone to visit A-mei. The girl said that she was a friend of A-mei, and asked if she could take a look at her room? The stepmother agreed. We haven’t touched her room since we left, she said. The girl walked in and had a look, and saw this was true: the wardrobe, desk, etc. had all been left as they were. She saw a photo album, and asked if she could look through it; the stepmother said yes. It had photos from when A-mei was a baby, and then a photo from Kindergarten, A-mei with another girl, holding hands. Do you know who the other girl was? It was her: it turned out that they had been good friends in Kindergarten, but she had forgotten. No wonder she felt so close to her at first glance!
- (This is a ghost story from Tennessee that Fifth Uncle found on the web. When he told his students, he changed it to Nantou (南頭) in Taiwan.) There is a railroad crossing, where every time a car stops on the tracks with the ignition off, it would be pushed forward, mysteriously—so that the train wouldn’t crash into the car. The story is that a school bus had once broken down on the tracks just as the train was coming; the train had crashed into the bus and everyone had gotten killed. Ever since then, the ghosts of the children haunted the railroad crossing and whenever they saw a car stop on the tracks, they would push it forward, so that it would not meet the same fate.
A reporter went to the bar in this town and heard this story, but he didn’t believe it; he wanted to test it for himself. He heard that a lot of people would drive their car onto the tracks on purpose to test the story, and every time, their car would be pushed off the tracks. The reporter, wanting proof, bought a lot of baby powder to put around the car—do you know why? Because if the story were true, then there should be handprints around the car after it gets pushed.
The reporter drives to the intersection, but since everyone wanted to try, there was a car ahead of him at the crossing, trying this experiment, and a car to the back, also waiting to try this experiment. He looks again, but suddenly the car to the front and the car to the back have both disappeared! Then his car starts moving forward… until it stops on the railroad tracks. The alarm goes off and the gates are closing. The reporter tries to start his car again but it won’t start; he tries to open the door but it won’t open. The train crashes into the car and kills the reporter. The police come to investigate the incident, and they find handprints on the back of the car. It turned out that the ghost children were angry at the reporter for doing this trick on purpose, so they had pushed his car to the intersection.
- This is a true story, about your grandpa. He would walk with his three other brothers to and from school, besides this large waterway (水溝). The road back is downstream, so they would play rock-paper-scissors to decide who would take the backpacks of all four of them; the other three would swim downriver. Swimming, they could go faster than anyone who walked. One day, your grandpa was swimming, and his younger brother was walking. While swimming, he encountered a corpse in the reeds, so he climbed out and used a stick to drag the body onto land. (You’re not supposed to touch a corpse in the water with any part of your body, and you also have to prevent the water from the corpse from flowing back until someone deals with the corpse.) They went to seek help. It turned out that the boy had gone missing a few days back. The boy’s parents came running, and his mother called his name in anguish. The moment he did so, blood came out of his seven orifices (七孔—eyes, nostrils, mouth, and ears), all at the same time, and flowed into the stream. This is a scientific impossibility: after three days, the blood will have congealed. The doctors couldn’t explain it. But this really happened.
- There’s a guy who went to the same university as your dad, National Taiwan University (台大). He was very smart and had excellent grades, and felt like he didn’t need to listen to his parents. He agreed to go hiking up a mountain with three of his classmates over the winter break. He arrived home and told his parents his plans. His mom urged him not to go; it’s too dangerous, she said, but he refused to listen: he wanted to go, and besides, he organized the outing; what would his classmates think of him if he backed out?
So the next day he packed his stuff and slipped out in the morning, before his parents woke up, and met up with his classmates. It was cold on the mountain; a cold front was going through. It snowed and they hadn’t prepared for the weather at all—they were all in short sleeves. After four days, they were supposed to have come back, but they didn’t, so the police sent a search party. They found that the four classmates had all frozen to death, huddling together. Each of the three other classmates had their arms close to their bodies, but our student, since he was the leader, had his arms around everyone else’s. They brought the coffins midway up the mountain, because the roads only went there; the search party carried the corpses there. They put the first three bodies in without a problem, but they couldn’t put the last one in—because his arms were still open to embrace the others, and they were frozen stiff. His mom came up the mountain to see him, and when she saw him, started scolding him. “You didn’t listen to me when you were alive, and you don’t listen to me even when you’re dead!” And suddenly his arms snapped down to his sides.
I’m convinced there’s an art to storytelling and it’s essential to understand to be a good writer. A good metric for whether the “story” part to a piece of writing is sound is whether it can be told out loud. A story that coheres is easy to remember and spread in this way. What’s the difference between storytelling and writing? In general, I think a story told, compared to one written down, is told more like truth (the story is taken seriously no matter how fictional it is). Storytelling is about performance, about understanding how to capture attention, boiling down a story to the essentials, knowing what you can chunk together, building suspense (slowing down appropriately), putting emphasis on the right parts, and speaking to the audience like a conversation, you know?
How to write ghost stories? Fifth Uncle has a passion for ghost stories: he would go to secondhand bookstores and buy lots of ghost story books; he would look online, and then edit and recombine the stories he found to tell his students. You always have to have some crossing of the real and mystical, he said, something unbelievable has to happen that you can’t dismiss as a dream because it leaves a trace, like something in your pocket. You can’t not believe it, and you can’t dismiss it away using logic.