One Virtual Night In Switzerland - by Susan Price

Feuer und flamme - another of the evening's entertainments
          About a month ago, I had a phone call from Switzerland. The caller asked if I would take part in a 'Lesenacht.'
           This means 'Reading Night', and is something which has taken place reguarly all over Switzerland for some time. A bit of a party is held in the school, and stories are told or read. Some schools take the children on camping trips, and tales are told around the fire.
          The caller, Alan Hess, explained that his school had not taken part previously, as their academic standard wasn't high enough for it to be considered worth while. But, four years ago, he had introduced 'Functional Grammar' into the school, as a way of teaching reading and English Language.
Michael Halliday
          Functional Grammar is based on the theories of Michael Halliday, and is a way of teaching languages - and that language of signs called writing - in the same way we all learn our first language: by hearing it spoken, constant repetition, affirmation and gentle correction. There is no rote learning of irregular verbs, lists of vocabulary and grammatical terms.
          The school's experiment with Functional Grammar had produced such a dramatic improvement in standards that this year, for the first time, it had been decided to take part in Lesenacht.
      The theme this year was ‘Feuer und Flamme’ or ‘fire and flame.’ It seems that, in German, this can mean ‘strenuous effort’ or ‘suspense, surprise.’  This, together with the winter darkness, suggested ghost stories.
          What’s any of this to do with Authors Electric?
         Well, Alan goes under the name of ‘Hess,’ but he is secretly a member of Price Clan. He’s my cousin.
          Who, Alan asked himself, do I know who has a headful of English ghost stories, and is ready and willing to tell them at the drop of a hat?
          So my phone rang, and Alan asked if I could think of a suitable story, and then tell it, via a Skype link, to his school-children for their Lesenacht.
          I was thrilled to be asked. Especially as he offered payment, as for a regular school visit. (I am always galvanised by offers of ready cash.) As it was a virtual school visit, I didn't have to deal with travel to and from airports and and the school didn't have to pay travel expenses.
          Alan and I consulted about the kind of story needed, and I suggested ‘The Strange Visitor’, aka ‘She Wished For Company,’ because the language is quite simple and repetitive. It also lists the parts of the body, as first bony feet come down the chimney and into the fire, followed by legs, knees, thighs, hips, backbone, ribs, shoulders, arms, hands and, finally, a skull.
          The repetition lulls the listeners into an unsuspecting doze, until the story-teller springs the surprise at the end. When asked by the old woman what it has come for, the skeleton replies – in as loud a shout as possible – ‘FOR YOU!’
          Alan said he would work with the children on the text, using Functional Grammar to break it into ‘blocks of meaning.’

WHO OR WHAT?                            PROCESS                                   CIRCUMSTANCES
     An old woman                                 sat                                                by her fire.

       Eine alte Frau                                  sass                                         neben Ihre Feuer.

          (You can learn more about this at Alan’s blog here.
          However, he kept the surprise ending to himself. His class work was intended to help the children follow the story sufficiently that they felt they’d achieved something – they’d listened to and understood a story told in English.
          In my telling, when the old woman remarks that it’s a cold night, the skeleton replies, ‘Aye. Dark, dark and bitter cold.’ I asked if I should alter this, to make it easier, since ‘Aye’ is rather archaic English and ‘bitter cold’ perhaps a little idiosyncratic.
          Alan replied, ‘Why? With Functional Grammar, you don’t try to protect people from complicated language. They learn the living language, not something diluted for them.’
          So I told the story exactly as I would have told it to a class of English children. Alan asked me only to speak clearly and moderately slowly.
          Alan’s mother – my auntie and the head of Price Clan – lives near me, and we did the story-telling from her house, since Alan had tried and tested the internet link between the school and her house. (An ex-teacher, his mother has more than once been interviewed, in English, by his pupils.)
'And the skeleton said...'
          I Gothed it up, in heavy eye-make-up, one blood-red earring and necklace, and a black top with a high, furry collar. (Below the waist I was wearing a very dull skirt, socks and trainers, but no one in Switzerland could see that.)
          Auntie set out the table behind me with her collection of candles – in many and various sizes, shapes and colours. We turned off the house-lights and lit the candles.
          Over in Switzerland, Alan had small groups of children come into the room while the computer screen showed a picture of an old woman by a fireside. There were, I’m told, flickering flame effects and the sounds of a fire burning. This was partly scene-setting, for effect, but also part of the Functional Grammar method – they could see what ‘old woman’, ‘alone,’ ‘fire’, ‘hearth’ and ‘chimney’ mean. It was context.

          When the children were sitting comfortably, Alan switched the screen to me, and I began.
          Another member of Price Clan, my brother Andrew – he’s the one who does all my e-book covers – had suggested that, at the end, where the skeleton shouts, ‘For you!’ I should throw a cover over the webcam, so everything would go dark. I did so, and was gratified by squeals of shock all the way from Switzerland.
A pupil talks to me on-screen while a giant me looks over her shoulder.  Alan is in the foreground.
          So, is there as much of a future in virtual school visits as in e-books? There certainly is. Look at this link.
          And anyone with a Skype account and a computer can set up a link to an author anywhere in the world and bring them right into the classroom.  In case anyone’s interested, I charge £250 for up to two hours, payment via PayPal. (This two hours, of course, includes a great deal of planning, rehearsal and consultation with the school.)

          But digital self-publishing, virtual school visits, on-line classes... And I recently heard of a man who'd emigrated to Canada, and, every week, went shopping for his mother in Dundee, Scotland.
         He contacted her by Skype, took down her shopping list, then got on-line to her local Tesco's and placed her order, which they delivered.
          Shopping trips from Canada to Dundee, story-telling from Brum to Zurich - I love it!


What a lovely atmospheric post, and a magical way for readers to connect with your stories. Storytelling transcends mere words, it feeds on the delight of repetition, the hypnosis of atmosphere, the way the writer judges the give and take with the audience. (And the judicious concealment of slippers.)
Jan Needle said…
absolutely magical! thanks very much for brightening the drizzly pennines. thought-provoking, too. and useful. and...but i won't go on. i can hear a bony finger tapping at the window. i hope it's just rain, but- AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH!
madwippitt said…
Brilliant! School seems so much more fun these days ...
Dennis Hamley said…
School much more fun? It ought to be - but no more, not if our present rulers have their way. But Skype is indeed much more than a wonderful way of sharing with friends and family on the other side of the world. I've already conducted two interviews on it, one for the Oxford Writer and the other, with Cathy Butler, on historical novels for Armadillo, and mentoring sessions with a new writer in Yorkshire and they all worked beautifully and were good experiences. Sue, your story session sounds magnificent and I'm agog now to do one myself. In fact, why can't we at AE form a sort of Skype-reading collective offering both readings and critiques of work?
Susan Price said…
Great idea, Dennis! Are we up for it? Could it be done?
julia jones said…
Completely fascinating. Lead on the Price Clan!
Manxli said…
Have a look at this youtube talk about how schools ought to be!

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