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Storytelling scholar brings wonder to his classes

English lecturer Derek Gordon's classes are too spellbound by their teacher's mesmerising eloquence to be bothered writing notes - and that's just the way he wants it to be.

Mr Gordon alias 'Bringwonder' the tale-telling troubadour for 21 years in schools and festivals throughout the land was New Zealand's first-ever full-time professional storyteller - a rare species.

Now he's continuing what he can't help doing at university level, to the delight of students who've likely never witnessed such animation in the halls of academia.

He might just introduce a tutorial with a bout of harp music, or recount the ancient Chinese legend of the Monkey King to a rapt audience of mainly Asian students in the increasingly popular Speaking: Theory and Practice paper.

Whether re-enacting a famous speech by the likes of Greek leader Pericles during a mass bone burial, orating epic Greek legends of Troy and Oedipus, or Shakespeare's Hamlet in the tragedy paper, Mr Gordon blends theatricality and theory in his inimitable teaching style at the Auckland campus.

"Research shows it's far better to engage with the lecturer and not enslave yourself to taking notes, " he says. He sends them formal lecture notes later.

Class time is devoted to enlivening course material and texts through his lifelong passion for the spoken word. He likes to involve students in role-playing for added dramatic effect.

Mr Gordon, who has never had formal training in acting or elocution, says storytelling is in his blood. His mother, aged 87 now, was an actress and performer who toured with concert parties during World War II. He vividly recalls her rehearsing, and also telling him stories.

As a child asthma sufferer he turned to reading instead of rugby.

"I was the guy at the edge of the rugby field writing poetry and reading classical literature. In a single sex boys school that was a dangerous thing to do."

But it was at Hamilton Boys High School that his theatrical leanings emerged when he played Hamlet at the age of 17, sharing the stage with poet, the late Alan Brunton and film-maker Leon Narbey.

During a stint as a secondary school teacher, Mr Gordon wove his irrepressible love of poetically crafted stories into his teaching. Eventually, he took his students' advice and in 1981 began fulltime storytelling in the guise of Bringwonder.

He earned a living for 21 years as a roaming raconteur in schools and arts festivals throughout New Zealand and Australia with stories and legends from across different cultures, from Rudyard Kipling's animal tales to Asian, Celtic and ancient Greek legends.

In 2000, he enrolled in a Master's in English at Massey and completed a thesis on why so many 16 and 17-year-olds take Classical Studies in New Zealand.

He discovered that in 1999, more students in this age group were taking classical studies than accountancy.

What's more, his research - which he is shaping into a book showed that students of classical studies did better at university - the result of the subject's eclectic knowledge base encompassing philosophy, psychology, religion, art, history and language, he says.

While a student, his university teachers "became aware that they had in their midst an unusual someone with a genetic predilection to loquacity," he quips. Following this recognition, he was invited to join their ranks.

Whatever age or academic level his audience, Mr Gordon is convinced of the primal power of storytelling as a teaching tool, an arousing emotional experience and a means of fulfilling an innate human need for meaning, insight and connection.

"Stories are a doorway, and once you open that doorway and glimpse another world you begin to understand the culture that contains that story."

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