I host regular story-and-song-sharing evenings for the international students at the University of Exeter, UK. After telling a couple of stories myself, I open the floor for the students to give us something from their own culture. By the end of the evening, we have invariably heard something from every one of the languages and cultures represented. In the very first session I held, 15 years ago, a young man from Thailand told the story ‘Garuda and Turtle’. This beautiful tale about cooperation stuck in my head and has been in my repertoire ever since. I wish the teller’s name had stuck in the same way. Wherever he is, I thank him for being the first of hundreds of students to share their stories so generously.

‘Garuda and Turtle’

Storytelling tip: Encourage the students to share personal experiences

A short relevant folk tale can introduce a new topic and stimulate the students’ imaginations. In this case, the story teaches us about the value of cooperating, and it is an ideal way to open up a discussion about how to learn English cooperatively.

Before telling

Tell the students that you are going to tell a Thai story about Garuda, the sacred bird of the gods, and an ordinary turtle he caught in a swamp. It’s a good idea to show one or two images of Garuda. Because the story itself and the follow-up activities provide an ideal opportunity to explore cooperation, you need do nothing else before you begin.

While telling

Invite the students to join in the repetition of If you beat me, you can eat me and Just ahead of you, Garuda. Pause momentarily before saying these phrases the first time they appear, and gesture to the students to say them along with you from then on.

Pause just after you ask How did Turtle beat Garuda? Encourage the students to come up with different ideas, before you finish the story.

After telling

Allow a few moments for the ending to sink in, before the students talk about the meaning, first in pairs and then as a class. Here are some follow-up activities:

1 Put the students into groups of between six and 12, and give one person in each group scissors and a copy of the story. This person should cut the text into as many pieces as there are students in the group, put the pieces face-down, mix them up and get each group member to take one piece and attach it with sticky tape to another member’s back, so that person cannot read it, but all the others can. The group’s aim is to communicate verbally, without touching the pieces of text or each other, so that they end up standing in a circle facing outwards in the correct order of the story as quickly as possible. When they are confident that they are in the right order, you can step into the circle and check. If they are not correct, ask them to continue. As each group finishes, invite them to discuss the strategies they used to complete the task and how they could have cooperated more effectively.

2 First, tell your students a true personal story about cooperation. For example, I tell my students about the time when I sprained my ankle as I entered the stage on the first night, playing Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In true ‘the show must go on’ style, I carried on acting as my ankle swelled up like a balloon. I came off after the long opening scene in pain, and the worried-looking director asked if I could carry on. The backstage crew, the rest of the cast and I came up with a plan. Instead of walking on stage for my next scene, I sat on an improvised throne among the audience with my foot up, and delivered all my lines from there. My fellow actors adapted to the new set-up brilliantly and, if anything, it enhanced the whole performance. We did the same each night for the rest of the week.

Tell the students that it is now their turn to tell a story about a past experience (from inside or outside the classroom). It should involve a problem that they could only solve by cooperating with others. Display the following prompts:

  • An experience when you cooperated with others successfully
  • An experience which involved both cooperating and competing
  • A time when you learnt a lot by working together with others

You can elicit possible groups of people they may often cooperate with, such as club members, fellow music makers, family members, friends, co-workers, fellow students, etc. Give them a choice as to how they prepare to tell their story – they can choose one of the prompts and write down, draw or make a mental note of their responses in the time you allocate. Make it clear that it is OK if some students don’t come up with a story to tell.

Give them a few minutes to listen to each other’s stories in small groups. Ask them to check that they understand and can remember the stories they have heard well enough to summarise them. Then, ask each student to pair up with someone from a different group and tell them summaries of the stories they learnt.

Next, invite a couple of students to tell the whole class the favourite story they were told. The personal stories the students tell are likely to be influenced by their cultural heritage, and it might be appropriate to draw attention to this.

This kind of personal story sharing provides an opportunity for you, as teacher, to discuss your thoughts and your approach to cooperative learning with your students.

3 Get the students to work together in groups to prepare a short presentation about cooperative learning. This might involve a talk, sketch, poem, song, poster, a documentary video in which different students give their opinions – or any combination of these.

4 Refer the class back to ‘Garuda and Turtle’ and talk about how central cooperation is to Eastern thought and culture. The students could also read more about Garuda, the sacred bird deity in Hindu and Buddhist mythology.

You can watch a YouTube recording of me telling ‘Garuda and Turtle’ with international adult learners at www.youtube.com/watch?v=dl6YqLq9tf4&t=48s.


David Heathfield is a freelance storyteller, teacher and teacher trainer. He is the author of Storytelling With Our Students: Techniques for Telling Tales from Around the World and Spontaneous Speaking: Drama Activities for Confidence and Fluency, both published by DELTA Publishing. He is a member of The Creativity Group.


Garuda and Turtle

Garuda, the bird of the gods, flew with power and speed.

He flew down from the mountain of the gods, and a wind blew across the land below as his wings beat the air. He shone so brightly that none could look at him.

Garuda flew down towards the great swamp where Turtle was slowly swimming, took Turtle in his powerful beak and was about to swallow, when Turtle cried:

‘I am too small a creature for you to eat, Great Garuda, let me go!’

Garuda paid no attention to Turtle.

‘Let me go, and I will beat you in a race across the swamp. If you beat me, you can eat me.’

Now Garuda began to pay attention to Turtle. He opened his beak, allowing Turtle to drop back down into the swamp.

‘I am Garuda, the fastest and most powerful of all. How could a small, slow creature like you beat me?’

‘I will prove it. Be here tomorrow at sunrise, and I will race you in any direction across the swamp. If you beat me, you can eat me.’

Proud Garuda laughed at the small turtle and flew into the sky, the sun reflected in his long and powerful wings.

‘Until sunrise!’ he called.

At sunrise the next morning, Garuda returned to find Turtle waiting.

‘I am Garuda, the fastest and most powerful of all. How could a small, slow creature like you beat me? I will eat you now.’

‘If you beat me, you can eat me. In which direction shall we race across the swamp, Great Garuda?’

‘Towards the East, the rising sun.’

Garuda flew calmly towards the East, his wings magnificent in the rising sun.

After a short while, he called down: ‘Turtle, Turtle!’

‘Just ahead of you, Garuda,’ came the answer from the swamp below.

Garuda was amazed and changed his course, flying towards the South. He beat his wings and flew faster over the swamp.

After some time, he called down: ‘Turtle, Turtle!’

‘Just ahead of you, Garuda,’ came the answer from the swamp below.

Garuda could not understand. He turned sharply towards the West and flew with such power and speed that a great wind blew across the swamp.

After a long time flying, he was becoming tired. He called down: ‘Turtle, Turtle!’

‘Just ahead of you, Garuda,’ came the answer from the swamp below.

Now Garuda was afraid. How could a small creature like Turtle make the Great Garuda look so foolish?

Summoning the last of his energy, Garuda beat his wings hard and soared at lightning speed towards the North.

But after many hours flying, Garuda became so exhausted that he only just managed to call down: ‘Turtle, Turtle!’

‘Just ahead of you, Garuda,’ came the answer from the swamp below.

Garuda had lost the race.

Ashamed, he flew on and on, returning to Sumeru, the sacred mountain of the gods.

But, I ask you, how did Turtle beat Garuda?

In the great swamps of Thailand, there swim a great many turtles and, in that night, a message had been passed on from one to another, all across that great community, so that every turtle knew how to answer the call of Great Garuda.