As a coda to my last post, I’d like to describe two anecdotes from my own teaching experience which illustrate the power of stories in practice when working with children.

The first comes from a time when I organised a drama week at the school where I was working to coincide with the end of the autumn term. The aim of the drama week was to provide a framework in which children from different classes could perform to each other. Teachers signed up and ‘performances’ were timetabled according to different ages and levels. Ground rules were kept to minimum: contributions were to be short (no more than ten minutes); lines had to be learnt; there could be dressing up and props but no-one was expected to do anything too elaborate.

In preparation for the drama week, my own class (a group of 6-7 year old beginners) chose to dramatise a children’s picture book we had recently read for Halloween, Meg and Mog. The children had loved the story and were extremely enthusiastic at the prospect of putting on a play. The project included rehearsals, making masks and props, planning costumes, making programmes and invitations, and lasted over several weeks. Although the final production was modest, the children felt a huge sense of achievement and there were a number of significant benefits in the longer term too, including increased confidence and motivation, greater class solidarity, a significant improvement in the children’s willingness to use of English as a natural part of classroom communication, and greater involvement and positive support from their parents. However, the thing that amazed me most as a result of the experience of dramatizing Meg and Mog was the subsequent desire of the children to act out every story that we read together in class! This became something of a ritual with every storytelling session ending with cries of I want to be … / Can I be …? and an instantly improvised play. This is one example of the power of stories, in this case combined with drama, in motivating and engaging children to develop English in a rich and naturally contextualised way.

The second example is rather different and comes from a time when I was invited to a conference in a country that had recently emerged from a long and bitter war. The conference organizers asked me whether I would be willing to demonstrate storytelling techniques with a group of children in the main conference hall for teachers to come and observe. So it came about that I did a storytelling lesson with a group of 30 children, aged 9 -12, with 90 teachers observing – probably one of the most challenging conference sessions I have ever done in my life! I had never met the children before and did not speak a word of their language, although they had been learning English for at least one year, and some of them for longer. The story I chose to use with them was a big book version of Something Else, a wonderful story about difference and exclusion (which I may come back to again in later posts).

At the start of the session, I was extremely aware of 90 pairs of teacherly eyes watching my every move (!), but as the lesson got underway, I completely forgot their presence and focussed entirely on the children. The children’s response to the story was one of the most powerful and moving teaching moments I have ever experienced. Their ability to relate the story to their country’s recent experience of war and suffering was extraordinary. Their attempts to use every bit of English they had available to try to convey and communicate to me, as an outsider to their country, their amazingly mature views about how wrong it is for people to exclude, hate and fight each other, were deeply impressive. You could have heard a pin drop in the hall as they took turns to speak. As well as bringing home the power of stories in a way that I’ll never forget, this experience also led me to think how often we perhaps underestimate the maturity of children’s thinking and also how refreshingly open children are in discussing complex and difficult issues that, as adults, we often tend to shy away from.

These are just two examples from my experience of the power of stories in practice. It would be wonderful to hear yours. Please do share!

References:

Nicholl H. & Pienkowski. J Meg and Mog, Picture Puffin, 1982
Cave K. & Riddell C. Something Else, Picture Puffin 1995

Comments

I live storytelling in the classroom. This year we used famous "Snowman". Do you know that in Russia we call it "snowwoman"I planned the lesson in such a way to show differences and similarities in different cultures.All children love making snowman or snowwoman: we created two different stories: an adventure of a snowman in Russia and an adventure of a snowwoman in Britain.The children were happy and at the same time they coved some cultural things in a very natural way

Dear TatyanaThank you so much for sharing your experience of using Raymond Brigg's classic book 'The Snowman' to show similarities and differences between cultures. I can imagine what a wonderful picture book it is to use in a context such as Russia where children are so familiar with snow! I love the way you got your children to create two different adventure stories of a snowwoman in Britain and a snowman in Russia. It would be fascinating to know how old the children were and how you approached creating these stories with them. Did you do it all together as a class?I also had no idea that it's 'snowwoman' in Russia - so many thanks for teaching me that! It also makes me realise how much we take things for granted inside our own 'cultural boxes' - but I'll definitely think of 'snow people' being either 'snowman' or 'snowwoman' from now on!  

Dear Carol,
I really appreciate your interest in techniques of creating stories with my students. Actually the whole class participated in creation the story. the students are 8-9 yeas old. First we started with a short questionarie; what they know about making a snowman or a snowwoman, their appearance,clothes etc;what they are not sure about and what the want to learn about it. They asked their classmates, parents, teachers.
Then we moved to another issue of the story: adventure. They suggested a lot of ideas but of course we discussed and took one for implementation.
We thought about the plot as well as the language, through the story we revised the following topics: clothes, seasons, appearance, adjectives. The children were really happy with the story itself, I as a teacher was happy with revising language activities without mentioning them.
Finally they dramatised the story and presented it at the teachers and parents meeting before Christmas.
Last year we creared the story about Santa Claus and Father Frost, their meeting and discussion about differences and similarities of celebrating Christmas in Britain and in Russia

Hi TatyanaThank you so much for letting us all know the age of the children and for explaining the process you went through to create the story - it sounds very rich and as if both you and the children got so much out of it! I also love the way your experience illustrates so beautifully how something like the creation of a story can be the springboard for so much natural language development in such a 'painless' way - the children were learning so much but almost without realizing it because they were so motivated and happy with their story! I can imagine how proud and delighted all the parents were with the dramatized version too!The story you did last year about Santa Claus and Father Frost also sounds a wonderful way of approaching cultural similarities and differences with children - and great fun!Thank you again, Tatyana - and it would be great to hear if anyone else has had similar experiences in creating stories with children! 

Dear Carol
It's true that for someone who's passionate about storybooks I can sometimes overlook the virtues of children's own stories and working outwards from these stories.
One way of giving children their own voice through stories which are already written is to let them personalise storybooks. We sometimes assume that children have vivid imaginations. I'm sure they all do somewhere (!) but some need a little extra help in unlocking their imaginative flow. Storybooks are an invaluable source of imagination for many children. This is slightly an aside to creating stories with children but the creative process is omnipresent nonetheless.
The children take the story they've read and using the vocabulary they've learnt around the subjects in the story can personalise it and re-create their own story. It's a very enriching process. So, take for example Wolves by Emily Gravett. In this story the rabbit goes to the library and chooses a book about Wolves. He reads and reads and learns a great deal about Wolves and the way they live. He also learns first hand that Wolves like to eat rabbits! As part of our workshops (The Story Seeds) we get children to re-write and re-enact the story and replace the animals with different ones. They can even have the rabbit eating the wolf. They decide: it's their story. It just means they have concrete scaffolding around which to base their story.
Finally, I love the fact that snowmen are called snowwomen in Russia. As a big Equal Opportunities and Diversity advocate this is a wonderful piece of trivia! Thanks Tatyana.
Thanks Carol. I'm loving your blogs!
Jo
 

Dear JoThank you so much for joining in the discussion and for raising the point about the wonderfully enriching potential many stories have for getting children to create their own personalized versions. I completely agree with what you say about the need to help children 'unlock their imaginative flow' (it's very difficult for any of us to be imaginative on demand!) and, as Fisher has pointed out in his book 'Teaching children to think', creativity always comes from somewhere, it doesn't happen in a vacuum.The example you give of using Wolves by Emily Gravett is fabulous and I can just imagine how memorable the storytelling session - and the language - become for the children as they invent their own versions including such unlikely, and for them no doubt hilarious, events as the rabbit eating the wolf. Your point about the 'concrete scaffolding' is vital here too. By providing a model through the original story, children are freed up to use their imaginations in creating their own versions without feeling constrained by the limited language they know. This also leads to a huge sense of achievement and feeling of success, and can be great for developing children's positive self-esteem.Even with children who are at the very early stages of learning English, I've found this technique can work very well. For example, children can write their own versions of a book with a simple repetitive, rhyming language pattern like Brown Bear, Brown Bear (e.g. Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? I see a blue horse looking at me) by just substituting the names of the animals and the colours. They can then create their own picture books, and take turns to read each others' books, and you can also read them to the class. An added benefit of getting children to read each others' stories is that they're writing for a real audience too!Thanks again, Jo, for this great contribution.  

Thanks for the blog about the power of story telling. I feel that story telling is an art. From my experience of telling stories to the students of aged 10 and 12 years old, I feel that we can engage with young minds only when we are very passionate about rendering or telling the story. I often tell fairy tales to my children. We even have a wonderful collection of fairy tales in our library.
One story which I have said many times in the classroom is the story of CINDRELLA. Little children love to hear the story from me again and again. What I understand is that children enjoy stories about fairies and their magical powers.
I once even put a mime show on the stage with my young children. It was also musical. I selected the best compositions of instrumental music as a background score. The concept of the show was like this. Few children are on the stage. They are dressed in rags. They are very poor and don’t have shelter. They have empty sacks in their hands, and rummage through the garbage for food. They are also very hungry. After some time, these kids go to sleep hungry and tired. The next scene is that Santa enters the stage. We played the song jingle bells in the background. The children wake up from sleep, rub their eyes and they are surprised to see Santa with white beard, red dress and a big sack in his hands. Then Santa opens his sack, and takes out a lot of sweets, gifts and balloons for the children. They play with Santa on the stage, and feel happy for sometime. Finally, Santa sends them to sleep and goes away. In the morning, the children again rummage through the garbage…and it is again another day of hunger…….
I had a workshop with the children about their roles and props. We did many rehearsals too. What inspired us to create this mime are the fairy tales and stories. Here the power of stories inspired us to put a mime show.
Regards,
Suresh
 

Dear SureshMany thanks for your fascinating and rich contribution. I completely agree with you about the importance of passion when rendering or telling a story to children - if we don't feel it ourselves, how can we expect the children to.I'm so glad also that you've raised the power of fairy tales in inspiring children to want to listen to stories again and again. The magical transformative power in a tale like Cinderella, as well as e.g. the triumph of true merit over evil, is what helps to make it so gripping for children. I expect you may know the book 'The uses of enchantment' by Bruno Bettelheim (Penguin books) which, although written in the 1970s, is still today a classic in helping us to understand the significance and meaning of fairy tales and the human themes they contain such as e.g. sibling rivalry in Cinderella, which give them such universal appeal.Your description of the mime show you developed with your young children is wonderfully vivid and I can feel that it must also have led to a lot of learning beyond the mime itself as well as being creative and fun for the children to do. Thank you so much again for sharing this example of the way stories inspire. I wonder if you ever also use traditional tales from the children's own culture? If so, it would be wonderful to hear about your experience with these stories too.  

India has a rich tradition of Stories and Story tellers. Children learn stories at an early age, in the lap of their mothers and grandmothers. The famous stories in our culture are from the great mythology The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. There are many stories within The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. The stories are very interesting.

The famous Indian story books are The Panchathantra and The Jataka Tales. The Panchathantra is a book of animal fables. This is a book of animal stories which teach moral lessons to children. In Panchathantra, plants and animals can speak and communicate with human beings. The famous Panchanthra stories are The Hunter and the Doves, The monkey and the crocodile, The Blue Jackal.

Each region of India has its own style of storytelling. The different styles of storytelling are called as Kathaprasangam, Harikathas, and Villupattu etc. The performer usually narrates the story with music, drama, and dance. The performances are held in temples and other social gatherings. There is also a tradition called PATTA CHITRA KATHA (paintings made on leaves and clothes) and the storyteller tells the story through these pictures.

We often tell the tales from The Panchathantra, The Jataka and the epics in the classroom. We also have good picture books and story books in English on our epics and tales

Regards,

suresh

 

 

 

Dear SureshThank you so much for your message and for describing the rich tradition of story telling in India in such fantastic detail. It's wonderful to hear how the tradition of oral story telling on mothers' and grandmothers' laps (and fathers and grandfathers too these days maybe?) is still so alive and well in Indian culture as I feel sure it is something that has sadly waned in a lot in other countries, such as Spain where I live and the UK where I'm from, and been replaced by putting children in front of TVs or computer games to keep them occupied instead.The animal stories you mention sound fabulous - and I wonder how similar or different they are to stories such as Aesop's fables which I'm sure you also know and which are also full of moral lessons for children (well, and adults too)? I have a fabulous Oxfam book of traditional children's tales from around the world and it seems that there are many different cultures that also use animal stories to tell moral lessons - I remember several from Latin America (one about a tortoise from Venezuela) and also from Africa (one about a dog from Senegal) although unfortunately I haven't been been able to lay my hands on the book before writing this to be able to go into more detail. I used to use these tales sometimes with my older primary children, 10-12 year olds, as a way in to their learning about other cultures and festivals and they were always fascinated at the similarities with stories they knew despite the contexts being so different. I would love to know more about the different styles of storytelling that you mention - your description is so vivid and I can imagine how engaging and inspirational such a story telling performance must be. In fact it reminds me of something Edie Garvie once said in a talk, and I think also in her book 'Storytelling as Vehicle' - that story tellers of the kind you describe don't just tell a story, they sing it and dance it and live it! Very much look forward to hearing from you again about this - and thank you again for opening up such a rich vein in the discussion. 

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