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