Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters – Bringing Up The Evidence

Last Sunday morning, inspired by the previous day’s episode of Clare Balding’s Ramblings on Radio 4, we didn’t hang about. We got going quickly on our way through London and down the A13 to seek out Rainham Marshes and, specifically, the RSPB Centre there.

The day was a terrific adventure. Clare Balding had been talking on her programme with the actor Sam West, a passionate birder and frequent visitor to the Rainham Marshes Centre. Together they did an excellent job of inspiring me for one. But in my particular case they were only part of the inspiration. Even while listening to the programme, I’d been remembering that, years ago (in fact in 1997) I’d done a storytelling project with some Rainham children as part of a much larger project on Local Legends with children in Havering schools.

The inspiration of secret places

One of my aims in my Local Legends project had been to get the children thinking and talking about their locality by remembering their secret places where they liked to spend time. I wanted them to think about these play places both as an end in itself and as a springboard to creating new stories of their own. The aim bore fruit: it was evident how greatly they seemed to enjoy this approach. One particular boy – and I’ve never since forgotten that he was from Rainham – showed a degree of pleasure that gave me some pause for thought. His passion for Rainham Marshes moved me. I loved the sense of secret adventure he communicated as he talked about the wetlands, the intimacy of the love he felt for the dens he’d made there and the pride with which he used his private knowledge to create a new story around his experience.

So when we set off for Rainham on Sunday, that boy was vividly in my mind. Then as we got to the area where I thought the RSPB Centre must be, I began to get another very strong feeling as we drove back and fore along Wennington Road, trying in vain to find the place. We’d been so keen to set off, I hadn’t even looked up directions or a specific address! We were still searching when, suddenly on Wennington Road, I spotted a school called Brady School. ‘I’m sure I’ve worked in that school,’ I told Paul.

I was right. Since returning from our adventure – and, yes, we did eventually find the RSPB Centre thanks to a smiling man we consulted – I’ve been through a pile of papers kept from that Havering project. And among them I came upon a plastic envelope full of letters from Brady School. Reading back through the letters this week, I’ve not only been heartened by their warmth and expressiveness and the strength of the children’s response to the project. I’ve also been impressed by the children’s perceptive recognition of the variety of the techniques that we’d used over the course of our time together, namely four half-day sessions over the course of four weeks.

Children’s reflections

The letter-writers thank me for telling them Havering legends. ‘I was thrilled that you could remember so much, and how many stories you could get out of Havering.’  One letter-writer said the stories I’d told had got her ‘thinking about all the other stories that are hidden and that’s why I went to the library to look in books.’ Particular appreciation is shown of an important feature of legend – that it teaches  that ‘the same thing can happen in the past and present’. Mention is also made of how I as the storyteller had also acted as a story-transporter for, as the Havering project progressed, I not only told the Havering legends I myself had researched. I also retold the stories I picked up in other schools, including the new stories that were created as part of the project as children drew on their own local experience to create new legend-like stories of their own.

A number of the Brady School letters show a good awareness of practical aspects of storytelling: ‘ The one thing I liked about when you told the stories is the expression you put in, it made me want to hear more and more.’ But the most often highlighted of all the points that the children make is how the project ‘gave us a chance to write a story about our own experience.’ The children valued the sense of independent creativity which drawing on their own experience awakened. ‘You gave us the opportunity to decide what we wanted to do.’ ‘I liked writing the stories because we could let our imaginations run wild.’ ‘I really enjoyed writing my story because it felt like my story came alive.’ ‘ The most valuable thing I learnt was it makes it easier to write a story closer to home, because you can have a longer more involved look at what you are writing about.’ ‘ I couldn’t wait until Monday came because I wanted to share my story with you.’

 The letter-writers also notice the variety of strategies we used for approaching the writing experience.  ‘I learnt lots of different ways to tell a story, like telling a story with pictures, or two people doing a bit of a story each.’ ‘I have learnt that it is important to stick with an idea when you have one.’ Many comment on how much they enjoyed becoming story tellers themselves, orally describing their experiences of their secret places, telling their ideas for their stories, then telling their completed stories to each other and to the class. ‘My most valuable moment was when we actually done the story telling because it was very interesting.’ A number of the letter-writers are touchingly keen that I should return and that the work should be extended. ‘ Thank you very much again but I’d like the other classes to have the same experience.’

Do you possess such evidence?

Thinking about these Brady School letters has been an important part of my week. I have realised that the reflections they contain form part of an enormous store of evidence which I hold in my own possession, both in my memory and in boxes of papers, about the value of storytelling in education. If there was somewhere I could place this evidence, perhaps adding to evidence from other storytellers or teachers or parents, what a lot it would say about this hugely important subject. In one sense the evidence is anecdotal – there are certainly no statistics, no evidence of measured progress. Yet what the children actually say – especially since it is both heartfelt  and perceptive – is, I feel, perhaps the most valuable of all possible assessments. It encourages me to ask whether you too possess any similar evidence and, if so, would you be prepared to share a tiny piece of it on this Blog?

Dear Mary …

Talking about reflections (and on the right is my favourite Reflections from Rainham Marshes photo) let me conclude with one whole letter from amongst those that came from Brady School. I think it speaks volumes on its own account but  I am especially moved by it for two different reasons. One is how subtly it refers at the end to a true story we heard in the course of the project: a boy recalled an ice-covered pond in the locality where, some years before, a man had drowned. Before we concluded our work, however, that same  boy had created an additional part  to his story in which a little girl who later fell into the pond was at dire risk of drowning until she felt a hidden hand pushing her upwards from the depths below.

My other reason for being specially moved by the letter is a comment that appears in an accompanying note from the class teacher. The teacher notes that, the previous year, the negative attitude to work of the girl who wrote it was causing a great deal of concern. What a change! ‘I thought it was a lovely, thoughtful letter,’  the teacher adds. I agree. It makes me feel both proud and humbled that – like Clare Balding for me last Sunday – I provided some inspiration.

A very lovely, thoughtful letter

Dear Mary

I am writing to you to say ‘thank-you’ and to answer your questions. First I will say thank-you, I have learnt a lot about story telling and writing and most of that was down to you!

I liked listening to and writing the stories. I will try and keep writing stories at home, you never know, maybe one day you may read one of my stories and be proud to say you once taught me. Now I carry a note book for ideas for stories. I hope you don’t mind, I copied that idea from you.

I hope you enjoyed it as much as me, we may meet again, the past may push up the present!

Yours sincerely …


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One Response to “Storytelling Starters – Bringing Up The Evidence”

  1. Annalee Curran Says:

    What a treat to share in these reflections – of the present and the past – and to think of those children being so enriched by their experience!

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