Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Looking up

P1070076Here’s a story I remember with laughter and delight every time I think about Laugharne, the place where the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas lived and wrote and also where the novelist and story-writer Richard Hughes had his writing-room high up in the castle walls. This story was created orally by a small group of 11-year old children.

The story:

Merlin was watching over the wall of his castle. Beside him was his favourite seagull. As he looked down, Merlin saw a family of parents and children, obviously tourists, walking along the foreshore of the estuary below. All were munching – crisps from crisp bags, chocolate from wrappers. Then as they passed, one by one they dropped their plastic wrappers onto the ground. Merlin was horrified. When the family had gone by, he sent his favourite seagull down onto the shore to bring him something else that was messing it up.

When the seagull returned, Merlin took what he’d been brought in his gloved hands and moulded it into a ball. Then when the tourists were on their way back, he threw this ball of stuff down onto the ground just in front of the father who was at that moment looking the other way. Suddenly, the man stopped, looked down and exclaimed in horror: ‘Oh no! It’s all over my shoe! Ugh!’ What had the man done? Walked into the mess of dog-poo that Merlin had thrown onto the ground.

‘Don’t like this place. There’s dog-poo everywhere,’ the man said to his wife and children. ‘Let’s get out of here now.’ So the family went and got in their car and started driving out of Laugharne. They’d not gone far when, much to their amazement, a loud, deep voice filled the space in their car. It said, ‘Never drop litter ever again!’

How the story came about:

CatEach day for a week some years ago, in a project called The Boat-House Project, myself and wonderful Welsh artist, Catrin Webster, would welcome a whole lot of children from local Primary Schools and also the area’s Secondary School to the village hall in Laugharne. In the busy day ahead, they’d spend some  time with Catrin doing arty things out at the Boat House where Dylan Thomas lived. The other time they’d spend with me doing storytelling and story-making.

One thing I did with each group was take them on a Memory Walk. We’d go down past the church with the golden cockerel in the steeple and then out onto the shore beside the castle walls until, ahead, we’d see the Boat House. Back at the village hall, I’d ask them each to write a memory list of what they’d seen.  I’ve still kept a few of the lists. They’re great. Litter and dog-poo featured on many. The children really did notice even though, while out on the walk, I often had to surprise them with some exclamation – ‘Oh, look at the cockerel up there! – to get them to lift their gaze from the ground. 

After finishing their lists, they’d get together in groups and talk about what they’d observed and see if they could devise a little story. All of the groups succeeded – and how! The stories were really varied, all drew in some way on their Memory Walks and all, I’d say, were good.

Why I remembered the Merlin story this week:

Simple listI remembered the Merlin story as I sat down to write this blog. I’d been thinking of not including a story this week but concentrating instead on the noteworthy fact that the demise of storytelling in schools has actually been commented upon in the Guardian newspaper several times just lately. One was in last Saturday’s Family section where the columnist, Tim Lott, reported a secondary school teacher complaining that their year 7 intake (that’s 11 and 12 year olds) no longer knew how to tell a story.

On Sunday I thought about this and on Monday, I emailed a letter to the Guardian about the importance of storytelling and how funding cuts and exam pressures have resulted in it vanishing away from schools. My letter didn’t get in. Another did – a very good letter from storyteller and speech and language therapist, Nicola Grove, which pointed out that Tim Lott’s emphasis in his column turned out to have been on story writing, not oracy. Her letter went on to say exactly what needs to be said, loud and clear and by us all:

‘Oracy has been fatally sidelined by government policies, yet we know that oral skills must be in place to ensure the development of literacy. So by all means teach the writing of stories, but get kids telling stories – not just myths, legends and fiction but the events and experiences of their own lives, which is the way we build empathy, resilience and the confidence to speak truth to power.’

I’m glad I got those 11 and 12 year-old children to lift their heads and look on their visit to Laugharne. I’m glad I got them talking, thinking and making. Maybe some will even now recall the stories they made that week and how it was that they made them.

PS: Photos this week – well, two things you wouldn’t see if you never looked up – the bird in the tree and the cat on the ledge. Plus part of  one of those Memory Walk pages.


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2 Responses to “Storytelling Starters ~ Looking up”

  1. Meg Says:

    Dear Mary
    What a good storytelling idea and great news about the Guardian article. We have the same problem in schools here. Teachers are so pressured to get the kids thru national testing. (Newspapers publish tables of schools results!)
    Wonder if the powers at be in schools have much imagination themselves. Perhaps they’re so ‘literate’ that they’ve forgotten how oracy is such a power source for kids.
    Reminded me of a term when I was a Teacher-Librarian and I had to take a weekly class of non-participants during scheduled Religious Instruction time. We were a mixed bag of ages and stages, who explored the garden and made sketches, and then went back under the school to transform them into images for a calendar.
    The principal stopped these sessions. Too many kids wanted to drop out to attend this ‘Religion’ class.
    There’s always hope!
    Kind Regards

  2. Meg Says:

    More thoughts 2 days later
    Well Mary, my earlier suggestion of hope is all very well but really ‘ the universe calls for action'(an almost forgotten slogan of mine).
    Had the opportunity the next day to stand up for the art of storytelling with an online company who touts the actors who read aloud selected books as ‘Storytellers.’ Don’t know that my feedback will make any difference but that Guardian article spurred me on.
    Why couldn’t they call them “Our Readers” or ‘Fluent Readers?’ Have been pushing for Fluent Reading Aloud to be seen as a stepping stone to storytelling for a while now.
    Thirty years ago I challenged a well-known speaker (We were the only ones in the lift) at a literacy conference. I asked why had he ignored the impact of oracy and the power of storytelling. And went on a bit more than that …
    “Ah well, Meg,” he sighed as he got out. ‘You know what they say about water wearing away stone – drop by drop!”

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