Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Principles and Practice

It’s been a good week for thinking. There have been some lovely Autumn colours and I’ve been diverted from the new series I’d planned.

When I made the suggestion last Saturday that future BASE awards should include some that relate to storytelling in education, I started a hare in my own train of thought. Three comments that arrived in the course of the week have made me pursue it.

The proposed new English curriculum:

The comment from Mary – see below – notes that a stated intention of the proposed new English curriculum is that young people should learn to be confident speakers. I thoroughly agree with Mary’s feeling that we should all be celebrating this and finding out more about it. I also think she’s right to suspect that it probably means being able to give a speech and talk well at job interviews rather than storytelling – storytelling  no longer being on the agenda:

Storytelling in schools in decline:

The second comment from Jean notes how, in her own recent experience as a storyteller, longer and more substantial storytelling projects in schools have become so thin on the ground as to be just about non-existent. Even one-off day visits to schools have declined. The third comment from Liz says she is thinking of approaching local schools to see if she can go in to do stories with the children. Her inspiration is based on the belief that children need stories.  

So where are we headed?

Back in the 1980s the National Oracy Project pushed forward a huge new awareness of the value of the oral in education. I know from my own involvement how much exciting pioneering work was done at the time. The positive results were  just beginning to be disseminated when they were swamped by the sudden introduction of the National Curriculum. Gradually over succeeding years storytelling began making a comeback in schools. By the first decade of this century, there was a great deal going on. My own work gave me abundant evidence of how much , including in Early Years work, work with ESL children and the training of teachers.

But what is happening now? Over the last ten or fifteen years, a big expansion has taken place in what is now usually described as ‘performance storytelling’. Storytelling clubs for adults, festivals of storytelling, storytelling evenings – all these have mushroomed. And that’s great for everyone. After all, many storytellers who work in schools and community situations also do performance work. However, I do feel it’s time to think hard and aloud about the implications of this development, especially now that ‘celebrity’ has become so phenomenally important in the world around us. Is storytelling going to become largely a celebrity art? Does the performance side mean that less attention (and less support) will be given to the less visible kinds of storytelling work that take place in schools?

Some responses from me:

Here are a few of the ideas I’ve had while pursuing that hare in my own train of thought. Please do add to these or comment upon them as you see fit.

1. Storytelling in education is not the same thing as ‘performance’ storytelling. Perhaps this now needs to be made very clear and at a very public level. All the storytellers I know who are deeply committed to working in schools have developed a wide range of strategies for engaging children through their storytelling. So it’s not only about telling the children stories. It’s about also involving them in response, developing their ideas, extending their human awareness, developing their spoken language and encouraging their imagination. It’s about thinking of them as storytellers too.

2. Perhaps a new name is needed for this very different, very specialised style of storytelling that is regularly undertaken by storytellers experienced in working in schools. Could it be called story-sharing? Such a term certainly suggests a more equal relationship between storyteller and listeners than in performance storytelling. It indicates how the listener may also become the storyteller. Yet perhaps it’s also a bit too bland, failing to suggest all the other kinds of learning activities that are involved in this kind of work. Maybe ‘participative storytelling’ would be a more suitable term? This would at least differentiate it from ‘performance’. Or what about describing storytellers in schools as specialists in the Narrative Arts? Whatever name could be agreed (and it would be great to have some other suggestions), it would help define and distinguish the special kind of work involved.

3. So what else is needed? My possible list would include the following:

1) a lot of talking aloud about the situation by storytellers who are experienced at working in schools;

2) a sense that a campaign could be undertaken, perhaps with a petition;

3) a letter which could be jointly composed, then sent by individual storytellers to all kinds of people who ought to be informed about the issues concerned – politicians, local education advisers, parents’ associations, schools.

So what else? I’m just thinking here and stirring the pot. Will you join me? If you will, please post or send your responses, comments, ideas or proposals.

To end with something practical, here’s one of the wonderful items that Sam Cannarozzi included in his Society for Storytelling booklet, When Tigers Smoked Pipes. It’s a storyteller’s ending that comes from Mali.

Excuse me, I must be going. Because a flea just gave birth to an elephant in one of the suburbs of the capital city and I simply must go and look!

See you next week.



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5 Responses to “Storytelling Starters ~ Principles and Practice”

  1. Hilary Minns Says:

    The lowly status of storytelling in schools is in some ways understandable. Teachers and their classroom helpers are under a great deal of pressure to raise standards in key subject areas and if this means that there isn’t time for a story at the end of the day, so be it. There’s always tomorrow. But too often tomorrow never comes. The students who take my module Stories and Storytelling at Warwick University often tell me that stories are given a low priority in their schools; in particular, those who work with KS2 children sometimes report that there is no longer any time for personal storytelling, the telling of traditional stories or even stories taken from beautiful picture books.

    This is surprising, when we know that stories promote the development of language (and languages), they help children to gain emotional insights into their own behaviour and that of other people, they teach us about history and geography and about how the world works, and they encourage the development of thought processes. There’s really no substitute for a story-based curriculum. ‘Mr Gumpy shouldn’t have let them all in the boat,’ says four-year-old Anthony as he looks at Mr Gumpy’s Outing and sees everyone falling into the river. That bit about ‘shouldn’t let them all in’ isn’t in the story. John Burningham would never pass judgement on his characters. But Anthony has engaged with the story and responded in his own way.

    So I understand Mary’s anxiety about the demise of storytelling in schools and her fear that children are not being given the opportunity to engage with the process of story and to respond to the characters and ideas their meet in their imagination. But that could change if we gave a higher priority to stories and storytelling. Hats off to Mary for kicking off the debate!

  2. naomi foxcroft Says:

    hi, although I am an advocate for phonics, I am also aware of the massive gap in the balance needed i primary schools – I agree a campaign should take place , happy to work on a petition with you. You mentioned story sharing – have you come accross Storyshapes – they do exactly that.

  3. naomi foxcroft Says:

    I have contacted you before about the need for a petition of some sort on the importance of storytelling in schools, in particular the kind of story sharing that you mention above. You kindly responded that you too were interested in such a petition. Recently I have been doing work in libraries and with teachers on Storyshaping – a way of creating stories collaboratively, and I have also been consulting with University of Cumbria and other speeech , language and communication organisations on the lack of storytelling opportunities in the new draft curriculum. I have finally created a skeleton text for a petition and would love to share it with you for your comments and opinion. Do you have an email address so I can send it to you? Also we have created the TELL ME A STORY campaign, which asks teachers and parents to allow children to tell them a story at least once a week, and offers practical tools for how this can be done. We want the petition to form the backbone of the campaign. I am happy to share the draft website with you for comment to. Perhaps you could email me? Many thanks for the interesting blog. Naomi Foxcroft, Training Manager, Universal Learning Solutions

  4. admin Says:

    Naomi, thanks for this message. I’m replying separately to you to say how glad I am that you are taking up the idea of a Storytelling in Education campaign. I hope lots of storytellers, teachers and educationists generally can get on board. It’s urgent and very important.

  5. Inno Sorsy Says:

    Dear Mary, so good to meet you again. I am still running around the world spreading the stories and trying to persuade storytellers that the work in schools is just as, if not more valuable to me, than the performance and celebrity route. Like you, the National Oracy Project with Diane Cinamon was a real catalyst in my thinking and work up till today. She was a wonderful lady who asked such interesting questions to drive us on. Please get in touch.

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