Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Storytelling in Education

This week in Wales, the big feature of my morning walks has been the flocks of birds whirling round the sky, wings whirring as they go over my head. Right now, a whole lot of them are perched in the tree behind the house. They chatter ceaselessly in some kind of group talk. ‘It’s getting colder,’ I think they’re saying. ‘Soon it will be time to go. Remember the age-old way.’

The excitement is palpable. So too is the purpose. I wish I could send them right now to all those places where school curriculum is decided. The message would be: ‘Please pause awhile in your deliberations and consider the place of story in children’s lives. In particular, take a look at the potential of the told story and require teachers to give room for it in schools and also learn how to do it themselves if they don’t already know.’

Comment from Hilary Minns:

Hilary Minns teaches storytelling at Warwick University. As a guest storyteller, I’ve visited the courses she runs over a number of years and on each occasion it has been abundantly evident how all her students love her and how keen they have become to follow her example. She is an inspiring storyteller and an inspirational teacher. The Comment she sent in to my Blog on Principles and Practice is an important contribution to the evidence I’m starting to gather on Storytelling in Education. 

Hilary’s comments matter. She began working life as an infant teacher, later moved on to teach 7 and 8 year olds, then became headmistress of an Infant School in Coventry. She is also the author of the influential book: Read It To Me which followed the reading lives of five young Coventry children. One part of her Comment relates how she herself began telling stories. It was while she was on teaching practice. She ‘wanted to share some Hans Andersen stories with my class of 6 year olds, but the stories were too difficult and too long to read aloud, so I adapted them and told them orally with the help of pictures I drew on the blackboard.’

Flexibility … imagination … belief in the power of story … the determination to share the sources of your own inspiration: I think these are all vital qualities for teachers to have and I read them all in what Hilary says. How many times have teachers said to me after a storytelling session when they’ve seen how children have sat up and listened and participated: ‘This is why I came into teaching. Why did I stop doing this kind of thing?’

One child’s response

Hilary’s comments include a short description of one child’s response to a John Burningham story. ‘ “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.’

Anthony’s is the kind of freely-offered insight teachers love to hear. It’s a frequent experience when time and importance are given to stories. So isn’t it terrible to hear what Hilary also says in her Comment: ‘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.’

No time for stories

More Primary School teachers than I could count have said the same thing to me: ‘There’s no time for stories in our school.’ To me, this is as lamentable as failing to give children decent food. It’s like feeding them only on turkey twizzlers, leaving out the healthy stuff.

As someone who knows all too well the pressures in education, Hilary offers a cogent reason for the failure. ‘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.’

Where I most protest again this sad state of affairs – and it’s been the basis of the hundreds of courses and workshops that I myself have run for teachers – is that you can teach through story. You can teach so many of the central things that it’s your job to try and get children to achieve. But in order to do this, you simply can’t leave story till the end of the day. It has to become part of your curriculum planning. You have to learn strategies not only for telling the story but for enabling children to work with the story you’ve told – responding to it, retelling it, researching it, remaking it. All this can involve many excellent things – writing, drawing, painting, acting, music, library and internet research. But centrally it involves awakening imagination, curiosity, language and communication. Isn’t this the most important thing that we can do for our children?

Spread the message

Go birds, go. Tell those who are in charge of things to take another look. And if you’ve got something to say on this matter, please get in touch. Don’t hold back. It’s important. I think it’s time for all those of us who believe in what storytelling in education has to offer importance to try and support each other, speak out about it and make as much noise as the birds.

P.S. I got an email this week from someone enquiring if I could take up a school storytelling booking next week. Sadly, I had to say no. But the first line of the message made me sing out with pleasure: ‘I am a huge fan of storytelling in schools and realise the power of tales for inspiring young people.’ Hear! Hear!

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