Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Where are we?

At the end of this week, an old Afrikaans saying came back to my mind. The exact wording eludes me but it goes something like this: We may think we know where we are but all the time we are being carried like great clouds across the sky.

The saying was a favourite of my wise friend, Lynne, poet and publisher and mother of two of my god-children, who died very much too young. Why I remembered it now was the work I’ve had to do on behalf of my Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award nomination. The nomination is being made by the George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling. To help, I’ve needed to provide lists of my work over the 30 years of my storytelling. Performances, workshops, courses, special projects, residencies, work in schools, talks, articles, publications – making the lists has been momentous for me, a real walk down memory lane. Yet how else is it possible to demonstrate the work across time of an oral storyteller, especially when, for most of that time, we didn’t have video recordings?

How to measure storytelling

In a very significant sense, the work of the oral storyteller mostly goes into the air (and, hopefully, the hearts and minds of those who listen). How can its results be measured? Its comparative invisibility creates many problems, especially in regard to what happens in education. Especially after the lovely long comment that arrived this week from Hilary Minns of Warwick University, I’ve been thinking about the problems all over again.

Since the 1980s

When I began storytelling at the beginning of the 1980s, the storytelling revival was just beginning to stir. Some who were instrumental in it, Ben Haggarty prime amongst them, were of the view that storytelling for adults was what was urgently needed to be brought to people’s attention.

Storytelling with children, Ben thought, was already known and accepted.It’s clear he was right about the adult side of things and what he and others have done in this respect has been enormously successful.

Yet it soon became my experience that storytelling with children was, by then, not happening either – not in schools nor even with nursery children.

Before very long, along came the Oracy Project, the huge national enterprise which brought to prominence the essential need and value for children not only of speaking and listening but, very importantly, of stories and storytelling. In the mid-1990s, the Society for Storytelling added a strong voice to the cause with a prominent campaign about Storytelling in Education and an informative poster-style document that went out to all the schools in the land. I played a part in both these major initiatives and throughout the first decade of the new millennium found myself extremely busy both with storytelling in schools and delivering huge numbers of training courses for teachers and other school staff in authorities throughout England and Wales.

And now?

Now I think that a whole host of changes – curriculum changes, target-setting, focus on exam results, funding cuts, computers, show-and-tell methods – are having a massive and deleterious effect. I’ve written about this before in this blog and am still thinking hard about what can be done. The Storytelling Module that Hilary Minns started and runs at Warwick is very unusual in this country. Every year, people who are, or are going to be, working with children find in it an inspirational and highly effective course in telling stories with children and what can be developed from the storytelling. Whenever I go there to do a session, I see and hear how enormously valued it is by the students.

Why aren’t there more of such courses? Shouldn’t there be one in every teacher-training college in the country? What happens when the current generation of storytellers and storytelling teachers cease working? I, for one, simply can’t bear the thought that, in future, children in schools may never hear stories because there’ll be no-one to tell them.

Things change. All the time we’re being carried along like clouds across the sky. I believe it’s high time for us to look about us, take note and speak out.

Next Week: well, next week is a big Anniversary for me. It will be exactly three years since I was diagnosed with the nasal lymphoma from which I now seem to be in full remission. Another reason why I’ve been thinking a lot.

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