In my NQT year, I was in awe of our deputy head. He would regularly stroll into assemblies packed with hundreds of primary kids armed with… nothing. No books, freshly-made resource in large lettering or even a selection of topical objects. And the kids loved it, because he told great stories. He didn’t read ’em, he just told ’em. I goggled at his inventiveness, confidence and clarity as he’d have them eating from the palm of his hand at every twist and turn, without resorting to terrible cliches and mixed metaphors. It was magical. He’d say that his confidence was down to telling stories to his kids at home every night. I sat at the back of his assemblies and said to myself ‘I’m going to be able to do that, one day…’
I’ve written about difficulties I have with reading books aloud here, but this post’s about something altogether more prehistoric: telling stories.
I have two sons aged 2 and 4. Governors’ meetings and parents’ evenings aside, I tend to be home for 7 O’Clock bedtime every night; my wife and I take turns between ourselves putting them down to sleep each night.
My youngest son’s bedtime is currently a few lovingly-shared picture books then perhaps a retelling of Goldilocks (or ‘Babylocks’), Three Little Pigs or Cinderella before a couple of songs. Then he (usually) chats himself off to sleep. Lovely.
For my eldest, it’s normally a ‘read story’ followed by a ‘tell story’. A few years ago, our first ventures into storytelling were, necessarily, fairy tales. Then we progressed to stories based in Postman Pat’s Greendale. And it continued with Thomas the Tank Engine’s lesser-known adventures, often involving overheating boilers, mysteriously uncovered train tracks leading to lost worlds and, when the ideas dried up, character cameos from globe-trotting locomotives.
But now it’s different – we’re on the *totally original* Jack stories. They originate from a sunny day and an eventful walk through a local park in May 2017. Our dear sons were squabbling over collecting a few pine cones. So, as the eventful walk had reached its natural conclusion, it was decided that we should use this collection of natural objects to make a secret potion in the garden ‘when we got home…’ (parent code for: ‘we need an incentive to get home before they implode… now’).
Alas, tea-time and bath-time ensued and the secret potion went unmade. But, true to form, my eldest remembered the secret potion at precisely 6.55pm that evening.
“…Daddy, you said I could go out and make it in the garden… we collected all the bits together and put them in my backpack… you promised… it’s all rainy now…” etc.
“Don’t you want to hear what happened to ‘Thomas and Stanislav, the Trans-Siberian Express’?
“No, I want to go outside and make a secret potion now, Daddy…”
“What if we put our magic potion… into our a story?”
[A fraction of a second passed]
“Thomas hasn’t got arms. He can’t make potions. Or take them.”
“Well, how about a story about a little boy who makes magic potions? And… then uses them to turn into…”
“Erm… yeah. Dinosaurs. How about other animals, too?”
“Yeah. What animal shall we start with, Daddy?”
“What about a tiger…?”
“Or a pachycephalosaurus?”
Jack stories are now approaching 10 months old. Their structure is invariably something like this:
- Jack, accompanied by any combination of his younger brother, Michael and his school friends, Peter and Prasarnmit, are intrigued by an animal (often, but not always, a dinosaur) in some way.
- The characters discuss what it would be like to run/climb/eat/smell like that animal.
- They collect ingredients for a magic potion (e.g. pine cones, gravel, coriander, bacon) which they stir up in an old watering can.
- A cunningly-crafted rhyming spell turns Jack et al into animals, e.g. “Milk is white and so is snow // Turn all of us into water buffalo!”
- The animals eat.
- The animals drink.
- The animals face danger.
- The animals escape from said danger in an exciting way.
- Jack and his friends return to the garden to transform back into boys just in time for dinner. Again, a tenuous rhyming couplet is involved (“Underground trains travel down a track // Transform us into Michael and Jack!”)
- A parental figure makes a comment that unwittingly links to their adventures (e.g. if they had transformed into monkeys: “Well boys, you’re looking a bit cheeky today…”). Hilarious. The boys share a private joke about it.THE END.
The stories have evolved somewhat, but remain essentially the same. He loves them, still. I am sure I never explicitly discussed their formulaic nature with him, but only a few weeks into the Jack-era, I messed up. He was looking so little sleepy during one story that I tried to hasten its conclusion… and missed out number 6.
“Did Jack and Peter the walruses get a drink from the pond on the way back to the garden?”
“He forgot to have a drink. All animals need to drink, Daddy. Otherwise they’ll die.”
*What do walruses drink, anyway?? They’re aquatic mammals… but do they go mad like sailors if they drink saltwater??*
“Daddy – stop thinking and say something! Have they had a drink yet?”
“…So, Jack and Peter the walruses had a quick drink from a nearby pond on their way back to the garden.”
That was all that was needed. But a few nights later, his 4 year-old analytic techniques were in action again:
“Where’s the danger bit of the story?”
“The danger bit of the story – Jack and Michael just hid from those big dogs and they didn’t get into much danger. I want some more danger.”
“A chase somewhere? Maybe into the deep dark woods?”
More recently, I had been feeling that Jack stories were approaching their natural coda. Once or twice we did two ‘read’ stories instead of the ‘tell’ story, and I’d even managed to slip in a few tales about Trevor (a charismatic female cat my family once owned).
But the clumsy familiarity of our Jack stories, and the excitement they induce on my eldest’s face, made me persevere.
“OK, son. Jack’s going to have an adventure by himself tonight.”
“No Michael? Or Prasarnmit? Or Peter?”
“No – just Jack. And he’s going to travel to another world.”
“Through a bortal, Daddy?”
“Yes son – a portal to the Masai Mara…”
He’s loving ‘Jack 2.0′; time was right to move the series on.
So, am I making any profound points in this post?
All educators know the power of storytelling: morals, anecdotes, jokes, role plays, dramatic scenarios, social stories and serious political rhetoric all have their place in the classroom. This is not written to go over well-trodden ground about the virtues of reading to kids and the merits of practice, or a rant against modern factors which could be affecting children’s ability to concentrate on oral stories.
My reflections are simply:
- Kids love a framework for a story.
- And once the framework is established, they love to play with it.
- Storytelling is a real gift. It needs passing on!
And looking back on the NQT watching the deputy head in assembly, I’m pleased to say that I *can* now tell stories. I like to think that I’m passing on a passion for it that both my sons and my pupils will remember fondly one day.