It has been story telling week these past few days and a lot of teachers have been extolling the pleasures and benefits of telling stories in the classroom. At Larkrise Primary School in Oxford, the school where I work, every week is story telling week – we run the school on a ‘storytelling curriculum’ which roots learning in spoken language and gives disparate subject areas a consistent context.
Larkrise is a large Primary School in East Oxford. We have 450 children on site and a serve truly diverse community. The school has around twenty home languages and the fullest socio-economic range possible – the surrounding estates are home to university lecturers, asylum seekers, doctors and consultants, civil servants, long term unemployed – the lot. This gives us a vast range of cultures and values systems to bring together at the school. The Storytelling Curriculum gives us some effective tools for celebrating diversity and examining links between faiths and values systems.
Our Storytelling Curriculum came about at Larkrise ten years ago, largely as a rejection of those QCA folders with their weird stand-alone guides for teachers which were supposed to be examples but felt statutory. Larkrise spotted story telling as a way to do something different, to be something different, and in pursuing it we changed ourselves. Morale at the school, amongst staff and pupils rose markedly as we followed our new curriculum. SATS results started to rise, from a very low base, and have continued to improve over the time we have followed the Storytelling Curriculum.
Each half term learning is based on a story. Teachers choose their stories from a wide range of sources but one very rich source is Chris Smith’s 147 Traditional Stories for Primary School Children to Retell – I believe every school should have a copy of this book – it’s a goldmine of great tales all written in the storytellers voice and indexed by theme, story type, values, geographical region and so on. It’s invaluable. As a two form entry school we encourage the two classes in a Year |Group to choose the same story and plan together.
We ask teachers to spend some time choosing a story that will work for what they want to achieve in the half term. Will it lend itself to the kind of writing the children will be working towards in literacy? Does it focus on a social need in the class? Will it link appropriately to the other subject areas which will be the focus of the term? Is there an area of the world which is of particular significance to a pupil that thy’re trying to get on board? If I’ve learned one thing over the last ten years that we’ve been doing this it’s that choosing your story makes or breaks your half term’s learning so choose carefully.
In the earliest years stories are often chosen for their appropriacy for choral retelling – something like ‘The Little Red Hen’ or ‘Owl Babies’ works well in F1. As children progress we’re looking for their stories, and their tellings of those stories to become richer and we find lots of tales are great for this – the Greek Myths are popular as are African stories. We have also had success with retellings of ‘true’ stories from history – the D-Day landings, the Great Fire of London and so on work well as stories.
A story sequence in class starts with the teacher orally telling the story to the class. And I do mean ‘telling’, ours is a storytelling curriculum not a story reading curriculum – it’s the immediacy and power of the storyteller we are harnessing not, in the initial stages, the expertise of an author. Some teachers liek to make a bit of a show of the telling, maybe using props or musical instruments, some like to take the children across the cycle path to the natures reserve to make it more special, some keep it simple – all of these are fine. After a few story sequences most teachers cotton on that the power of a good story, well told doesn’t need much assistance from props or theatricals – it’s really about eye contact, expression and the bond between speaker and listener.
The teacher should ideally retell the story several times so that its structure becomes clear to the children. A good story teller, and a good teacher, can retell the same story repeatedly with lots of differences but with ‘the really important bits’ staying the same each time.
Over the first two weeks of the sequence the children will be ‘deepening’ their experience of the story in myriad ways. Creating art based on it, doing drama activities to get to the heart of it, finding out about the cultural context the story comes from and much more. This ‘deepening’ can be at least partially led by the pupils as they start to find out what they are interested in about the story. It is also led by the teacher who has a plan for where they need the story to take them. There is a lot of skill and negotiation going on here – let us say a teacher chose to tell a story based on Hawaii because she wanted to focus on Non-chronological report writing and thought the children would be gripped by the sealife in the story. Instead she finds the children home in on the volcanoes – she needs now to decide if she’s going to follow the children and go to volcanoes (she can still get them to write those non-chronological reports) or stick with the sealife – after all maybe she’s already scheduled a trip to the tropical fish shop round the corner. It’s all up for negotiation so we know we can’t ask teachers for detailed topic plans ahead of time, we just have to trust them.
As the children are deepening their experience of the story they are also ‘finding its bones’, developing a deeper understanding of its structure – how it works as a story. After a few days this is probably secure enough for them to create some sort of a story map. This can/could/should be little more than a few thumbnail drawings or keywords on a scrap of paper. In our early years we’d let children spend ages making beautiful, ornate maps, fully coloured in and with speech bubles and everything. We realised this was a total error when we spotted children were spending more time on creating their story maps than they ever were retelling the story.
When the children have found the bones of the story and created a map they move on to stepping the story. This is really a physical version of the story map with each little drawing or keyword becoming a gesture that encapsulates a section of story. I tend to have about six or seven ‘moments’ in a story stepping sequence, some people want to have lots more. There is absolutely no right or wrong here. The children have to find the steps for themselves as we are looking for them to develop their own individual tellings of the story – not for them to mimic the teachers telling.
At this point the children are primed and ready to go. They will be able to tell the story all the way through and, stories being stories, will find they need to draw on a range of tenses, tropes, vocabulary and sentence types to do so. Just think about ‘The Little Red Hen’, it’s often the first story children are asked to retell but it includes lots of very specific vocabulary ‘sow’, ‘harvest’, ‘grind’ and so on. The retelling will practice correct sentence forms of reported speech ‘Who will help me sow the corn?’ asked the Little Red Hen. The retelling will demand use of time connectives and at the very least coordination of three tenses – past continuous and past simple and future simple interrogative – and use of reporting verbs to clarify which of the charaters is speaking. By clearly modelling structures within their telling of a story and coaching children to use those structures in their retellings the teacher can develop the childrens ear for correct English Grammar and give them opportunities to use particular identified forms in their own speech. Down the line when it’s time to introduce the metalanguage of grammar and define its usage at least have heard used the structures they are looking at.
Teachers need to find good ways to motivate pupils to retell the story. Meeting up with another class to share the class story child to child works well, in the younger years ‘stay and play’s are a great opportunity, sometimes we record or video the children telling their story. This certainly remains a tricky element for teachers – I personally would find it hard to think ill of a child who is reluctant to practice telling a story that he or she believes there will never be an audience for.
The part of the sequence including hearing the story, deepening the experience of the story, finding the bones of the story, mapping and stepping the story, and ultimately telling the story. Probably takes around a fortnight – that can depend on all sorts of variables of course – but now the children and their teacher are itching to get on. There’s writing to start with. We would like to see the story written in their books, we’ve invested lots of time hearing and speaking the story so lets see what it looks like written down. If we’re moving on to another kind of writing we will still use our skills of mapping, stepping and orally rehearsing our text before we put it to paper. And all the other subjects are demanding our time now, the context of the story – presuming it was well chosen – will now give an effortless context for the other learning. If I want to ‘do’ earth and space for a science topic I’ll make sure that my story links to earth and space and I won’t need to spend any time ‘hooking’ the children’s interest – it will already be there. Quite apart from moving on to other areas of writing and other subjects, there’s still plenty to be done with our story. Children will be starting to innovate the story – making little changes to it and then going on to make bolder changes and create new stories that borrow the structure of the terms story. There’s another blog in here altogether but underpinning my belief in the storytelling curriculum is our understanding of story itself as the way that humans make sense of the world. By working and reworking their class stories, and by developing a bank of stories which are fully internalised, we believe our children will be better able to cope with change and with the vicissitudes of life. Given the success of our pupils as they move on to secondary school and beyond I think we’re not far wrong.
Of course some subjects are harder to work in to the story curriculum, maths by and large stands entirely seperate from the story sequence. Our chosen MFL, Spanish, also stands aside most of the time. Other than those two it is generally possible to integrate all subjects into the story. Teachers do have to be wary of turning every story sequence into a geography project about where the story comes from – just because a story comes from the Middle-East for example does not mean that the focus of the children’s learning should necessarily be the Middle-East. I was exceedingly pleased a few years ago when a Year Five class got to the end of a story sequence before any of them noticed they hadn’t been told where that story came from – it was a Nusradin story so the answer would have been – ‘pretty much anywhere’ anyhow.
Our story curriculum has served us well. It has helped to form a happy school with a real sense of itself and with an increasingly handy set of SATS results. We moved from an ofsted ‘satisfactory’ to ‘good’ under the Storytelling Curriculum and, fingers crossed, we expect our next, now well overdue, inspection to go the same way. We are more than happy to talk to other schools about our journey and how it works for us. Get in contact if you’d like to hear more or if you’d like to pop in for a visit – we’re always happy to show people what we’re up to.