5 Tips to be a Better Storyteller

I was delivering an assembly last week, and was explaining to Year 3 and Year 5 all about our upcoming Careers Day. I told them how amazing it was that we had so many teachers in our school who had done so many things as well as teaching – we have writers, lawyers, a stand-up comedian… It shames me, I told them, because “all I can do is read stories to you lot … and I can read spreadsheets”

One kid in my class, who is now firmly and irrevocably lodged in my positive regard, piped up to say

“Sir, you’re like an expert storyteller.”

I’ll take a compliment where it is due, I am pretty good at storytelling.

Whether it is gathering the brood together on the carpet for a gripping chapter of The Imaginary, whether it is lulling them to sleep on residential visits with my somniferous tales of ‘Baron Wilfred and the Detailed Description of his 80 Uninteresting Daughters’, or whether it is regaling yet another audience with my personal quest to find the Onklids, I can spin a good yarn.

I think that being a storyteller is an incredibly useful tool in the teacher’s armoury. I had to endure teachers who were awful storytellers when I was a kid; their boredom and evident lack of engagement with the words they read completely sapped the joy out of the experience. I have seen colleagues who can teach a solid lesson but are hopeless storytellers.

I have also had the pleasure of working with some brilliant storytellers. My old English teacher Mr Hudson was such an evocative storyteller, and an expert in his field, that he could insist on reading Canterbury Tales with ‘Olde Englishe’ pronunciation, and purely with the combination of words and his expressive eyebrows, we managed to get the whole meaning. My ex-colleague Abi Cansdale could hook a class of distracted kids with her storytelling through an outpouring of smiling power, that lulled them into listening.

A skilled storyteller can be the catalyst to the power of the written word, particularly for children, whose level of literacy sometimes prevents them from fully engaging in the text itself; they find themselves stumbling over meanings and pronunciations, necessarily, but this can affect the flow and the pace of the tale.

For as long as I’ve worked with kids, I’ve valued storytelling, and used it widely.

The first story I really connected with as one to share with kids is called Monster. It is a short story written by Kelly Link, contained within the proudly strange and less-than-snappily titled anthology, ‘Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs, and Some Other Thing That Aren’t As Scary, Maybe, Depending On How You Feel About Lost Lands, Stray Cellphones, Creatures From The Sky, Parents Who Disappear in Peru, a Man Named Lars Farf, and One Other Story We Couldn’t Quite Finish, So Maybe You Could Help Us Out’.

Firstly, the book itself is an intoxicating paean to the weirdness of the adult word, as seen from the perception of children. The stories are all odd in there – about a nation with basically no inhabitants fielding a football team, and about a father who is so protective of his family that they end up living in vacuum-packed pods – , but for me, Monster stood out because it is set in a holiday camp in the forest.

As I was running holiday camps for kids in the forest, it was ideal.

I was looking after a small group of about 6 boys and there were two other volunteers with us. We sat around the fire, toasting marshmallows on a fire we made from kindling in the forest, and I told the story. At scary points, I pointed the torch up at my face from my chin, exaggerating my already exaggerated face.

The kids were nervous and giddy in just the way you would want them to be – neither disengaging nor terrified. This was memorable storytelling about a boys’ camp in the forest (in which one boy has a dream his Dad turns into Angelina Jolie, I recall) told during a boys’ camp in the forest.

When I am making up stories for children, as I like to do, I love to mix strange scenarios and odd characters with locations that they know. One of my favourite horror stories I have made for my classes is set in the bread aisle on Tesco Green Street, in Upton Park, and it involves a member of staff threading a shoelace through his nostrils. I doubt any of my children have bought a fresh croissant since.

Tip One: Seek opportunities to match your story to the time and location in which you are telling it.

A few years ago, in a previous school, we experimented with the idea of Story Sacks to accompany storytelling. The problem was correctly identified – children were not being fully enthused by their teachers’ storytelling – but the solution was perhaps incorrect. Teachers and year groups would identify a few special texts they wanted to share with the children they teach, and would then resource a ‘sack’ containing props. These props would help to make the stories come alive.

As you may imagine, the teachers who already could tell a good story made the story sacks work, but for those teachers whose poor storytelling was a consequence of feeling a bit shy or reserved, a sack full of feather boas and funny glasses was not going to make it any better.

I worked with The Lorax, by Dr Seuss. It was a story I hadn’t really encountered before, as a teacher or as a kid, and it was before the film came out. Eagerness coursing through my veins, I set to work on my sack. I co-opted my puppet friend/fiend Peter Sandwich, and made it into a gothic sort of Lorax. I bought those fun snaps that people throw around. I gathered a load of fluff to make my truffula trees. I had a big old key.

Incidentally, ‘a load of fluff’ was what my storytelling turned into. I was chucking so many props about that the story lost its flow. I was animating Peter Sandwich one minute, then using him as a mitt to change the page the next. It takes skill to make a puppet come to life. The story was a bit of a fail.

Tip Two: Whilst a couple of well-chosen props could be useful, don’t let them become gimmicks and don’t let them distract from the flow.

I love the TV series The Trip, with Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan. It is mesmerising to see how much humour can come from a couple of people just bantering around, saying things in a panoply of different voices.

When storytelling, whilst ‘voice’ is important, ’voices’ are more important. Clear loud diction is a good thing but it counts for nothing if children lose all sense of the dialogue because every character sounds just like the narrator. If this narrator voice is also just your normal teaching voice, it is even more confusing.

The kids spend their time trying to work out whether you are angry or whether you are an angry character.

Knowing the right voice to use for the characters means you need to have read the book, first of all. It may not be that you need to invent a different voice for every character in every book you read. Instead, come up with a few ‘stock voices’ that you can perform well.

Here are some of mine:

Everyman Dad – I exaggerate the Northernness and channel Peter Kay. I used this voice, for example, for the Dad in The Boy in the Dress and for Mum’s imaginary dog Fridge, in AF Harrold’s ‘The Imaginary’.

East London Yoof – Nothing amuses my kids more than when I crack out my street-cockney and put it on a character. They perceive it to be like a 15 year old girl at a Newham secondary.  I put this voice on for subversive young characters, especially if they are our relatable heroes; I use it for Polly in the Mr Gum series.

Old Dramatic Villain – This voice is essentially stolen from ‘The Hitcher’ from Mighty Boosh. It is the voice of a haunted old cockney, and I use it for tyrants, ghouls, pirates and such like. It made a great pirate voice when reading ’The Pied Piper of Hamlyn’ by Russell Brand and when reading Neil Gaiman’s ‘Fortunately the Milk’.

I have plenty more, ranging from the two year old girl, to the sassiest of drag queens, to philosophical scousers.

Everyone will have their favourite characters to become. I love being the Trunchbull, and whilst I haven’t had the gall to spit out ‘For this, you pissworm’, I think that Pam Ferris as the Trunch in Matilda is something we can all aspire to. I went to see the musical version, and was blown away by the man-in-drag version, which transforms her into an even more brutal villain, brilliantly.

I read The Jabberwocky in the voice of Brian Blessed.

Tip Three: Practise your voices, make them familiar to you and don’t hold back when becoming the characters

I’ve been tweeting a lot about AF Harrold’s ‘The Imaginary’. I am teaching in Year 5 in a new school, in a class that has had a rough year, with a lot of staff changes and a slip in behaviour. I have needed to come in at the end of the year, and try to bring back some of the good habits that can allow their already brilliant personalities to come through, whilst building on their academic progress.

I can build a rapport with a class quite quickly, but not to the depth I needed to here. Thank god for The Imaginary, because in the first few weeks, it was the one reliable thing that every person in the class – the kids, me and Salma, our TA – could bond over. We all loved it, and the short journey of our relationship as a class is very much the story of us getting through the book.

I was honest with them, when presenting it for the first time. I told them that I hadn’t yet read it all, but the cover had been luring me in every time I went in a bookshop. I told them we could only read a bit, because I wanted to read it all at home. Throughout the storytelling, I modelled the responses I hoped they would have.

The book would be slammed shut when I found one of Emily Gravett’s terrifying illustrations, and I would steadfastly refuse to open it, whilst the Year 5s clawed at the pages and at the sleeves of my jacket, telling me that they were brave enough to continue, and to ‘allow it’.

“I WILL NOT ALLOW IT”, I would shriek, “I don’ think you are ready. But, since you clearly so annoyed, I will allow Jack* to see it, and if he is OK with it, then I will carry on.”

Suddenly, everyone is willing Jack* on – and Jack* was chosen because he struggles to find a place in the social hierarchy of the class.

Jack was strong willed and even had the kindness to express the same kind of a campy over-reaction I displayed. So I showed them, and they squealed.

Even when I wasn’t ‘in character’, I would be performing the role of engaged reader. When we reached what I will call (for the benefit of those who will read The Imaginary) ‘The Accident’, I spoke so quietly and gripped onto my chair. I bit my lip and inhaled deeply before I told them what happened.

Tip Four:  Reading aloud is performance even when you are not ‘in character’; model the emotional responses the text might elicit.

I mentioned Peter Sandwich earlier. Those who have followed me on Twitter for a while, or who have read my blog, may be aware of a good few of these recurring characters that populate my professional life.

Peter Sandwich is possibly the most unnerving puppet ever created. I bought him in 2011 from a man on Brick Lane, who was squatting against the wall, holding his own impromptu flea market; all he was selling was about 25 gas masks and three puppets. I caught sight of the other two puppets first, gawping limply from between the masks. But then, from the back, I saw Peter. It was covered in weird stains, and even its eye was pockmarked. It has a gormless mouth and is a homemade puppet. It was wearing clothes that were just some children’s clothes. It was singularly the most eerie thing I had ever seen, and I had to have it.

The kids came in to school on the Monday, and found me sitting silently in the book corner with a cardboard box on my lap.

“I have someone I would like you to meet guys, but do sit down quietly as he is very unpredictable.”

Peter Sandwich joined us for story time, not as a character, but often as a slightly malevolent figure who would stare at the children whilst I read from the pages, making sure they were on track. Over time, Peter’s persona softened, and the kids made him some new clothes. He is currently retired, but I may bring him back.

Stalybridge Sloth is another such figure. He arrived in our lives in 2013-14, and was our class toy. After a year of visiting every child’s home, and become a much-loved member of the class, one of the kids left him on a bus. We did the only sensible thing we could, which was organise an unsuccessful social media campaign to find him, and subsequently host a memorial service. At the memorial service though, Staybridge’s estranged ‘uncles’ – who are ambiguously-perhaps-gay sloths – arrived. They joined us for a year as the elder generation, not replacing Stalybridge but giving us a link to him. When they too moved on – they joined my headteacher’s family to accompany her children’s toys – we had a short time with Princess, another sloth who was Staybridge’s cousin. She wore blusher.

Stalybridge would come with me on my foreign holidays and even, foolishly on my part, a first date. I would then write about these jaunts and it gave the kids a way to learn about other cultures though the tales of the sloth.

Tip Five: Story time can be always; thread the imaginary into the real, and blur the boundaries. 




Image: Albert Anker – “Der Grossvater erzählt eine Geschichte”  (Wikimedia Commons)


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