Improv(is)e Your Storytelling

Storytelling is a beautiful thing. I gladly allow it to leak across my timetable, and find it hard to cull a good session when the kids are interested. It is memorable for them, and even with the older ones I teach, the act of pausing the daily routine, getting down onto the carpet, is one they really look forward to. One of my favourite happenings in my current school, having been there nearly a year now, remains the time I spent reading The Imaginary to my Year 5s last year. Eyes were wide, minds engaged, emotions locked-in. When it was gloriously sunny in July, I would sack off the planned lessons, grab the school mobile phone, and cross over the road into West Ham Park, where we would sit under a tree and be transported.

The children like stories more than they like being read to; the stories they would love to hear are not only those written by others, but could be stories of our own invention. They could be true (or mostly true) anecdotes from our own lives, dramatised memories we have of our own childhood or could be absolute flights of fancy.

I tell the kids every now and again about how much I wanted a Buzz Lightyear Bulldog Clip from this stationery set when I was about 8. I would see it in the department store, and it would be winking at me. I didn’t have any money, and I wasn’t allowed it, but in my mind I was coaxing myself towards just taking the bulldog clip. It’s not like I would be stealing, because I was leaving the whole pencil case…except for this clip.

The story I tell the kids is that I grabbed it one day, and slid it into my pocket, and then the plot becomes that of Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Telltale Heart’ – I could feel the clip pulsating guiltily in my pocket. I went puce. My heartbeat raced and the peach fuzz on the back of my neck bristled. Then, torturously, my Mum bought me the pencil case because I had been so good. Then, my guilt exploded into a display of shame and remorse and public weeping, and I refused it all, and replaced the bulldog clip.

The truth is that I just took it and was really really happy.

One thing that I have really enjoyed, and I use it when I am working with teachers on the quality of their storytelling (because it comes naturally to nobody), is the weird pleasure of improvising a story of your own. I have a story that has been lingering around in my head for a few years, in various forms, and every time I tell it to the kids, I vary it.

I get the chance to see which parts of the story work best. Which jokes makes them laugh out loud, which ones make them chuckle and which ones don’t land. When I am being revolting, which individual words and phrases make them baulk.

The story I tell is one that I wrote – very poorly – for a short story competition years and years ago. It is a psychological horror story set in the local Tesco.

The loosest of plots is this…

 

I was in need of a loaf of bread so I popped into Tesco on Green Street. It was a completely normal Sunday, and there were people just doing their weekly shopping. It was quite busy but not particular noisy. I headed straight over to the bread aisle – you remember guys how it used to be at the back, where the Halal counter is now? – and I got what I needed. I picked up the best of both, and as I did so, the staff door opened. 

A guy walked out and he was very old. He was wearing a slightly unclean Tesco uniform, and he walked very slowly, as if he was in pain. He walked right into the middle of the aisle, in front of me, and stopped. He turned his head slowly towards me and did a smile a bit like this – *I share a horrible rictus grin with them* – and started giggling. 

I felt creeped out but not scared. He wasn’t terrifying but it made me uneasy. Suddenly, if felt like everything was very quiet. And a bit cold. He carried on giggling as I stood still and watched, and he got a bit louder with his laughter.

He bent himself forward and untied a shoelace, still chuckling and making eye contact with me, and he undid and removed one of his shoes. He pulled it off and, weirdly, he placed it over his hand like a sweaty mitten.

This pong drifted over. He wasn’t wearing any socks and his *this is the point that I improvise a range of different phrases to horrify them* veiny pale crusty foot slapped onto the floor with a wet thud. He paused and made eye contact more firmly with me. Then he started hopping from foot to foot, laughing even louder *I emulate it* As one foot was in the shoe, and the other wasn’t, it made a horrible rhythm. Smack, mulch, smack, mulch, smack, mulch.

The he stopped. He breathed in. He blinked. He stopped laughing.

AND HE SPRINTED AT ME!!!!!!!!! IN A PANIC AND IN TERROR I CLOSED MY EYES AND SWUNG WILDLY WITH MY BREAD. AS I SWUNG, AS THE SMELL BECAME UNBEARABLE AND MY EYES WERE TIGHTLY CLOSED I FELT MY BREAD SMACK INTO SOMETHING AND THEN HEARD A SMACK ON THE GROUND BESIDE ME.

Terrified to look down, but knowing I needed to, I peeped my eyes open. The smell had gone. The sound was back to normal. At my feet, all that was there was… *I have used a range of objects here but my favourite one is…* a tin of chickpeas. 

There was nobody around. I felt shocked and confused, but no longer scared. Everything was perfectly normal. I bent down to pick up the chickpeas when I felt a cold hand on my shoulder. It was him. 

“Let me get that for you Sir”, he said.

He was perfectly normal. I looked around to check I wasn’t being pranked, and then he was gone. 

*This last bit I just added this time around.*

I felt like I couldn’t just leave those chickpeas, so now they sit on my bookshelf at home. I feel very strongly that I need to keep it safe. I feel like they are going to be a big part of my life.

But anyway, this is why I don’t shop at Tesco any more.  *I add that bit just to amuse myself, as the original version of this story was submitted as a review of a National Trust property, and I alleged that the weird man was a Trust volunteer.*

 

What I love about this, having now shared a version of this story with two Year 3 classes (they thought it was hilarious) and two Year 5 classes (they thought it was terrifying), is that the kids talk about it outside of the lessons. When I read it to Year 3, one girl said “But you told my brother it was a bag of rice”. I like the variations and I go to great lengths to tell them that I am telling them a huge lie.

In the last three tellings, I have prefaced it by announcing that everything I am about to tell them is a complete lie. I tell them that if they ask me whether I am telling the truth, once I get started, I will say Yes. But it is all lies.

Looking forward to the rest of this academic year, I want the kids to each have an idea like this that they can develop into a fully fledged improvised story.

The pleasure of the telling is matched by the pleasure of seeing its reception, and having the chance to adapt it and to see how it goes the next time. One boy in Year 5 told a phenomenal story just yesterday, about his superhero powers and the people trying to take them away from him.

The next time I do a telling, I shall record it and plonk it up on here.

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