All posts by johnkirkstoryteller

About johnkirkstoryteller

John Kirk tells stories and presents drama workshops to young people.

How do you play Pass the Parcel with a deaf child?

I was invited to work at a Halloween themed birthday party for a five year old.  As the guests were going to be mainly 3-6 years old this would be completely different to other Halloween storytelling events I had done before.  Rather than trying to get the children to sit and listen I wanted to keep them as active and engaged as possible throughout our interaction so I decided to offer a single narrative about a School of Magic and to string a series of party games into the story.  We started with a craft activity (making our own school badges), before commencing a series of magical lessons including practising loading brooms (Musical Chairs) and spell casting (Pass the Parcel).  I incorporated further storytelling opportunities by using the famous Bear Hunt story; first as Follow my Leader game in which I encouraged the children to imagine and roleplay different terrains and then as a more formal storytelling (instead of a Bear in a cave we were hunting for a Spell Book in a creepy house!).

It was important to the hosts that everybody felt included.  This meant trying to ensure everybody was able to participate including a deaf child who was among the guests.  I am a fairly visual storyteller and use my face and body as well as a lot of colourful props and hats to communicate and enhance my regular repertoire but many of the games I had chosen for the party involved instruction and aural stimulus (starting and stopping music).  In the event the age of the guests proved to be almost as big a barrier to participation as deafness as some of the children were so young that they didn’t recognise the games we were playing.  Thankfully the adults stepped in to lend a hand and prevented the party from faltering.  Afterwards I was praised for the structure I offered and how I got the children involved but this was a large party and I was immensely grateful to get help from the other adults in the room.  In my experience whilst it is possible for a facilitator to encourage a child to participate, role modelling by a parent is invaluable even at a birthday party.

Although the story was very simple the narrative became key to the event and at times I was more like a compere than a storyteller or facilitator.  I set out to create something that the children would enjoy and whilst my games heavy approach led me to consider accessibility this delivery seemed to be a hit with everybody.

John Kirk is a professional storyteller telling stories in schools and libraries and at events and festivals.  For more information or to make an enquiry, complete a contact form.

I am thankful..

Some of the people I work with I will never hear from again.

Some I work with from time to time, others book me annually.

Some of the people I work with show me their world and make me want to be a better person.

Some make me feel so welcome that in time I have come to regard them as friends and look forward to seeing individuals almost as much as I look forward to doing the actual work.

The greetings card pictured was a daddy-daughter weekend project inspired by news that a one of a kind will be retiring when her school closes next summer (an Elementary School on a US military facility in the midlands).  In the time I have known this person she has paid for my visits out of her salary and I have never managed to leave her without a goody bag full of gifts not just for me but for my family.  Whilst I wish her well for the future I already miss her enthusiasm and her ability to find the best in others.  To have known her and so many other inspirational people like her I am truly thankful.

How do you sensualise Shakespeare?

This Halloween I was booked to provide entertainment at a birthday party for an 11 year old.  I selected some of my favourite spooky stories giving some of them a modern twist for the young audience (a Tudor mansion became a three bed semi).  I also decided to complement the more traditional storytelling with a sensory exercise based upon William Shakespeare’s spell from “Macbeth”, beginning “Double, double toil and trouble”.

On the night I was located away from the rest of the party.  This not only allowed me to work with the minimum of interruption but gave me the time and space to set up a series of bowls with the different elements of the spell in each.  The elements were inspired by Shakespeare’s famous verse which reads almost like a shopping list for making a really noxious potion.  Even though it is famous the language is 500 years old, some of the things on the list are unfamiliar and some could be texturally similar so it took me a lot of time to think of what to use and how to differentiate between them.  In the end I sourced a lot of the elements from the pic and mix at the supermarket (the Adder’s fork and blindworm’s sting became a jelly snake which had been covered in strawberry jelly).  For wool of bat I used wool, for howlett’s wing I used feathers and for baboon’s blood I used strawberry jam.  As this was about feeling the elements all the participants were blindfolded before the bowls were revealed and the children only saw what they’d been feeling at the end.

The effect was quite something.  Even working in small groups the children were able to terrify themselves (and each other) into overthinking what they were touching with several children unable to complete the exercise.  I had to continually remind the participants to trust me and not to talk as any discussion could spoil the experience for the next person.

The material was well received and the sensory exploration was a fun way of enhancing the storytelling.  This is definitely something I would repeat with a similar age group even if everything did end up smelling like a strawberry jelly!

John Kirk is a professional storyteller telling stories in schools and libraries and at events and festivals.  For more information or to make an enquiry, complete a contact form.

What can we learn from stories?

I recently worked with a school near Chichester who were looking at stories from around the world and what we can learn from them.  I found this to be an intriguing and refreshing project.  It goes without saying that there are simply thousands of popular myths, legends and folktales.  Often they have remained popular because they go some way to explaining something or have a deeper symbolism but this challenge was about considering the moral meaning of tales rather than deciphering their metaphors.  Even before Aesop’s time storytelling has provided a mirror to the way we live as audiences have judged the choices of both heroes and villains.  As a storyteller I am drawn to colourful, funny, crowd pleasing tales so this brief really got me thinking about my material differently.

Here are the three stories I opted to tell to the children…

As Much as Salt – there are hundreds of versions of the story of the girl banished for comparing her love of her father to her love of salt (Shakespeare uses it in King Lear).  It has a beautiful resolution as the girl’s father learns what it is to love and what it is to forgive.

The Proud Turtle – you can’t do a session for a 5 year old and not have some animals doing silly things!  This story is one of my favourites.  Again there are lots of versions of the tale of the boastful know-it-all who falls from the sky because of a lack of humility.  I tend to leave it as the Turtle falls – it’s for the children to decide whether he survives the drop (and whether he deserves it).

Stone Soup – again lots of people claim this story of how a community make the tastiest stone soup through sharing.  It’s a lot of fun to get the children to suggest ingredients and act out preparing the soup and of these three tales has the most obvious message.

Meanwhile I was also asked to present a story set for an event celebrating the achievements of people who had volunteered at their local libraries.  Rather than something frothy I wanted my audience to have something a bit more thought provoking but also be suitable for an event celebrating volunteering in libraries.  I chose to tell a story about a boy who leaves his village and heads to the big city with nothing except his Mother’s wisdom.  In the story as he shares his wisdom he rises from the market place to become an adviser to the King.  In this instance when I’d finished I elaborated on the metaphor of shared wisdom; what if the boy had had a library card, could that have helped him to rise from the market to the Royal Palace?  What then the importance of the volunteer who listens to a child as they read or discuss their reading?  What role does the library play in the journey from their market place to the palace?  If you offer this kind of context I think it was an appropriate choice of story.

So what do I take away from the experience of considering the values I extol in the stories that I tell?  A good story will entertain but a well-chosen one can offer an insight into who we are and who we might like to be and that can be powerful.

Horsham: Where reading rocked at #RR_South!

On Saturday 5th October 2019 I took part in the #RR_South Conference hosted by Kingslea Primary School in Horsham and organised by Where Reading Rocks!

Having moved out of London to Sussex and having very few contacts in Sussex, Kent, Surrey or Hampshire I have been looking for ways to promote my storytelling work to local schools.  Where Reading Rocks! have been on my radar since their 2018 conferences.  They exist with the mission statement to make reading rock for every reader, a message that teachers, authors and storytellers can easily get behind and I have upon occasion contributed to their group discussions about children’s books and reading on social media.  Well if you don’t ask you don’t get and I decided to see if I could get involved.  To my continued amazement my approach was met warmly and it was agreed that I would run a workshop at #RR_South and possibly #RR_North.  So it was that I packed my bag and an array of tried and tested games and exercises and headed to Horsham.

#RR_South was incredible.  I was struck by the passion (and number considering it was the weekend) of the delegates who seemed to represent towns all across the south east of England.  There was a positive buzz throughout the day with a series of key note speakers addressing the delegates about reading and books, workshops on reading and in the breaks the halls were filled with people buying books at a multitude of different stands and talking to each other about how they promoted reading in their schools.  With the focus squarely on reading and books you would forgive me if I felt a little awkward.  I listened as organiser Heather Wright give a really inspiring opening address followed by the passionate force of nature that was Jane ConsidineJosua Seigal’s poetry made me laugh and cry and Vashti Hardy’s presentation about how her books are used within the curriculum by different schools made me long to be 10 years old again.  The more I heard the more I felt like I an intruder amongst all these incredible people.  I knew I should fit in but I was questioning how until educational writer Bob Cox shared a quote by Sir Michael Morpurgo.

“give them the love of story first, the rest will follow.”

Read that again.  That is one of the UK’s most reputed authors of children’s fiction placing importance on storytelling. Books are incredible life enhancing, life altering things; they teach us about ourselves, our world and those we share it with, they can be windows into other worlds and they can challenge us with the possibilities of our future but at the heart of all good fiction is a good story.  If we can inspire and enthuse children with stories then maybe they’ll become readers or writers but a love of story must come first and storytellers have a massive role to play in that awakening.

Being allowed to present a workshop at #RR_South was an invaluable opportunity to talk about storytelling with people in the frontline of education.  Money, time and prioritising other things are just some of the reasons a school might choose not to engage a professional storyteller (if you can only have one visit per year, a storyteller might guarantee fun but a visit from a published author will have more wow factor) and teachers must fend for themselves when it comes to enhancing stories.  I therefore wanted to use my workshop to share some ideas that I think could be simply and effectively applied by a class teacher working in a primary environment when introducing or exploring a story.

We started the workshop with some statement games which are not only great ice breakers but immediately stress how human beings thrive when asked to share stories about themselves and the skill of bringing a story out of somebody else.  I also addressed how statement games can get children thinking about moments in their own lives which might help them to empathise with a character in a story (a carefully worded question about fear might be used as a lead into suspense stories).

Next I introduced the group to some narrative games in which we told The Three Little Pigs whilst sat in a circle.  First each person had a sentence of the story, then just a word, then I randomly selected the narrators.  By gradually removing control of the story the group were unable to pre-empt or predict the direction of the narrative making them more adaptive and spontaneous.  I also showed the group two structuring games for building stories with more and less able participants which in application allowed everybody the opportunity to contribute to the story.

In my storytelling work I use a lot of simple props sometimes repurposing them imaginatively (Mrs Twit’s walking stick becomes Mr Twit’s gun).  Working in pairs the teachers chose every day and unusual objects and tried to reimagine their use.  I then demonstrated how a blue cloth and a water pistol might become the ocean and how a pair of gloves might become flying birds; building an imaginative vocabulary through play.  I am very keen on open resource storytelling and therefore challenged the group to create the world of the Billy Goats Gruff as they might challenge their children using cloths, lollipop sticks, cardboard tubes, egg boxes and yoghurt pots.  We took this further as we tried to use these resources to create Trolls!  I do the majority of my work with young people and it goes without saying that adults and children are different but there was no mistaking the excitement caused amongst the participants by these exercises.

We then ran out of time.  I would have liked to talk more about sensory stories because I think they are a great way of telling a story with small groups (maybe I should propose this for 2020?) but as I say, the delegates were very positive and I have had some lovely feedback and a couple of bookings as a result of the session.

In the days after the conference I was asked if I could share any resources from the workshop.  I said I’d write a blog (this blog) and touch on this.  I have thought a great deal about the resources I could signpost to a teacher and the truth is that if you are visiting my website then that’s a great start.  Storytellers are top quality resources.  When I turn up to deliver a session I bring 20 years of experience performing to children, 10 years of storytelling experience and hundreds if not thousands of hours of experience as a workshop facilitator.  Many of my favourite exercises I use I have magpied from other actors, storytellers and drama facilitators, some I made up and refined in time.  If you wanted to do more storytelling in the classroom you could do worse than finding out about the professional storytellers working in your area and checking out their websites, blogs and dates (we’re all quite friendly if you ever want to discuss ideas for lessons).  To encourage conversation I created a Twitter list of some of the best storytellers in the UK under the hashtag – #followastoryteller – but The Society for Storytelling website also hosts an extensive database of storytellers if you don’t use social media.  I’ll also recommend “1001 Drama Games and Activities” by David Farmer.  It really is what it says on the tin and I delve into it when planning a session and looking for inspiration but there are loads like it on the market.

I can’t be at #RR_North in November but I hope I’ll be able to be involved again in the future.  The people I met in Horsham energised me and my work and reminded me that I can make a difference because their goal is worth striving for and should be shared by all of us. As a storyteller I can be an important resource to any primary school in the country who place value in the mission to make reading rock.

John Kirk is a professional storyteller based in Lewes, East Sussex. To find out more about his work or make an enquiry about a booking visit the contact form.

Storytelling south of the M25

In February 2019 we gave up east London for East Sussex and in doing so I opened a new chapter in my working life. To this point most of the storytelling and workshop work I have been doing has been in my diary since before the big move but now my focus has shifted to trying to get more work in Sussex, Kent, Surrey and Hampshire.

In a couple of weeks time I will be telling Roald Dahl’s “The Twits” in Uckfield, Hastings and Bexhill as I celebrate National Libraries Week with East Sussex Libraries and in National Nursery Rhyme Week I’m thrilled to be returning to Horsham. In between times the enquiries have begun to trickle in from across the South East from schools looking for a storyteller and in the week of World Book Day (5th March 2020) I’ll be visiting Eastbourne (Pevensey), Pulborough and Arundel but it all starts next week with my first school visit of the year in Ardingly where I will be telling 11 children(!) the story of The Three Little Pigs and with an appearance at Reading Rocks! Horsham conference where I will be talking to delegates about storytelling in the classroom. Whilst I am thinking more local I am still excited to be receiving invitations to work all over the country and will be in the North West in November and Yorkshire next March.

In the meantime September has been a quiet month (if you take out Roald Dahl week). I have very much enjoyed reading through stories about fire, diversity and things that go bump in the night for later in the autumn. Now back to finding people south of the M25 to share them with…

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside! (Birthday party storytelling in Leyton)

Working as a storyteller I am always looking to the future. I have been busy telling stories (Simon James’ Boy from Mars, Jonathan Emmett’s Bringing Down the Moon and Dom Conlon’s Why the Cow Jumped Over the Moon) but having recently reviewed the patterns of my work I know that the autumn and winter could be quiet. I am also aware that having moved out of London to Sussex I am only just beginning to build up the storytelling work I do for organisations in Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire. I therefore find that there is a varied feel to my ongoing commitments. There’s my usual school and library visits but I’m also doing more and more nursery and early years sessions, sessions for older audiences in residential settings and I’m continuing to offer birthday parties. My latest being a mermaid themed birthday storytelling for three and four year olds in a park.

At present my approach to birthday party storytelling is to treat each as a bespoke presentation, tailoring my content to suit each occasion rather than the tried and tested packages I offer schools. Birthdays are the ultimate one shot deal because getting it wrong means spoiling a child’s special day. This particular party was one of my biggest challenges yet. As we were outdoors I had no power and I couldn’t rely on having any other kind of amenities (so no water for my water pistols) so everything had to be pre-prepped – if I couldn’t carry it then I couldn’t use it. The party guests were also relatively young. Whilst I have done a lot of work in nurseries and with little children generally this has been in formal settings rather than parks with all their distractions. Getting and then holding the children’s attention would be hard work if my content missed the mark.

The party was inspired by Maudie Smith’s book “Milly and the Mermaids” a story about a young girl who dreams of meeting a mermaid on a trip to the seaside. We began by creating the setting for our session using a beach towel, some golden sparkly fabric for the sand and colourful cut outs of fish, shells, crabs and starfish. We then used what was on the beach to make sandcastle hat bands (pictured). We used tape rather than glue to hold the hats together and glitter pens to decorate them. When I run birthday parties I like to play party games so I ran some parachute games and we used a picnic basket to play parcel the parcel (instead of prizes the children chose objects that led to rhymes and songs). We used a beautiful blue fabric held up by the parents and bubbles to make a sea that the children could swim through and with a little imagination, some rainbow coloured cloth and a wedge shaped leaf grabber I transformed one of the parents into a mermaid for us to meet! It was all very visual, very colourful and very low tech with a real range of things for the children to do.

I really enjoyed preparing for and delivering this birthday party. It wasn’t storytelling in the manner I’d perhaps normally offer it but my audience had a great time and I got to eat cake! In the last 12 months birthday parties  have lead me to create a restaurant murder mystery, a Christmas train adventure and now the seaside in a park; I can’t wait to see where my next party invitation takes me.

I’d rather be a Billy Goat than a Troll

“As the Billy Goats Gruff approached the rickety rackety bridge a huge troll with horrible little eyes and sharp teeth stuck his nasty head out of its hiding place and shouted “Whose that trip trapping over my bridge?””

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to participate in a large community event in east London.  As well as storytellers and authors a group called Drag Queen Storytime UK were booked to perform a couple of sets.  Working as a storyteller in libraries I have seen Drag Queen sessions advertised so I was intrigued to attend.  In the event I somehow ended up holding my mobile phone as a mirror whilst Aida H Dee (Tom) prepared to meet the children!  Aida was wonderful to watch.  She threw herself into entertaining the children who loved her version of “Going on a Bear Hunt”– one little girl went as far as to giving her a hug as she left. I can honestly say that the experience was joyful. Then came the critical moment: I took a photo of Aida and posted it on social media.

Spin forward a few weeks and my latest storytelling tour is under way.  Things have been going really well; audience numbers are healthy, the children are enjoying the session and I am feeling really good about the next few months.

Then I got an email..,

A formal complaint has been made against me by a member of the public concerned about my suitability to work with children citing a photo of me on social media.  You’ll never guess which one?  That’s right my ability to work with young people has been questioned because a member of the public has confused me with a drag queen!  My immediate response was to go online to assure the complainant that the photo wasn’t actually of me (I’m far older and grizzlier and certainly don’t have the patience to apply all that make up), that I am in fact DBS checked and have almost 20 years of experience working with young people in schools and libraries.  I then went on to say that Tom/Aida was a fantastic performer who I’d recommend to anybody.

And that was that.  I thought.

A week later and another anonymous complainant has heard I’m a drag queen and is using social media to question my suitability to run sessions in libraries for children.  Again I explain that I am a DBS checked storyteller with oodles of experience working with children.  This isn’t good enough for this complainant and before I know it they are firing off messages to the Police, local papers and the even their MP.  They also start pushing me to condemn drag acts as a form of children’s entertainment.  What began as a conversation about safeguarding and event programming in a local library now seems to have a transphobic agenda.  I refuse to engage with the complainant (who uses website articles from the United States that reference known Alt-Right media groups to back their argument).  They aren’t satisfied with my lack of response and take it upon themselves to start messaging my other social media contacts and some of my other clients.

Social media has always fascinated me.  It is a very powerful thing but I’m pretty sure most users don’t truly understand just how powerful.  When using social media we become both publishers and broadcasters and our audience is often global.  Social media allows a platform for opinions which can be empowering but sometimes things like truth and accuracy suffer.  This is the second time in 12 months that this storyteller has been involved in a controversy relating to his image.  When my picture was used to advertise another storyteller on a website I got an immediate apology and took down the material but in this instance where I have been accused of condoning child abuse (oh yes) and a deliberate prejudiced attempt has been made to discredit me and the work of another professional performer there are no real consequences for the perpetrators.  You’ll appreciate how angry these messages left me feeling.  Remember, all I did was post a picture of an entertainer who I thought was good at their job and bizarrely it blew up into unmerited internet nastiness.  It’s sad to think of the time I spent building a professional reputation which could be so easily damaged by this kind of foolishness.

I could try to understand why my work became a target for abuse but in the truth is we’ll never know. At the moment they have stopped but I share my story with you knowing they could start again and that things could have been far worse. The reason I feel need to make you aware of what has been happening is because I’d rather be the Billy Goat standing on the bridge than the Troll lurking under it and this episode has had a distasteful darker side to it which I feel cannot be ignored. Let me be clear:

  1. Storytelling is one of the most ancient and accessible art forms.
  2. Over a 20 year period I am proud to have worked with the very best arts professionals in this and other countries irrespective of their background.
  3. Bridges don’t belong to Trolls; they belong to everybody.
  4. #hopenothate

Why the Cow Jumped over the Moon?

Poet, copywriter and eater of cake, Dom Conlon has written a story for me to tell to children and families in libraries as part of the Summer Reading Challenge Space Chase. You can read it here…

If you believe (they put a man on the Moon) is a storytelling of a trio of tales including Jonathan Emmett’s Bringing Down the Moon, Simon James’ Boy from Mars and this story by Dom and is touring libraries in the North West, East Midlands, Yorkshire, the North East, London and the South East this July and August. For dates see my event calendar.

John Kirk is a professional storyteller working in schools and libraries as well as at festivals and events. For more information or to make a booking please complete the contact form.

My contribution to a year of culture in Waltham Forest

In January 2019 the London Borough of Waltham Forest (LBWF) became the first London Borough of Culture and so began a year-long celebration of the arts and creativity across the whole authority.  Cultural activities in different sizes, shapes and forms have been planned and led by professionals, community groups and enthusiasts and people have been coming together to share their artistic interests.  Until recently I lived in Walthamstow and I’ve been working in Waltham Forest for a number of years as a storyteller and facilitator at The Vestry House Museum and William Morris Gallery most recently devising and delivering  an outreach assembly charting the story of the area.  When it was announced that LBWF was to be London’s first Borough of Culture I was very keen to be involved and despite moving to Sussex I am really excited to have been asked to deliver another outreach project, this time promoting fun through art.

If you looked at my calendar it gives the impression that this storyteller isn’t doing that much at the moment.  In fact this summer I am working as a presentation facilitator, visiting 37 primary schools in Waltham Forest to work with over 2500 children and enabling the young people I encounter to create mass art pieces based on their cultural identity and interests.  The way we work is that the children are each given a piece of coloured card.  They are then asked a question relating to who they are (their favourite foods, the languages they speak at home and their artistic interests).  To answer the questions the children move around the room.  It’s a bit like what would happen if one of those mosaics you see crowds make at international football matches was achieved by playing an enormous multiple choice game or what happens to a pallet of paint as the brush moves, blending and mixing the colours.  As the children move new patterns emerge which are as unique as the children in the room. We take photographs of the process at different stages which become the artwork.

This is a very ambitious project which relies upon a massive amount of team work between myself, the school staff and the children involved and so far the sessions have been received enthusiastically.  The images that we are capturing are very striking but what’s also striking is the eagerness of the children. Waltham Forest is a very vibrant and diverse place and our sessions are as much about creating a forum to discuss identity as they are about making art. As the children make their choices there is invariably a positive buzz around the assemblies and when asked for feedback, everybody wants to share things about their families and their interests.  The children aren’t the only ones who are enjoying themselves. As a storyteller I am fascinated by family stories and how they are valued so being a part of the discussions has been a wonderful experience.

The project is not without its practical challenges.  Whenever you ask 120 children to move at the same time you risk a certain amount of chaos but by far the biggest challenge of the project has been communicating the outcome to schools.  Holding up pieces of card in front of a camera to make an art piece is a fairly abstract idea.  To make it even more confusing, we instruct the children to use their cards to cover their eyes, nose and mouth so their faces cannot be seen – this means they have no idea of the bigger pictures that they are making.  It’s been my job to keep the sessions bouncing along, to try to keep some very large groups engaged and to assure them (and the schools) that the pictures we are making look great.

At the time of writing we are about a third of the way through the project which will run until the end of the school year.  I think it’s fantastic that the Borough of Culture have tried to engage children from every part of the London Borough of Waltham Forest with arts, creativity and culture and it has been a privilege to be invited into so many schools to take a glimpse into the worlds of the children.  Waltham Forest has undoubtedly shaped me as a storyteller and I hope that for some young people this kind of experience and the opportunities arising from a year of culture on their doorstep might also have a long lasting legacy.

John Kirk is a professional storyteller working in schools, libraries and museums as well as literature festivals and events. For more information about his work or to make a booking use the contact form.