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10 photos for 10 years…

I was nominated by my good friend Stephanie Mitchell to take part in the Performance/Artist picture challenge. The rules are that every day, you select an image from a day in the life of a Performer/Artist. The aim being to raise awareness of the arts.

Well, as its the week before Christmas I thought I’d break the rules and post my pictures all at once as I reflect on 10 years as a storyteller. The pictures I have chosen show why I am still telling stories after all these years; just look at the children’s faces.

How do you show a picture to somebody with a visual impairment?

So we reach the end of another year.  It has been very busy for me both personally and professionally as we made the move from London to Sussex and the impact that had on my storytelling work.  I have done lots of different things; from working with 47 Waltham Forest Primary Schools as part of the London Borough of Culture to storytelling in a care home for the elderly.  I have lead nursery and early years sessions and storyteller staff training sessions for Where Reading Rocks and libraries.  I had a very successful summer telling Jonathan Emmett’s “Bringing Down the Moon”, Simon James’ “The Boy from Mars” and Dom Conlon’s “Why the Cow Jumped Over the Moon” whilst my relationship with The Roald Dahl Storytelling Company saw a consolidation of “The Twits” and the launch of “The Enormous Crocodile”.  This year through my work as a storyteller I travelled from Glasgow, Plymouth, Swansea, Newcastle, Norwich, Liverpool, Guernsey and all points in between.  I thoroughly enjoyed what could be my final visits to Germany to work with Ministry of Defence schools and to the Midlands to work with US military but at the same time I did more birthday and private parties than ever before. My final thought for 2019 is about the work I have done with children with special educational needs.

In November I have been in east London working with Waltham Forest and the Borough of Culture in special educational needs environments.  I devised a sensory session exploring Walthamstow High Street and its famous market; looking at pictures from Vestry House Museum’s archive, smelling and tasting the foods of the market, listening to music and voices of the market and touching some of the goods and textiles on sale there.  In this way we told a story of a stroll through the town.

I worked with lots of children with a wide spectrum of profound and complex needs taking a little time to share each item with each audience member individually and allowing them to engage with the object (and me) in their own ways but probably the biggest challenge was working with children with visual impairment.  How do you show a map or a photograph to somebody who can’t see it?  I tried to be imaginative, scoring the outline of the image and cutting streets out of maps so they became a textural as well as a visual experience.  Speaking to the staff I worked with and reflecting on the session I feel that I could have done more to put myself in the position of the audience.  What is a map if you can’t see it?  Well, it’s a large piece of paper.  If I had presented a picture and offered more context that might have enhanced the audience experience.  So if the picture is of a market trader wearing a hat and a coat, shouting at passers-by from his fruit stall as the storyteller I could have offered a fuller description of the man, his work or had a similar hat for the audience to feel and wear so they got a better sense the image being discussed.

I enjoy running sensory storytelling sessions and have had compliments for the sessions I have been devising and running this autumn.  To this end Father Christmas has already delivered a 12ft parachute and a range of musical instruments for participants to use in my future sessions because building on what has been a fantastic year has to be my focus for the year ahead. Now that I have done it, I want to do it better.

Wishing you a Happy Christmas!

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.

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 was quick to suggest an exciting itinerary full of fun and games for the children. He asked all the right questions and adapted to children’s age and special requirements. He ensured helpful props for those who were deaf. John’s enthusiasm and professionalism was comforting. Children’s parties can feel stressful but he managed to take a lot of pressure off which was fantastic. My son and his friends had a wonderful time. John was ever so friendly and really engaged with children and adults. John made sure he arrived in good time to meet my son and go through the plans to ensure he was comfortable. I would use John’s service again and I highly recommend him. Thank you John so everything that you did. We are very grateful.

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.

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.

The Society of Storytelling Gathering June 2019

On the 8th June 2019 I attended The Society of Storytelling (SfS) Gathering at St Gabriels Church Hall in Walthamstow.  The Gathering brings together storytellers of different backgrounds and experiences from all over the country (as the event was in London this year the South East was heavily represented).  Whilst the society AGM was a scheduled part of the day it also represents an opportunity for storytellers to discuss the state of storytelling in Britain with talks and workshops lead by society members. I don’t often go to storytelling events.  When we moved to Walthamstow in 2013 I started going to Stowtellers, the local storytelling club but in recent years a hectic work schedule and a toddler have made going to events difficult so this year’s Gathering would be some long overdue professional development as well as a chance to catch up with other storytellers.

If this event had been held at the beginning of the year it would have been a 30 minute walk from my house but having moved to East Sussex it was a slightly longer journey which meant I sadly missed Paul Jackson’s opening speech but I was present for Mike Rust’s keynote speech.  Mike has been a storyteller for over 30 years and helped to found the Society of Storytellers and The Festival at the Edge in Shropshire.  Mike set the tone for the day speaking about the evolving tradition of storytelling and how he feels storytellers can make a real difference to people’s lives and well being.

“The first tottering steps are made by us the rest is for you”.

The first workshop I chose to attend was about legacy.  Three 11 year old girls from Eastbury Community School were in attendance to show off their storytelling skills and talk to us about their experiences of storytelling with their teacher and storyteller Merrick Durling. It was wonderful to see three young people communicate a story with such confidence.  It was also very impressive and energising to hear them speak about the joy they found in being able to express themselves through storytelling.

“Storytelling isn’t just about reading books, it’s about expressing yourself”

Throughout the day there were chances to chat with other attendees.  It was a bit like meeting my Twitter account in the flesh as I got the chance to speak with Wendy Shearer and Hannah Brailsford but I also chatted with Pippa Reid, SfS representative for London, and Tony Cooper, whose book of Kentish folktales is a source of inspiration to me. It was fascinating to hear different views from different parts of the country as a range of topics were discussed from how to work with schools and build audiences, to training, peer support, friends groups and the the value of social media and websites.

“We need to be outward looking and engage everyone”

After lunch came the AGM lead by Paul Jackson reported that SfS was in a good state and the members got to hear how money was being spent on youth and research projects followed by a practical workshop in which exercises encouraging the storyteller to reconsider their story through questioning and quiet reflection.

The day ended with a talk by Andy Copps.  Although I have had some correspondence with Andy because of my work with The Roald Dahl Story Company we had never actually met so it was great to hear more about his work and his journey from the world of finance to becoming a storyteller and meet Ralph the Gorilla! What I love about Andy is that you can tell he is passionate about stories and storytelling and that passion is infectious. He had the room enthralled.

As the Gathering moved to a local bar for an evening of stories sadly I broke away and headed home. I found the whole day very thought provoking.  At times being a storyteller can be a lonely place but the Gathering demonstrated that there is an active support network and storytelling community out there.  I left feeling reenergised and can’t wait for the next time we come together to share our stories of storytelling.

John Kirk is a professional storyteller. For more information or to make a booking fill in a contact form.

Practicing what I preach: telling and exploring stories with a toddler

As a storyteller I am asked to work not just in a variety of different environments but also with all sorts of different people.  Most people come into contact with my storytelling because of my work with children and families in schools and libraries but I do also work with adults.  This includes running storytelling sessions for parents aimed at encouraging them to tell stories with their children at home.  In the sessions my key points are the importance of talking to children about their family history and identity, the value of telling stories through play and how that play can be enhanced and the long term benefits of nurturing a culture of reading at home.  These sessions are popular with parents searching for ideas to stimulate their children or just some reassurance that creating time to bond over a story is worthwhile. When my daughter Verity was born, this storyteller became a Daddy for the first time.  As you’d imagine storytelling and performance are part of the culture of our family.  Lauren and Verity have supported me at several festivals, we have done a Father-Daughter double act at early years and rhyme time storytelling sessions and earlier this year we reviewed one of our favourite books.  Watching Daddy working and unorthodox Daddy day care is undoubtedly a fun way for a toddler to pass the time but as she gets older if we want Verity to remain interested in stories I have to practice what I have been preaching to other parents for years.

Now I am the first person in the world to admit that parenting is really hard.  Whilst I might have the stamina to tell a story to an audience of 300 children, one toddler regularly leaves me exhausted.  Fortunately for me Lauren has been a super Mum since day one and has always been able to engage quite naturally with Verity.  It may seem strange considering my living but I used to find it very hard to talk to my baby.  Realising that not talking to her would be detrimental I tried to compensate by singing rhymes and make up songs to fill some of the awkward silences.   This one is a family favourite…

To the tune of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”

All the stinky babies, all the stinky babies

You put your legs up!

Just done a crappy in your nappy

Daddy’s going to change it

He’s got some wet wipes and a change mat

All you have to do is lie there.

If you like it then you should have put a nappy on it!

If you like it then you should have put a nappy on it!

Woah woah woah etc…

Fortunately for Verity conversation has become a lot easier as she has got older but this and other silly songs have got me through some very difficult moments.

We recently bought Verity a set of traditional tales including The Three Bears, The Gingerbread Man and The Billy Goats Gruff. If you have read any of my previous blogs you’ll know that Verity watches as much (if not more) TV as any toddler but books don’t read themselves and since introducing these stories they have become firm favourites. I am a self employed storyteller and I know that if I am left in sole charge of my daughter I am easily distracted with checking e-mails and taking phone calls but since purchasing this set of books John the storyteller has been unable to resist the opportunity to bake Gingerbread Men and whenever we go on a walk and there’s a bridge we’ll pretend to be either the Billy Goats trip trapping over or the Troll lurking under it. The other day the audience turned instigator as Verity suggested we make some Porridge for her Teddies.  It was a light bulb moment.  Soon we had three bears eating from three bowls of porridge, three chairs and three little beds set up in Verity’s bedroom.  An hour on a wet day flew by as we read and reread the story of The Three Bears with Verity and her dolly taking turns at being Goldilocks.

In my experience sharing and exploring stories is brilliant way to parent and I’m sure it’s having a positive effect on both of us.  There will be people reading this who don’t have access to the resources that we do but you don’t have to be a professional storyteller or have a lot of stuff to make stories a part of your family’s daily life.  To read a book, make up a silly song at bath time or play a game with a teddy bear means putting down the mobile phone, switching off the rest of the world and trying to be present for a few minutes because what children really value is time and the time spent bonding through stories will create memories that lasts forever.