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“You are brilliant at what you do”

“I just wanted to say a huge thank you for yesterday! The children thoroughly enjoyed it and have already asked me to read the Twits to them! It was great to see how passionate and engaging you were with the children. You are brilliant at what you do”.

[Teacher, Derby, May 2019]

You can imagine how I felt when I read this; storytellers will tell you that it’s exactly this sort of comment which helps you get out of bed in the morning.  It also got me thinking (not for the first time) about what John Kirk the storyteller does.  I often say with absolute confidence that I am one of the best in the country at what I do but then that’s because storyteller can be a catch-all term; we may be tagged the same way but we all have our different ways of doing things.  Here’s a little more about mine…

I introduce children to new stories.

My storytelling work has taken me the length and breadth of the country.  Sometimes I tell stories the children have an awareness of already; Roald Dahl’s The Twits and The Enormous Crocodile are always popular and when I tell The Gingerbread Man and The Three Little Pigs it can be hard to tell who is the storyteller as some children will say the words before I do!  I am also a storyteller of less well known tales; traditional tales from other parts of the world which I have adapted for school audiences which not only demonstrate the best and worst of people but shine a light on a way of life.

I get children excited about stories.

I have a theatrical background and therefore my style as a storyteller is to use my body and voices to make my stories more dynamic.  I use small props, hats and wigs to enhance the storytelling experience and my use of water pistols and audience participation combined with a high energy delivery can leave young audiences positively buzzing.

I encourage listening and participation.

I am a versatile storyteller and some of the stories can be quite dark or serious.  I have told Nigel Auchterlounie’s Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief but I have also told Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful.  Some of my stories are very short but my longest sessions can go on for 75 minutes particularly if the children are into what we are doing.  The storyteller’s skill is choosing great published material (Roald Dahl, Jeremy Strong) which will hold a child’s attention or curating a session of stories with an audience in mind (a very young child will tolerate a serious story if it is in a trio of tales with something very physical or very silly).

I boost confidence and attainment.

I rarely tell stories on my own and often invite the children to become storytellers and volunteer in my sessions.  Whilst this could be holding up a piece of paper, wearing a silly wig or getting sprayed with a water pistol it is an opportunity for them to be in front of an audience in a safe, fun environment where I can support them to participate positively in the storytelling experience.  In schools I rarely choose my own volunteers.  Teachers often pick children to participate who will take something from being involved – maybe they’re the quiet ones or the hard to engage ones or maybe they are the ones who struggle in conventional lessons – whatever the reasoning I try to make it positive, memorable and fun. 

I inspire children to read and to create their own stories.

At the end of a session or when I read through feedback on a day of storytelling, it is not unusual for a teacher to say or write something like “that child wouldn’t normally do that” or “they have done some brilliant writing since meeting you” or for a child to say “can you come again tomorrow?”.  I enjoy storytelling but this sort of comment is very satisfying.

School children regularly ask me what inspires me to be a storyteller.  My answer is quite simple; as a storyteller there is nothing more inspiring than seeing the faces of the audience, watching them participate and hearing the chatter after a successful session.  It’s flattering to think that I can be brilliant at what I do but if I am consistently achieving excellence it’s because my audiences are brilliant too.

John Kirk is a storyteller who works in primary schools, libraries and museums and at literature festivals and events.  To make a booking complete the contact form.

Getting resourceful…

When I did my round up of my mad March I said that I’d write in more detail about my experience working in St Albans and about using open resources in telling stories.

A few years ago I worked at a Primary School in Hemel Hempstead.  I’ll be honest and say that I could only vaguely remember the school but I did remember the teacher who booked me and fortunately they remembered me when they changed jobs.  So it was that I was invited to work with an EYFS/foundation group not far from St Albans but this wouldn’t be a routine booking.  I was given the brief that I could only use open resources to tell the stories.

My immediate question was what is an open resource?  Well, an open resource is something that could be used for anything.  There is a popular drama game in which an object is passed around the circle and the participants explain its function.  The only thing it can’t be is what it actually is.  There are some objects that this is pretty difficult to do this with but there are others that allow the participant to use their imaginations; an empty plastic bottle can easily be imagined to be a telephone, a magnifying glass or a pneumatic drill, its far trickier to do this with a branded toy like a remote control car (although the remote control would probably be a lot of fun!).  Before arriving I was given a list of stories and a photograph of piles of coloured fabric, egg boxes, colanders, pine cones and lollipop sticks.

As a storyteller I am used to using my imagination to turn an object into something else for the benefit of the audience.  When I tell folk tales I often use gloves to represent birds and fabric to represent mountains, the sea or even blood.  In Roald Dahl’s The Twits and The Enormous Crocodile a walking stick becomes a rifle and oven gloves become crocodiles and coconut trees.  When I told Jeremy Strong’s The Hundred Mile an Hour Dog I used a dog lead as a tongue, a steering wheel, a rope and well, a dog lead.  Sometimes these ideas come about because I am on a budget, sometimes its because I’m looking for ways to encourage participation and sometimes because I want to encourage repetition – teachers often tell me that their children have demonstrated the ideas they have seen in a story at their playtimes.  In every case the simplest idea is often the best.

So it was that I visited a nursery without any props or costumes.  I introduced myself and my work before immediately apologising to the children for “forgetting” my work bag.  I asked if they could help me tell the stories using the resources provided by the setting.  Then working in a side room with a small group at a time the children were given a few moments to explore the resources before we told The Billy Goats Gruff and The Three Little Pigs.  I started each story the same way, by using some of the resources to build a map.  Just to make my task slightly more risky I invited the children to decide on the use of certain resources – Can you choose something to show a river?  Can you make a rickety rackety bridge? – we used pine cones and lollipop sticks and some rudimentary puppetry ideas to create the billy goats and yoghurt pots to create the pigs.  Working on the fly was very liberating and it was wonderful to incorporate the children’s ideas about things like the appearance of the troll into the storytelling.  The whole experience may have been low budget but it was a huge amount of fun.  Here is the feedback from the nursery:

Having seen your work before, I knew that you were a great storyteller, however, it is always a little worrying when you recommend someone to a new school. I need not have worried because you blew both children and staff away with your stories and wonderful energy and enthusiasm. You were able to engage all the children and included them all, even those that were hesitant at first. 

You were not at all phased when I asked you to tell the stories in a different way, using open ended resources (junk) and in fact, embraced the new challenge enthusiastically. You delivered a session, specifically tailored to the needs of our children and they responded beautifully. I loved the way that you gave them the freedom to choose their own resources and add their own ideas, this built their confidence and this was reflected in their own storytelling play after the session. 

Many parents have also approached me and told me that the children could not stop talking about you at home, so, I am sure, that the children would love to work with you again too.

Over the years I have received feedback suggesting I use more hats, more props and more costumes despite the fact I have packed an entire wardrobe into my session (I used to use a rubber glove tied to an alice band in Jack and the Beanstalk; recently used 35 hats to tell The Enormous Turnip!).  Some settings have cupboards full of story bags, dressing up rails and hand puppet sets for their children to tell stories.  Whilst this is brilliant and I appreciate that younger audiences require more resources I also wonder if in enhancing a child’s play with accessories we are sometimes overly prescriptive about how to play and may inadvertently be stifling some children’s imaginations and ability to create.  As I led these sessions I could see that the children got a lot from the experience of stripping things back and I hope to be able to offer similar sessions in the future.