Tag Archives: history

Talking to a young child about remembrance

I was asked to lead a storytelling session for a group of 4-7 year olds which reflected on why we remember the Great War and the symbolism of the poppy.  I saw this as a challenge of both tone and content; how to talk about a terrible event in terms which will not traumatise a very young child?  Supposing this to be a dilemma faced by many teachers and families around Remembrance Day (11th November) I thought I’d share how I did it in order to make an important conversation a little easier in the future.

I started by telling the story of The Pied Piper of Hamlyn.  In the story the town is plagued by rats which make everybody unhappy.  A Piper, capable of playing enchanted music, comes to town.  He promises to get rid of the rats and the townspeople promise to pay him handsomely.  When the deed is done the townspeople go back on their word and the Piper leads all their children away.

The story of the Pied Piper is undoubtedly a sad one but it is a great way to talk about feelings, loss and regret.  It is thought that the story was originally told to help explain a loss of life caused by sickness but I wanted to use it to contextualise the devastation of war so I then told it again.  The second time I used the structure of the Pied Piper but told a simplified version of the Great War.  Something like this…

A hundred years ago peace in Europe was in danger.  The countries of Europe would do anything for peace so cities, towns and villages sent their young men to fight; many did not come home.  It was only when the war ended and Europe had its peace that these cities, towns and villages understood the heavy price that they had paid.  When the families of those who hadn’t come home from the war went to find them they found only fields of poppies; fields of poppies that had once been ploughed by farmers, fields of poppies that had then been churned by the bombs and guns of war, fields of poppies that were now lined with silent graves.

A generation gave their lives and their loved ones for what they believed was the right thing and so we might have peace today.

They shall grow not old as we who are left grow old

Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them

We will remember them

 

Between 2014 and 2018 John Kirk has presented multiple storytelling relating to The Great War including Michael Morpurgo’s “Private Peaceful”, Terry Deary’s “The War Game”, Tom Palmer’s “The Last Try” and written educational workshops with Hackney Museum, Redbridge Libraries and Vestry House Museum, Walthamstow.  His Great War edutainment session Band of Brothers: a story of three liars remains available to schools, libraries and museums.  For more information contact me.

My work in special educational needs (SEN) environments

The first time I really worked with young people who were considered to have special educational needs (SEN) was through a theatre company in London.  We worked with a very small group for 6 weeks before the participants delivered their project at a local theatre.  I don’t mind admitting that this was a very steep learning curve and at times I was out of my depth but by watching the other tutors and facilitators and by working with rather than against the children I got through it.

Since then I have been privileged enough to share stories with young people with profound physical, learning and behaviourial needs in places like Andover, Bridlington, Chelmsford, Harlow, Milton Keynes and Newcastle.  Each time the experience has been hugely challenging and deeply moving.

I have had some really rewarding experiences in special educational needs environments and often find that the staff and children greet me with a warmth and openness which is refreshing.  Sometimes the work I’ve delivered has been more or less what I’d deliver anywhere else and sometimes I have planned and delivered sensory stories (a story in which the individual engages with a story through their senses – smell, touch and taste as well as the more usual sight and sound).  Preparing a sensory story really challenges me.  Its very stimulating to reevaluate even the most simple story in terms of sensual opportunities and accessibility.

I think that my success (if I have been at all successful) in SEN environments can be put down to a few things:

  • I do a lot of preparation work (particularly if I am delivering a sensory story).
  • I have a highly visual, energetic style of delivery.
  • I place a lot of importance on striking a rapport with the group so that everybody feels welcome, safe and included.
  • I try to be adaptable and always expecting the unexpected.
  • I treat everybody the same irrespective of their perceived disadvantage.

I just wanted to explain what my last point means.  Some of the young people I meet have things going on that many of us could not imagine living with but they don’t need or want my pity.  I try to work with the young person not their condition; yes, of course I respect their conditions but if I don’t respect them as individuals then my delivery will fall flat.

Equal opportunities and accessibility is something we should be conscious of when we run sessions.  Be it allowing blind or autistic children to feel the props before or after a story to enhance their understanding or simply wearing a transmitter so a deaf child can hear or making it possible for a wheel chair user to volunteer I have seen how small adjustments can make big differences.  I am still learning a lot and I pick up new techniques all the time but my experiences mean that I certainly I feel a lot more confident when I deliver work for children with special educational needs.

In some ways “special educational needs” is a very cold one-size-fits-all term for a group of people with a wide range of talents and abilities.  Some of my favourite days have been working in SEN environments.  I would thoroughly recommend the experience to any arts practitioner and it is definitely work I’ll be looking to do more of in the future.

My work with museum and heritage services

Back in 2009 my father put me up to writing a show for the National Trust.  So I gave it a go.  I wrote a one man presentation based around the premise of a carnival sideshow quack called Professor Montague Rumpleseed Drake in which I promised to demonstrate to the audience when the best era of history to live was.  In a 30 minute presentation I’d peel back the layers of time until we came to the conclusion “we’ve never had it so good!”.  When I look back on it, this initial piece was by no means perfect (for one thing I used to cart a small cupboard all over London tied to a shopping trolley!) but what I latched onto was the idea that children have short attention spans so I had to be constantly looking for ways to change things up.  The Professor never darkened the door of a National Trust property but he became the first of many attempts to communicate thousands of years of history to young audiences.

The Professor and his time travelling machine allowed me to showcase my ability and led to museums in Hackney, Haringey, Southwark and Bromley inviting me to run workshops for them and to write other presentations.  During the Olympics I worked with Hackney Museum to deliver an outreach presentation to school children about change in the local area.  Ever ambitious in 30 minutes I tore through 30,000 years of history!  I structured this presentation in much the same way that I’d structured the Professor’s shtick three years earlier but without a bowler hat and  lab coat and with added elements of participation.

Spin on again to 2014 and the commemoration of The Great War.  This time it was Redbridge Libraries looking for a way to enhance their pop up library events.  I had done a few bits and pieces with Redbridge and they asked for something for adults and I gave them something for children (oops!).  Again this was borough specific and instead of 30000 years we were looking in detail at just four and this time I incorporated elements of participation and roleplay into 40 minutes exploring Redbridge’s home front.  The Great War didn’t just open doors in Redbridge; in 2014 I developed sessions for Hackney and Vestry House Museum, each time cherry picking what had worked elsewhere and doing it again.

Now to the present day.  I have been working with Vestry House Museum for four years.  We have developed workshops about The Great War, the Walthamstow Workhouse, Crime and Punishment and Roman Waltham Forest.  I have developed a formula that works for the children of Waltham Forest and the feedback on our latest sessions (the Romans) has been beyond my wildest expectations.

As part of my work with the Vestry House I have gone full circle and find myself telling the story of another London borough with a view to building relationships between the museum and schools.  Between now and May I’ll be visiting 16 Waltham Forest Primary Schools, meeting hundreds of children and sharing the story of the place they call home.  My latest dash through history covers 2000 years; from the Romans to the present day.  We interview a Roman, play a multiple choice game with the Anglo Saxons, learn a Tudor inspired dance, debate moral dilemmas in the 18th Century and learn new languages in the 20th Century.  Its a lot of fun and I hope it inspires some more children and schools to visit Vestry House Museum.  For me it represents nearly a decade of work.  I feel comfortable doing it and I am still loving sharing the story of how London has developed after all these years.

Its a strange thing to spend so much of your time working in isolation so whenever I work regularly with museums and libraries I enjoy the feeling of being a part of a team.  I owe London’s museum services a great debt after all had it not been for the staff of the Hackney Museum who encouraged my madness and supported me when I went wrong I’d probably still be working in as an office administrator and these days its the team at Vestry House who put up with my daft ideas.

The person I find that I have to thank the most for my rollercoaster ride into the wild west of heritage services is not Professor Montague Rumpleseed Drake but my Dad.  He and my Mum may not be completely comfortable with some of my life choices but it’s been their faith in me that’s pushed me to be more than a jobbing actor and office temp and for that I am very grateful.  Verity is now a year old and there are likely to be big changes over the next few months and years but if I’ve learned one thing from working in museums and heritage services its that whilst none of us can accurately predict the future you can have an awful lot of fun trying to make sense of it once its in the past!

Great War Workshops in Hackney and Walthamstow

Private PeacefulApart from all the wonderful stories I have been telling to children and adults at festivals, libraries and schools this year it has also been my absolute pleasure to work with two of East London’s brilliant local museums.

Earlier in the year I worked with Hackney Museum to develop and present Hackney to Ypres, which was presented to coincide with their exhibition “Writing Home”.  In the session we considered and contrasted the letters of soldiers from Hackney with the work of Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke as well as presenting discussion and role play activities.

Since then I have worked with The Vestry House Museum (sister museum to The William Morris Gallery-Museum of the Year 2013) in Walthamstow to develop a session to compliment their exhibition “Raids, Rationing and Riots”.  Building on the work I did in Hackney we have developed a session that incorporates multimedia, role play and analysing sources in a local study.

Leading a Highwayman Workshop

Both sessions (aimed at Years 5-7) require participants to look at sources and use inference and deduction skills as they consider what life was like in East London during The Great War.  They also include drama games and activities which help to make the sessions dynamic.

Feedback on both sessions has been very encouraging and I hope they will have a lasting legacy.  Having presented Private Peaceful and The War Game I can safely say that these workshops helped my understanding what happened 100 years ago!  It has been wonderful for me to work with two such outstanding museums.  I will take a lot from these experiences and commend these sessions to schools in and around the area.

I also commend the difference that an arts practitioner can make to a child’s understanding of a topic.  The workshops people like me offer to organisations can introduce, consolidate or enhance a child’s learning.  My approach is playful and energetic as groups learn through doing and enjoying.  Over the years I have used drama to unpick Darwin and Evolution, Shakespeare, the History of Highwaymen and even healthy eating.  Could I help to unlock that tricky subject?  Try me.

Mammoths to Medals (Revisited)

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.In 2013 I moved from the London borough of Hackney to the London Borough of Waltham Forest.  I may have only moved seven short miles but after six happy years in one of the most vibrant boroughs in Britain it was a massive wrench.  Whilst living in Hackney I had some of the most creatively fulfilling years of my life as I built strong working relationships with organisations including The Hackney Museum.  Hackney Museum, based in Hackney Central Library is an amazing community resource staffed by knowledgeable and creative people with a passion for sharing local history.  I may be biased but I think its one of the best museums in the country.

Working in heritage environments is something I really enjoy.  My earliest solo storytelling pieces were based around British history (including a Victorian Classroom session for The Bruce Castle Museum) and this summer I will be helping to lead a creative exploration of the Guilden Morden fire.

Anyway, as I sat watching Lizzy Yarnold, Jade Etherington and Team GB at the Sochi Winter and Paralympic Games I couldn’t help but think back to my time working with Hackney Museum.  It was in the build up to Summer Olympic and Paralympics (London 2012) that I collaborated with Hackney Museum on Mammoths to Medals,a presentation which sought to tell the incredible story of Hackney’s history as part of the Museum’s Mapping the Change project.  In just 30 minutes we explored 200,000 years of Hackney’s history highlighting the contributions of those people who have called Hackney their home; Anglo Saxon Farmers, Tudor Society, Victorian Industrialists and migrants from across the globe.

In the life of the project I have presented the piece on many occasions at Hackney Museum and in Hackney Primary Schools.  Incorporating games and learning activities into a chronological narrative the piece offer facts about Hackney and but also it questions how we will be remembered.

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.A lot has changed in the two years since we made the piece was documented at Kingsmead Primary School.  Hackney’s demographic and landscape have been slowly morphing for 200,000 years but concerns about how communities will withstand the gentrification of East London mean our legacy is once again scrutinised.

When we look at Hackney’s story it shows us that change doesn’t have to be a bad thing.  It points to how different traditions, cultures and values have shaped an area into a place people want to live and work.   I am incredibly proud of being a part of Hackney’s history and of this piece.  I hope that through watching Mammoths to Medals young people recognise how they can shape their community.

Thankfully I haven’t lost touch with Hackney Museum and hope to be back to run sessions as the country prepares to commemorate The Great War.  For the moment though I am very settled in Waltham Forest and I’m looking forward to the future.

St George and the Dragon: The Golden Legend

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.I was recently asked to recall the stories that I told.  As I compiled my list it occurred to me that my repertoire includes stories about our world from all around the world. A striking example of this is The Legend of St George and the Dragon.

The Legend of St George and the Dragon is well known in England because he is the nation’s patron saint and although it seems, on the surface, a straight forward battle between man and beast (albeit mythical monster) this is a story which is appreciated around the world.

It is said that the story was first brought to England from the Holy Land  by Knights returning from the Crusades.  The story goes that St George comes to the town of Silene in Libya.  Learning that the town is troubled by a terrible Dragon, George seeks the beast out and kills it.  He is hailed as hero by the people.  It’s easy to see how the central idea of bravery, honour and valour conquering a terrible enemy would have resonated with the returning soldiers and fascinated the population at the time.

The idea of George as a Knight fighting with a Dragon, sometimes referred to as “The Golden Legend”, is a romantic view of the Saint’s life.   Saint George was a Roman Soldier, who was born in Turkey 2000 years ago and died for refusing to renounce his Christian faith.  In death St George is respected by Christians and Muslims alike.  As well as England, St George is patron of the World Scouting Movement and other countries including Georgia, Greece, India, Russia and Egypt.  The list of countries and cities who have chosen George as their patron saint is much longer than this but I feel this selection demonstrates his truly global appeal.

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.George and the Dragon is a legend: a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but not authenticated (www.oxforddictionaries.com).  Both Knight and Dragon can be viewed as metaphors (the saint’s battle with religious persecution).  In some versions of the story George captures the Dragon and only agrees to killing it if the people of the town convert to Christianity.

At the beginning of this blog I said that St George and the Dragon demonstrates how the stories I tell are about our world from all around the world.  Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone who chooses George as their patron did so because of “The Golden Legend” but I would say that you don’t have to be religious to buy into the metaphor.  Everyday all around the world people face hardships and difficulties.  They aren’t knights and don’t have swords or shields but they do share the resolve and courage that George had in facing his Dragon.

Doing the right thing isn’t always easy – it’s a simple yet enduring message.

The Merits of a Narrative Poem

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.When I was younger I didn’t think that I liked poetry.  Outside Shakespeare I rarely read verse for pleasure.  Last year though, I was introduced to Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman” and it changed my view of poetry completely.  Since then I have been reading other narrative poems including the “The Ballad of the Fleet” (Tennyson) and “The Walrus and the Carpenter” (Carroll) and incorporating them into my work.

A narrative poem tells us a story but it is set out in stanzas with the rhythms and rhyming patterns familiar in other types of poem.  It will contain a skilfully woven story packed with wonderful imagery and metaphors which compels its audience.

In my opinion the narrative poem offers so much that I have even used them in pieces for Birthday Parties!  Here are what I see as the merits of working with narrative poetry.

The narrative poem is perhaps one of the most ancient form of storytelling (The Iliad and Beowulf are both story poems).  As a Drama Facilitator I believe they are a fantastic way of introducing complex text to young audiences which demonstrates the breadth and depth of our literary heritage beyond Shakespeare.

It offers a whole story.  A chapter of a book or a scene from a play wouldn’t offer the beginning middle and end in this way.  If I want to guarantee that a group have heard the material a narrative poem is a concise way of quickly offering an entire story.

The narrative poem will capture the imaginations of boys and girls as it often recalls and romanticises some kind of adventure.

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.Investigating narrative poetry through drama is a lot of fun and once a group has a story they are better positioned to explore the author’s imagery and language choices.  The poems I am talking about were mostly written in the 19th and 20th Century and whilst the language is certainly complex it is not impenetrable.  Accessing it allows young  participants to make their own judgements about themes, events and characters (perhaps physically characterising or hot seating characters about their decisions in the story or making up scenes based upon their deductions).

I have also found that exploring a narrative poem can become a catalyst for exploring rhythm, rhyme and meter and getting groups to write in poetry.

_ _ _ _

“The wind was a rushing train, dodging every tree

The moon was a shiny banana ripe and ready for me.

The road was a lonely wanderer, under an ongoing spell

and Mr Highwayman came riding, riding, riding

Josh Highwayman came riding, up to the Grand Hotel.”

_ _ _ _

“The snow was a breeze of coldness coating the leafy bush,

The sun was a ball of fire, gleaming upon rushing waves

The field was a soft green carpet, over the earthy road

And the Highwayman came skating, skating, skating

The Highwayman came skating up to the big mansion’s door.”

_ _ _ _

As well as getting excited about narrative poetry I have discovered narrative songs.  My taste in story song is eclectic ranging from Benny Hill (The Fastest Milkman in the West) to Charles Daniels (The Devil Went Down to Georgia) and Chris Wood (Hollow Point).  You could easily laugh some narrative songs off as being novelties but constructing an effective narrative within a poem or a song is a great skill.  Tennyson and Noyes might not be matched for their poetry’s beautiful imagery  but Hollow Point particularly is (in my view) a powerful piece of modern verse based storytelling.

Up to now narrative poems have formed the basis of workshops or featured within other work that I have presented but this summer to coincide with The Summer Reading Challenge 2014 I am taking my new found love of the narrative poem to a whole new level as I reinterpret Homer’s “Odyssey” for a young audience.

My final reinterpretation is unlikely to be a narrative poem but one thing is certain – it’s going to be epic!

Special thanks to the children of South Malling Primary School for sharing their “modern” takes on “The Highwayman”.

The Great Fire of London

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.Recently I have being doing a lot of history projects in the name of education; The Gun Powder Plot, The Princes in the Tower and The Great Fire of London.

In 2013 it wouldn’t be uncommon to hear that a lesson was being in some way led or influenced by an artist but theatre’s relationship with education is historic.

As a visual and aural medium theatre has always been an effective method of communicating information quickly to an illiterate society.  The Greeks used comedy and drama to make social and political points, Mystery plays were a popular way of sharing the stories of the Bible with Medieval audiences and even William Shakespeare got in on the act with a series of plays we now recognise as his histories.

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.Why though, are there so few plays concerning The Gun Powder Plot and The Great Fire of London?

I don’t really have an answer to this but I do have a couple of theories.

In the case of The Gun Powder Plot (the failed attempt to blow up the opening of Parliament and King James I in 1605 – “Remember, remember the 5th of November”) and to some extent The Great Fire of London (a fire in Pudding Lane leads to 4 days of devastation in 1666) my initial thought is that perhaps there were plays and they weren’t good enough to survive the test of time or that I just don’t know them if they are out there.John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.

My second thought is that 17th Century England is a politically volatile place where the censor still dictates what is appropriate for the public.  The Gun Powder Plot is an attempt on the life of a reigning monarch at the beginning of the century.  In 1643 Charles I was executed after a Civil War and England became a republic for almost ten years before the restoration of the monarchy and finally James II being run out of England for being Catholic.

Socio-political statement might also have jarred with the increasing public appetite for Restoration Comedy as the likes of Wycherley (The Country Wife) and Moliere (Tartuffe) titillate audiences with plays about gossip and the naughtiness of society.

My final theory and the one I’m sticking to as to why there are no really great plays about two of England’s most famous historical events is health and safety.  Plays about fire and combustion tend not to mix well with wooden theatres!  Perhaps sense prevailed and they left these two topics for another generation.

The Victorian Classroom Experience

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.I had just marched out of the hall, my cane tucked under my arm, the children quivering with fear.  In the quiet of the staffroom I reviewed my morning as a Victorian School Master.

The session had come about after I was contacted to provide an authentic Victorian Classroom experience.

About three years ago I was commissioned to write a School Room session for The Bruce Castle in Haringey.  This would be a fabulous opportunity to revisit the piece.

The Bruce Castle School in Tottenham was run by the Hill family during the 19th Century (Rowland Hill gave us the Penny Black).  The school was renowned for its progressive approach to discipline.  Rather than using corporal punishment, The Bruce Castle School introduced a system of points and rewards which was administered by the pupils themselves.  It had many supporters including Charles Dickens who is known to have visited the school.

Unfortunately The Bruce Castle is something of an exception to the rule in the period.  It was only late in the reign of Queen Victoria that education became compulsory and then only for the very young.  Many children found school either voluntarily or via the workhouses.  With sometimes eye watering class sizes order was maintained through fear.

Having reworked the piece to incorporate references to potential punishments I have tried to communicate the importance of the credibility of the session to the school.  If the children don’t buy into the experience then the experience is liable to collapse (he’s not really a teacher/he isn’t really going to cane us etc) 150 years ago it was acceptable to hurl board rubbers at pupil’s heads – 150 years is clearly a very long time!  When I arrive, the school has excelled.  They have a free standing white board and arranged rows of benches in their hall.  There is even a lectern for the register.  With my bell and my cane we have created a pop up Victorian Classroom!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJust before 9.05 I go to get the class.  They are ready.  We head to the hall where the boys and the girls stand in front of separate benches.  The atmosphere is nervous.

“No speaking, Eyes front”.

I register the class, addressing them by surname.  As I stumble through the register I am reminded of how far removed the Victorian world is from the present day.

“Sit down”.

The lesson today is divided into reading, writing and mental arithmetic.  It begins however with physical drill.

Whilst researching for the original piece I discovered that quite often PE would take place in the classroom because the school didn’t have outdoor facilities.  The children would take part in physical drills at their desks!  We often take public parks for granted but at this time open spaces in urban areas must have been truly oases.

Drill over its into learning by repetition.

“Sit up straight!  Eyes front!  No slouching!”

Victims are selected.

“What is 4×5?”

Pressure can make the most intelligent child look very silly.

“What is the superlative in the passage?”

The point of this isn’t simply to intimidate or make a child feel silly.  The point is to demonstrate a method of learning.  This isn’t the learning of compromise this is the learning of fear – my way or the highway.  if a girl hesitates on an answer its also an opportunity to reinforce attitudes towards educating young ladies with a jibe about needlework.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe lesson moves onto a writing exercise.  Today as substitutes for slates we have portable whiteboards.

“Why are you writing with your left hand?  You will write with your right hand”.

As School Master I maintain an unsympathetic air to the teachers and pupils and the lesson continues in silence.  What rapport there is between class and instructor is cold and dangerously sharp.

“Sit up straight!  Eyes front!  No slouching!”

The lesson concludes with three cheers for Queen Victoria.

Afterwards there is time to discuss the experience with the class.  The feedback on the session is interesting.  Words like “unfair”, “shocking”, “mean” and even “rude” are used.  Comparisons are made (everybody prefers their class teacher to my incarnation!).  There is general relief that I am not the monster of the Victorian classroom.

Sitting in the staffroom I can’t help but smile.  As the children return to their classroom and life gets back to normal there is legacy in their participation.  Undoubtedly this morning’s interaction will provide context to their learning, stimulus for their writing and renewed enthusiasm for their study but you only need to listen to hear them recalling moments from the session to know that this has affected them.

It has been an unforgettable experience.