Tag Archives: literacy

Postcard from Swansea

So for the third time in as many months I’m away from home for work.  This time I’m in south Wales to tell The Twits.  As I write this it is almost 2am on Monday morning and I have recently arrived at my waterfront Premier Inn (the room is reminiscent of the rooms in Sheffield, Hemel Hempstead, Poole and just about every other Premier Inn I’ve ever stayed in!).  The original plan had been that Lauren, VBz and I would come down together but a combination of circumstances (those being that I worked on Saturday and am working in Horsham on Wednesday and that our camper van is in the garage being serviced) has meant that I am here alone although the cot in the corner of the room is already a constant reminder of the family I left in London.

It’s not my first visit to Swansea; I worked down here a couple of years ago when I was telling Terry Deary’s “The War Game”.  I only did a day with the library service on that occasion but I have such fond memories of the library staff and the children we worked with that when the opportunity to return came up I jumped at it.  Over two days I will work with Swansea Libraries and the Literacy Trust to deliver stories to five local primary schools.

The reason I’m so late is that I got the last train out of London.  This was an interesting experience in itself.  It took four and a half hours, which when I think about it means that had the van not been in the garage I could probably have actually driven here quicker.  The people on the train were an eclectic bunch; the last train from London it turns out is also the last train from Bristol and Cardiff.  What started out as a regular inter city service becomes the slow stopping service for revellers.  Fall Down Drunk fell on in Cardiff and fell off in Neath.  Then there were the colour runners still covered in powder paint and the anarchist sporting a pair of garish yellow tartan bermuda shorts.  By the time I got off the train it was spitting with rain.  I dashed past the bars and clubs of Wind Street over the sail bridge and into the hotel.

Anyway it’s getting late.  Time to get some sleep and dream of what might be tomorrow…

Monday afternoon

Today was a lovely day.

I met with Carole Billingham from Swansea Libraries and Irene Picton from the Literacy Trust just before 8.30am.  Carole is our host and chauffeur for the next couple of days.  This makes a huge difference because not only does she understand the geography of Swansea so we won’t get lost but she also knows the schools we’re working with and the children recognise her during our visits.  Like me, Irene is London based and is running the Young Readers Programme in towns and cities across the country.  The programme is a brilliant initiative to encourage reading for pleasure rather than as just as a means for academia.  At the beginning of each session Irene speaks to the group about their participation in the project and the children’s responses show that it’s been making a difference to their exposure to literature.

I have now told The Twits well over 150 times at schools, libraries and festivals across England and Wales (as well as Swansea I was in Conwy last July) as well as in Germany and the UAE but I never fail to find delight in telling it or seeing children finding the story for the first time.  The three schools we visit are outwardly very different but at each we quickly discover a shared love of stories and an enthusiasm for the project.  The feedback from the groups to my story is positive and enthusiastic (after the final presentation 50 children stay behind to watch me pack my suitcase!).  I feel like the children I have met valued the work we have done but what’d be really wonderful is if as a result of the intervention today any of the children were inspired to visit the library or read the story for themselves.  Unfortunately if this happens then I’ll only hear about it on the grapevine because my time in Swansea has flown by and all too soon I’ll be heading back to London.

So far Swansea hasn’t disappointed; the people are as warm as the glorious weather.  I look forward to seeing what day two holds for us but for now though, it a lovely evening and I’m starving.

Tuesday evening – on a train back to London

Last night I had a wander into Swansea.  I walked from the hotel over the Sail Bridge, past The Dylan Thomas Centre up to Swansea Castle before heading through town and down onto the beach.  It has always struck me as very appropriate that the Civic Centre which houses the library overlooks the coastline.  I’m sure Wales’ great writers and poets of the past would’ve found inspiration by gazing out the library window onto such an impressive vista.  Stood on the beach looking out toward Mumbles or Port Talbot with the hills and town behind you it is simply awesome.  After filling my boots with the scenery I headed back to Wind Street for dinner (that’s wind like curl although in a Welsh accent you’d be forgiven for thinking this street of many pubs, clubs and bars was aptly called Wine Street!).

Unfortunately the wifi in my hotel room wasn’t working so I went to the hotel reception to do some work.  It turned out that the receptionist’s sister went to one of the schools we’d visited.  Talk about a small world!

Today we visited two more schools and once again the children we met really responded to my storytelling.  What’s been fascinating has been the way in which five very different groups of children and five different schools engage with the same story.  Live presentation is often a unique experience for all concerned; sometimes a group of children will sit very quietly and listen very politely and sometimes you are thrown into the chaos of school life and end up chasing a child around the building with a water pistol!

So my flying visit to south Wales is over.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it which is good because I’ll be back next week to work with a sixth primary school we couldn’t squeeze in this week.  Two days isn’t a very long time; it’s certainly not long enough to improve my Welsh pronunciation which is still woeful but I do feel I’ve made an impact.  As I ride the train back to the big smoke I find myself in reflective mood.  My involvement in the Literacy Trust’s Young Reader’s Programme although its been brief has highlighted a few things:

  1. Public libraries do wonderful and important work in their communities which is all too easily overlooked.
  2. The Literacy Trust’s programmes, with the support of businesses like Boots and WH Smith, really do inspire young readers.
  3. In spite of everything modern life may throw at children, they still value books and stories.
  4. Wales is fab-a-lous!

Postcard from Sharjah #scrf17 #discoverbeyond

Its been a funny old month.  After the madness of March I found myself writing a short story for Kent Wildlife Trust and presenting it at their Paint the Town Green celebration event.  The next thing I knew I was telling folk tales in a 15th Century Guildhall as part of the Get Creative Weekend.  A couple of days later and I visited Norwich’s state of the art Theatre Royal to do The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party! before travelling to Sharjah in The United Arab Emirates to take part in their Children’s Reading Festival.

The whole thing came about just after Verity was born.  I opened my inbox and there it was; an invitation to Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates (although I’ll confess to never having heard of the place).  Nine weeks and a seven and half hour flight later I enter Dubai’s airport – gateway to the Gulf and beyond – shining out in marble and chrome (and that’s just the baggage hall!).  From there we were whisked off to Sharjah’s Hilton Hotel and as I’m sat in the lobby staring up at a crystal chandelier I am still pinching myself – is this all a dream?  Then I step outside the lobby into temperatures of 31-36oC – no, this is really happening.

The following was written after each day but is published as one blog.

Day One

The first thing to note is the calibre of the other people I am staying with in the hotel.  Breakfast is with Sheena Dempsey and Swapna Haddow who when I ask about their work slide Dave Pigeon across the table.  I have a flick through and am instantly grabbed by the presentation of the book – it just looks fun.

Arriving at the Expo Center I am met by a security cordon.  There’s royalty attending the opening of the festival and the organisers aren’t taking any chances.  Today I’m telling Roald Dahl’s “The Twits” and the look on the security guards face as he opens my suitcase is priceless (for a moment I think Mrs Twit’s walking stick is about to be confiscated).

The Expo Center is vast and I am immediately lost.  There seem to be an unending array of events, activities and people preparing for their day.  The children’s area is made to look like a little village with lots of shops, a library and a police station.  I am working in shop 2 (Knowledge) along with Beth Creagan and Mark Greenwood who are attending the festival from Australia.  They both make me feel very welcome in my home for the day and I am able to attend bits of their workshops (Beth does a fantastic string storytelling activity which I’ll be stealing in the future).

My workshops, morning and afternoon, were well received but it is all a steep learning curve here in Sharjah.  I am always pretty dynamic when I tell stories but in front of a largely arabic speaking audience I have to become even more demonstrative and am already wondering how my proposed Shakespeare session will go down on Friday night.

The day ends as it began – at my laptop in my air conditioned hotel room after a lovely dinner with author Tamsyn Murray and illustrator Sara Mellin (the brains behind The Pound Shop).  It may only be day one but there is a nice atmosphere being developed amongst the workshop facilitators.  Tomorrow the Mad Hatter comes to the Emirates…

Day Two

I open my curtains to another day of sun but the superb mosque on the other side of the lagoon reminds me this isn’t La La Land.

Its an earlier start for day two at the Expo Center.  Today I am in Shop 5 (Ideas).  Its further away from the main exhibition space which means its a bit quieter.  Not that that matters because today I’m doing The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party!  Rather than wait in my room for the audience to be brought in, I follow the usher into the hall and lead my audience in a conga line back to our space.  The first presentation is manic; the children are young and have only a little English so when I start climbing on tables to spray them with water they are beside themselves (although I’m not sure the teachers appreciate the early shower!).  It’s funny but for a hot country people don’t like to get wet.

Once I’m finished I flit between workshops helping out where I can (drawing with children who have learning difficulties and pretending to be a rabbit in a book workshop).  I do this because the other workshop leaders have been at my session to support me, joining in so that the children have somebody to copy.  It seems like a really simple thing but its tough work when your audience/participants don’t really understand what’s going on.  The support of the other facilitators is invaluable to the success of the sessions.

By 11am (that’s 8am in the UK) I am on my way back to the hotel and half my day is done.

After a dip in the pool and exchanging messages with home (I miss Lauren and VB and am looking forward to seeing them in a few days time) I’m back in the Expo Center.  My afternoon time slot is quite close to prayer time so numbers in the hall are thin but with my colourful jacket and another game of Follow my Leader I am soon the Pied Piper leading the children toward my session.  Over the next 30 minutes lots of children and families brave the water and stick their heads in on what I’m doing.  It seems that The Mad Hatter is visual enough and interactive to hit the right notes for this event.  With this in mind and with concerns about my Shakespeare presentation I take the decision to host a tea party again tomorrow evening!

When I finish my session I go out into the Expo to look at what other people are doing.  There are flight simulators, Lego building, book and toy stores, jugglers, acrobats, marching bands and much much more – you couldn’t possibly see it all.

Generally speaking today was a better day than yesterday; I feel much more comfortable in the environment and have a better understanding of what I have to do to be successful at what is a very vibrant, interactive event.  I am only scheduled to do three more presentations so fingers crossed I can put my knowledge into practice when I return tomorrow evening but first a trip to Dubai.

Day Three

Friday is prayer day in Sharjah which means the festival opens at 4pm giving us enough time to visit Dubai.  The hotel shuttle bus drops us near the metro from where we go to the Dubai Mall to see the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world).  From the viewing levels you can see that Dubai has just about every type of tall building ever imagined and that the growing city is surrounded by sand.  Its a bit mind boggling to consider what man has achieved in a very short space of time and in such harsh landscape.

Day three represents the halfway point in my trip.  I still can’t believe that this is really happening and I count myself very lucky to have this opportunity to be a part of what is a tremendously prestigious event.  I remember being asked to participate in Shrewsbury Children’s Bookfest and then the CityRead 2014.  At the time these were big, big deals for me after years of hard work but being in Sharjah this week is incredible.  The facilities are amazing but its the people who make it.  The people here are really friendly and couldn’t do enough to help you.  Often what they lack in the way of English comprehension they make up for in sheer enthusiasm for life.  The other facilitators too, are very supportive and ultra talented.  I’m rubbing shoulders with some very inspiring people.

I think that I’m relaxing into a routine of workshops and 5 star hotel life but I can’t wait to see Lauren and VB on Saturday.  I had a dig in my bag and found one of VBz rattles and a book of nursery rhymes (*sigh*).

then came Friday night…

Please remember I am writing all this in real time.  It’s 10.15pm local time and I am euphoric – you could say I’m as high as a kite sailing from the top of the tallest building in the world!  Its the weekend in Sharjah and tonight the Expo Center was crawling with children and families.  Tonight was the reason I agreed to come to the Gulf, tonight justified leaving my family and flying half way around the world, tonight was the reason I do my job, tonight was f**pping amazing!

Let me try to describe how it went down; this was a perfect storm of an adrenline pumped storyteller, lots of excitable children, water and anarchy.  We ran and danced and conga lined through the festival; we caused chaos and they loved it.  At one stage in my presentation they were three deep at the door, with faces pressed up against the windows and when we finished it took 10 minutes for the families to get all the photos they wanted with me.  The children loved taking part and it really felt like we provided something that was genuinely fun that will inspire the learning of English.  In short a job well done.  I hope that tomorrow, my final day in Sharjah, will be just as memorable.

Day Four

Saturday morning.  My final day in Sharjah.  Last night I slept with the curtains open and was woken by the sunrise.  It was a bit misty but still rather lovely.

My penultimate presentation done I’d like to mention the drivers, volunteers, security, cameramen and cleaners who really make this festival tick.  They have always been so friendly and supportive and its from them that I have learned about the UAE (for instance did you know that water is more expensive than petrol out here?).  The room ushers have done a particularly wonderful job in helping to muster audiences and set up rooms.  I will miss them a lot when I am gone.

It’s now after midnight.  My final presentation went well and I have waved farewell to the expo center for the final time.  In some ways its a case of just about getting the ropes then having to leave.  I know its for the best though, in 25 hours time I’ll be back in blighty with Lauren and VB and this evening just showing somebody a picture of VBz almost had me in tears.  Saying this hindsight is an amazing thing; if I knew before all that I know now eh?  On Monday I’ll be with Merton Libraries telling Shakespeare’s tales and all this will seem even more bizarre and dream like than it does to have lived it.

The ladies at the expo gave me a little parting gift (a model camel) and Katrina Germein kindly gave VB one of her books.  Sara, Tamsyn and me went to the waterfront for a Lebanese meal before walking back around the lagoon.  I have said my goodbyes to the Aussies who are flying home early tomorrow and its almost time for me to think about packing my bags.

All things considered it been a positive week.  I have done what I came here for and leave satisfied.  At times it has been tough but there have been real highs and I’ve met some fantastic people who I hope I can keep in touch with for the future.  Will I be back in the Gulf anytime soon?  Well as they say in this neck of the woods, enshallah!!

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”.

“It was so much better than German!”

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.At the beginning of January I was in Essex to help inspire a group of young writers.  I wanted to present a workshop in which the participants didn’t feel they were really doing any work.  As absurd as this may sound – I ran a creative writing workshop without doing any writing!

As a trained actor my strength is in the spoken word and its delivery.  Through games and activities I helped the group explore short stories and the work of Edgar Allan Poe.  Here are some of the games we played:

Exploring quality of their content and how we can manipulate atmosphere.

Person A sets up a simple mime.  Person B questions it.  Person A tells a lie about their action and that lie becomes Person B’s truth.  The quality of A’s lie will effect the quality of B’s mime (I’m eating a spicy chilli is far easier to demonstrate than I’m eating).  The game then develops as Person B informs Person A what they are doing.  Whatever B says A accepts as truth.  It is in B’s power to manipulate the scene (A is sitting on a chair watching television and B begins an interrogation).

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.Building short stories

A small group is challenged to tell a story.  Each person in the group is responsible for a section of that story which must have a clear beginning, middle and end.  A character, a location and object are offered as a starter to the group).  As the group build their story ideas about tense (how does “I” rather than “he” effect a story?), sentence structure and vocabulary are introduced before the story is presented to the rest of the group.

Eventually my success will be qualified by how the participants take the ideas they explored on their feet into their written work.  For now though my success is qualified by their words…

“It was better than any day at school… Changed my view of storytelling.”

“Today was really good!  It was so much better than German!  I learnt a lot about building tension and suspense and I have learnt how to use it in my own work.”

“This experience was such a great learning curve for anyone invited and I will take skills with me.”

I really enjoyed today… everyone got involved with acting and storytelling.  It was lots of fun!”

“Thank you to John Kirk for a great experience toady, we learnt a lot of new things and had a really enjoyable morning.”


John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.
A letter from a student after a secondary school workshop exploring short stories and Edgar Allan Poe.
John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.
A display of Tweets after a Secondary School Workshop exploring short stories and Edgar Allan Poe.


Tale of Two Newspapers

I am originally from Chorley in Central Lancashire but live in North London.  I had learned about an event which was to take place called Chorley Live through Twitter.  The event was all about showcasing local talent so I was keen to support it.  I got in touch with the organisers and arranged to bring my work home to Chorley.  Knowing that I would probably struggle to publicise myself at a festival 200 miles away I phoned the local paper (The Chorley Guardian) in order to get a bit of publicity for my performance of Dracula at Chorley Library.  What I got was an amazing two page spread!

Chorley Guardian Interview

As you’ll imagine the piece meant that quite a crowd of people attended my performance.  It went really well and it seemed that everybody enjoyed themselves with many people taking away business cards.

Now, whenever I give out business cards I notice spikes in activity on my Youtube and Facebook pages.  That evening I noted such spikes with  audience members from the library going online to follow, like and comment on my performance but I thought nothing more of it than that.

A few weeks passed and I was contacted via Facebook by somebody who’d seen my October performance.  She had been so impressed by my work that she had recommended me to her children’s school!  Before I knew it I was back in Chorley in front of 300 children, opening the school’s library with my Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.  I had a fabulous day at school and it was an immense privilege to be asked to cut the ribbon and officially open the school’s library.

Once again my adventures made it into the local paper.

Chorley Guardian St Gregorys

This story proves two things: that work truly does breed work and that I wouldn’t be anywhere without the support of my many friends, family and supporters across the United Kingdom.

Thank you for continuing to spread the good word!