Tag Archives: reading

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.

Verity and her Daddy review “Peace at Last” (Father Reading Every Day).

Verity turned two on Valentine’s Day (where has the time gone?) and I thought that this would be an ideal moment to reflect on her love of stories and our family’s reading routines. For the past few months I have been following Father Reading Everyday; an award winning blog about the importance of Dad’s reading with their children. I decided to write a contribution…

Storytelling resources for schools and families – Storytime Magazine

I have been lucky enough to tell published stories by the likes of Roald Dahl, Michael Morpurgo, Jeremy Strong and Terry Deary but traditional stories, fairy and folk tales remain the backbone of my work and the sessions I offer are always incredibly popular with children, schools and families. It’s not surprising as these stories are timeless, inter-generational and appear on most academic curricula. They are also a fabulous way of introducing reading. Over the years through my work with schools, libraries and literature events I have seen wonderful versions of stories like The Gingerbread Man, Goldilocks and the Three Bears and The Three Little Pigs but last summer I was reccommended a magazine devoted to folk stories for children and when I received my first copy I was completely enchanted.

Storytime Magazine is a fantastic resource for schools and families and can be enjoyed by any child (or story enthusiast) of any age. Rather than adverts, issues are crammed with beautiful illustrations and stories from around the world, so as well as rediscovering old European folklore favourites readers are introduced to new tales from other cultures and continents. The magazine promotes reading for pleasure and grows with a child as they make great self readers or can be used as guided or shared reading material. Since the magazine was recommended to me I have seen it in school libraries and people’s homes. I think a subscription would make a lovely gift and that this publication would work as an alternative to a regular comic.  To find out more about Storytime Magazine follow this link to their website.

To find out more about my traditional tale, fairy and folk tale offer to schools, libraries and festivals contact me.

A Guide to Guidance: how can you be sure a story is suitable?

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.Whenever I take a booking or ask for feedback on my work, suitability is mentioned.  For each of my stories I have suggested the age or level the audience should be at in order to watch it.  You did read that correctly, I said suggested.

Most recently I have been presenting “Private Peaceful” as part of the Cityread 2014.  My brief was to work with young readers in public spaces (lots of libraries!).  Michael Morpurgo’s story is quite rightly, not pitched at younger young readers but I know from experience of working in public spaces to expect very young audiences.  I therefore devised a piece which could be accessible to an audience of young people aged 7 plus.  This was challenging as I did not want to compromise the language or the tone of the original in my work.  In my interpretation I remove elements of the story which are too disturbing for a young audience or too difficult to do justice in a 40 minute presentation (the shooting of Bertha, Molly and the baby).  Similarly, I say that my version of “A Christmas Carol” can be enjoyed by audiences of young people aged 4 plus.  I don’t deviate from Dickens’ story or his language and in places my ghost story can be scary but I include elements of slapstick, pantomime and colourful, comic characters to entertain the very youngest audience members.

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.The truth is that when I say a piece is suitable for a particular age or level I am making a broad statement.  If I am liaising with a school directly it is much easier to advise them on a story to choose for their children.  Here my statement on suitability is definitely “this story is suitable for a person of the stated age or level”.  When I work In public environments I have less control over who will be watching.  I can put a statement of suitability on my literature or speak to the audience briefly before the presentation begins but my statement is more ambiguous, “a person of this age or level can access this story in some way”.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be like this but in the end I don’t know the audience who will watch my work.  When I work in schools, a child who is particularly sensitive will respond to my work differently compared to one who is bomb proof.  During the school holidays a parent will not be able to leave one child in order to monitor their sibling so I often present stories I deem inappropriate to very young children.  Saying this, I have had two year olds howling with laughter at Dracula because of my presentation style and teenagers who have disrupted my stories because they weren’t prepared to engage with my work.

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.There are risks when booking or attending stories for children but many pitfalls can be avoided with insight into the work.  Just because it says its suitable for a seven year old doesn’t mean its not Michael Morpurgo.  Just because it says its suitable for four year olds doesn’t mean that its not Charles Dickens.  A statement of suitability is to say you can rather than you should watch.  It is for adults to exercise their discretion in choosing an appropriate story for their audience.

Fairy Tale Stepmothers do ‘ave em!

Stone Soup 2Once upon a time the Fairy Tale was born…

The popular Fairy Tale has existed for well over 200 years and typically demonstrate good’s victory over evil.  Good being traditionally described as young, brave, kind, clever and beautiful, evil being old, wicked, corrupt and all too often female.

Witches, Queens, Stepmothers – there are plenty of examples within the genre but is there any common ground between them?

The fairy tale villain is an outsider, standing apart from society.  The Witch is ostracised for her appearance or habits, The Evil Queen is removed by her power and wealth but what of the Wicked Stepmother?  The Stepmother is the antithesis of what we might think of as a stock Mother figure (caring, nurturing, supportive).  Whilst the Witch and Evil Queen often threaten an entire community, the Stepmother represents a challenge to the family unit, her presence creating tension between the children and their Father.

There are several examples of Stepmothers in fairy tales; Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella and Snow White all have to deal with them.  In fact Stepfathers have far less nasty reputations.  This could be because many of the most famous fairy tale writers were men (Hans Christian Andersen, The Brothers Grimm to name but a few).

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.In the Stepmother the fairy tale writer has a character with an axe to grind.  The Stepmother has won the heart of her husband and wields power over his children mercilessly (Snow White, Hansel and Gretel are forced out into the forest and Cinderella is used as a slave).  The Stepmother’s motives are broadly similar to that of the Witch or the Evil Queen; jealousy and the lust for power.  Her new child(ren) are more beautiful than she is and they are in the way.  In the family unit, the Stepmother is Queen and her throne must be ruthlessly consolidated.

Of course like all fairy tale villains it will not end well for the Wicked Stepmother.  Her death or banishment will not only be gruesome but in it there will be a valuable moral lesson about love and virtue.  These lessons are highlighted, not by the downfall of the villain, but by the child(ren)’s relationship with their Father.  Throughout the Fairy Tale the Father neglects his responsibility as protector; he is blind to his new wife’s behaviour sometimes going as far as to carry out her dastardly wishes.  In the end he realises who he truly loves and seeks forgiveness.

Perhaps the reason that the Wicked Stepmother endures as a villain can also be found at home.  It’s unlikely that in the 21st Century we will ever meet a Giant or a talking Wolf but each of us understands the role of the Mother.  A Witch may be more mysterious and a Queen may be more powerful but it doesn’t take a flight of fantasy for even the youngest child to recognise the threat a Wicked Stepmother poses.

Wicked WitchIn my Traditional Tales I enjoy playing the wicked characters (even the female ones).  Playing a Witch or a Wicked Stepmother brings life to the story and is the perfect excuse for a wig or a shawl!

It can be very scary for young audience members to come face to face with a truly terrible character in any context (Miss Trunchbull’s School Inspection or The Victorian School Room) so I work hard to assure my audiences that they are safe.  Exposing children to danger, be it a Witch, a Dragon or a Stepmother, in my view, comes with responsibility.  If I am going to present bad characters I must demonstrate their ridiculousness; my audience must see that villains always get their comeuppance and that good will triumph in the end so that we can all live happily ever after.

Storytelling and Code Breaking

Can you crack the code to continue the story?John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.

1911 1955 1912 1916     1937 1972    1920 1981 1951!

Where A is 1908, Z is 2000 CODE IS FUN!

You might be thinking, what has code breaking to do with storytelling? Well, my work is nothing if not varied and I was recently invited to launch a Homework Club at a Library.

The challenges of storytelling for informal settings are numerous: who will attend, how old will the participants be, how can we best use the time to deliver something which will be engaging and not patronising?

On this occasion I came up with the idea of creating a story around a fictional counter terrorism agency to meet the client’s brief.  The agents were told at an initial briefing that the unit had been infiltrated by an enemy agent.  It would be the task of the group to crack the clues and root out the villain before the unit was destroyed.  Jack Bower meets Cluedo – the game was afoot!

As well as the date cipher above, I used the Dewey system and the characteristics of books to disguise information (page numbers, line numbers, even the number of characters into a line!)

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.

Allowing the participants to approach the narrative in a free form way is a risky venture but attempting to crack my ciphers was an important part of the session.  Like homework, the ciphers required the young people to work for their reward using problem solving and research skills.  The pay off for the young people was revealing their role in the narrative which they were then able to use to complete the story, taking part in a further game of conspiracy and intrigue at the end of the session.

It was encouraging that the group saw the session through to its conclusion.  It would be quite easy to struggle with the puzzles and drift away from the exercise but the group persevered and the final game was a hail of accusations, bluff and enthusiastic double bluff based on what they knew about themselves from the previous games.

In the end the enemy agent was brought to justice and everybody seemed happy with my deviously vexing games.

As I basked in a job well done one thing was clear – I wouldn’t have got away with it without those pesky kids!

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.