Tag Archives: SEN

My work with the children of service families overseas

I have just been updating my calendar for March and as ever my schedule is bonkers. March begins in Warrington in the first 15 days I’ll go to Glasgow, Plymouth and Slough. I’m also heading back to Paderborn for what maybe the last time.

I have been visiting Bishops Park School in Paderborn, Germany for the past three years to work with the children of service families. It has always been a real highlight and privilege to spend time with the military community and I have always been made to feel very welcome by the staff and children.

In a lot of ways it’s just another day at the office but it’s the little differences that make my time in Germany special. For instance, the school day starts and ends earlier than a British school day so having reached my hotel bed at midnight I am in front of the children at what feels like 7.30am! Then there’s the fact that you are quite clearly working in a German building in a German town but as soon as you walk through the door you know you are in a British school whose population reflect the many nationalities who serve in our armed forces. For the children it’s there normal but when you think that whilst I prance about in the school hall the parents of the children I’m entertaining may be in some far flung dangerous corner of the world in the name of our national safety I find it very humbling.

The school has been really supportive and I have been able to do some crazy and ambitious stuff with the children. Some of the sessions were from my regular repertoire (eg The Hundred Mile an Hour Dog and The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party!) but we’ve also done other stuff including a huge narrative poetry workshop and tiny sessions for children with additional needs and through the staff I’ve been introduced to some really high tech ideas. A lot of what I do is about access and exposure to high quality performance and storytelling. It always pleasing to be able to share a story or run a project with a small school but to work with a group of children so far from home who might not otherwise have such an experience is wonderful and I feel that I am a better storyteller and person for having had the opportunity.

The MoD previously announced that Germany is to close in 2019 and that service families were to return home or be redeployed around the world. I recently read that Paderborn may remain open until 2023 but I don’t know if I’ll be a part of the school’s future plans. Would I like to carry on going back? Of course but then, you know, there are schools in other parts of the world too… how does The Enormous Crocodile in The Falkland Islands, Shakespeare in Cyprus or Greek Mythology in Brunei sound to you, because to me it sounds amazing!!

I work in schools, museums and libraries in England, Scotland and Wales and have led storytelling sessions at the Guernsey Literary Festival and Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival. If you looking to book a storyteller for an overseas school or festival or for work with international students in here the UK, contact me.

My Space Chase is on the launchpad

In 1969 Apollo 11 took astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon. To celebrate their achievement this summer the Reading Agency’s Summer Reading Challenge is called The Space Chase and this storyteller is on the launchpad and ready for his latest mission.

Space is not new territory for the Summer Reading Challenge. Many moons ago I worked with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to devise a piece about reading in a year when the theme was to do with a Space Hop. Back then I mainly worked in east London and west London seemed a million light years away. Today I am pitching to a galaxy of library authorities from Plymouth and Devon to Glasgow and Fife.

This summer I am offering two projects to libraries.

This year I am working with the Roald Dahl Company to present The Enormous Crocodile. The story may be fairly tenuously tied to the theme but I’m sure children everywhere will enjoy finding out how the enormous crocodile became the first reptile in space and I see this summer’s reading challenge as a brilliant opportunity to share this marvellous story.

I am pleased to announce another brand new storytelling presentation developed with the kind permission of Walker Books and in collaboration with poet, author and eater of cake, Dom Conlon. If You Believe… will be a trio of stories told over 45 minutes and suitable for 3-11 year olds including Jonathan Emmett’s Bringing Down the Moon, Simon James’ The Boy from Mars and a specially commissioned story by Dom Conlon The Cow that Jumped over the Moon (working title). In Bringing Down the Moon a Mole attempts to pull down the lovely moon but soon finds out its not as near as it looks. In The Boy from Mars when Stanley’s Mum goes away a not so very well behaved Martian but will Stanley return before his Mum gets home? and when it came to approaching someone to write a story about space, I’m really excited that Dom Conlon, author of Astro Poetica and I will eat the Moon! agreed to work with me; I’m sure he’ll deliver a tale which is out of this world!

So there you have it; four stellar stories for children and families which means another summer of library storytelling is guaranteed to be a blast.

It’s one small step for man, one giant leap for storytelling kind (well maybe)!!

Partying into 2019!

Happy New Year! I hope you had a peaceful festive period and that the post Christmas blues haven’t set in just yet. This Christmas I had a run of children’s birthday parties. They were all so much fun and I’m just bursting with excitement to tell you more about them..

I started with a 1st birthday party in a play cafe in Islington. It was a bit of a tight fit but with shuffling tables (and parents) about we managed to create an adhoc performance space where I led a song, rhyme and storytime similar to the work I do for nurseries and libraries. I did a 30 minute set and tacted on some of my favourite global folk tales (Indian and Turkish) due to the wide age range at the party. Here’s the host feedback:

“I was a bit apprehensive as I had not seen John live however he was brilliant! and most of all the kids loved it just as much as the parents.”

Whilst the first party was fairly straight forward the second party was an absolutely bespoke project as I retold Chris Van Allsburg’s Polar Express for a book loving six year old in Greenwich. For reasons to do with preparation time and the difficulties I can have getting performance rights I decided quite early on that this would be a narrative storytelling (an abridged but interactive version of a far more elaborate story). Rather than just more drama roleplay activities, as it was a party I interspersed the storytelling elements with traditional party games like Follow my Leader, Blind Man’s Buff and Pass the Parcel. Here’s the hosts feedback:

“John managed to take a story we’ve read 1000 times and turn it in to a new and exciting adventure for my son and 20 of is friends. He held the audience of 3-6 year olds throughout and was energetic, innovative and entertaining throughout”.

For the last party I did something really quite exciting and at the same time really quite terrifying; I presented a who dunnit? for nine year olds. The party was held in a Pizzeria in Chingford and the eight guests were seated at a table. I shared a scenario about a missing birthday cake and then cast the guests as characters in the story. And do you know what? The children really got into it. They enjoyed playing the game of detectives and just as importantly I didn’t get thrown out of the restaurant for being a rabble rousing nuisance!

So three parties in two weeks. A very special first birthday, a retelling a family’s favourite story and a risky concept in a restaurant. Each had its challenges but they were a lot of fun and now the parties are over I want to do them all over again.

If you know somebody celebrating a birthday or are looking for party entertainment at affordable rates contact me to discuss how a storyteller can help deliver a unique and memorable event.

The (Birthday) Party season

At this time of the year I have usually downed tools for the festive period but with birthday party bookings to prepare for the Christmas week this year is a little bit different.  My usual feeling of triumphant relief at reaching the end of another year sane and solvent is still there but I can’t afford to get too demob happy as there’s still work to be done.

For me it seems birthday party bookings are like buses; you do none for ages and then three come along at once.  The three parties I’ll be entertaining at couldn’t be more different.  The first is a first birthday and will consist of songs, rhymes and stories, the second is for a six year old where I’m doing a narrative version of “The Polar Express” and the final one is for a nine year old and is to take place in a Pizzeria (I hope somebody warns the other customers!).

With every passing year I become more confident within my repertoire.  I know which stories will be winners and I understand the combinations to tell them in so that a set will be successful even if this means telling the same stories again and again but every so often I get a bespoke project; a new challenge, an excuse to develop new material.  Some bespoke projects will be more work than they are worth but just recently I worked up Sleeping Beauty, Rumpelstiltskin, Beauty and the Beast and reworked the Elves and the Shoemaker for some traditional tales and Christmas storytelling sessions.  I have previously blogged about the session I ran retelling the story of the Prophet Yusuf but I also had the opportunity to work up some Russian folktales for a school in Hampshire.  Here is their feedback on what we got up to…

“The visit was brilliant. We all enjoyed the stories which were perfect for our topic. We felt that it was pitched perfectly and the participation of children made it memorable and thoroughly enjoyable. Our children went on to tell and write their own stories based on this experience.A huge thank you and assurance that we would be keen to book John again and recommend him to others schools”.

Teacher, Fareham, November 2018I 

Whenever I do a visit, whether it be to a school, a library or a literature festival the aim is to do the very best work possible and in recent years there has been a very definite correlation between the calibre of what I showcase and the plaudits I receive.  When I do a bespoke project I often only get one shot at getting it right and in the case of a birthday party there’s the added pressure of really not wanting to spoil the special day.  Making a good impression at a library may have more obvious rewards than making a good impression at a birthday party but you never know who is watching or where an encounter may lead so although it may be a private booking its as important as anything else I do (the last birthday party I did lead to two days of work at a school).  So this Christmas as I digest my turkey I’ll also be carefully chewing these projects over and thinking about how I can make them memorable, enjoyable and above all fun.

If you’re interested in a bespoke storytelling experience or are looking for a storyteller contact me.

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous new year.

The Enormous Crocodile with the Roald Dahl Company

In September I was invited to meet with the Roald Dahl Company in central London to discuss the work I had been doing with “The Twits” over the past two years.  They wanted to know more about my version of the story and we discussed access and how storytelling could help Dahl’s work reach more people.  To walk into Roald Dahl HQ and to talk about stories was one of the biggest thrills of my life.  I had been worried about the meeting having had some issues with the licence earlier in the year but from that very first meeting Roald Dahl team have been very supportive.  In late September a producer from the company came along to watch me perform in north London.  This presentation became the basis for discussing a new project for next year.

“I’ve got clever plans and special tricks.”

I am pleased to announce that in 2019 with the support of The Roald Dahl Company I’ll be telling Roald Dahl’s “The Enormous Crocodile”.  This is a tremendous opportunity to tell a popular, short story by perhaps this country’s most celebrated author and to engage and inspire a very young audience (probably four year olds rather than the six year olds who loved The Twits, Hundred Mile an Hour Dog and The Chamber of Mischief) in stories and reading.  It’ll also be a chance for professional reflection and development as I see inside and learn from a very respected, high calibre creative organisation.  In the coming weeks I’ll be allowed access to some of the Company’s resources as we work up this story and revise my presentation of The Twits.  For the first time since my last theatrical bow in 2007 I’ll be part of a larger creative team which includes Joseph Attenborough as composer, Dan White as artist and excitingly, Amy Hodge who will act as dramaturg, director and co-conspirator.  I can’t wait to get started!

I’ll be launching the story in March and will announce more dates for both The Enormous Crocodile and The Twits in the coming weeks.  If you know a potential venue please tell them about the project.  I’m hoping that libraries and literature festivals will want me to visit to tell this story but I’m also interested in talking to reception class teachers, primary schools and primary academy trusts who feel their schools could be venues for larger multi school presentations and public showings as I try to find new ways of making this story accessible to the most possible people.

I hope this is a story gets everybody excited and that 2019 can be the year of the crocodile!

Imagegate: why it matters to me and why it should matter to all artists

The following relates to a series of social media posts I made on the 6th December 2018. As the matter has been resolved I have chosen to bring the whole story together in a blog for the sake of closure and because it deals with an interesting subject.

Four years ago I was lucky enough to be involved in City Read.  City Read is an annual month long, London wide event during which readers come together to share a single book.  I told “Private Peaceful” in 22 of London’s 32 authorities.  This was huge for my career; in one month I exploded into the consciousness of London’s libraries as I went from working in North London onto a much bigger stage (in 4 years I have gone from working in Hackney, Haringey and Islington to working for over 60 authorities across England, Scotland and Wales).  The project also presented an opportunity to work at The Museum of London in the Docklands.

The booking in question was a weekend event at the Docklands Museum and meant telling Private Peaceful three times in one day to public audiences.  I was technically working for City Read at The Museum of London rather than directly for the museum this was still a huge thrill; my background to this point had been in heritage rather than libraries and I had cut my teeth as a storyteller with Hackney Museum, Bruce Castle and the Cuming Museum.  My day at the Docklands Museum came and went all too quickly.  I was part of a larger event themed around the Great War.  It was a wonderful experience and I had a great time but to be honest I hadn’t thought much more about it until what I’m now calling Imagegate broke this week.

It started when a friend of mine contacted me to say she’d seen a soldier at the Museum of London who looked exactly like me and that she was glad my work was going well.  I joked that I was pretty sure I hadn’t been around to fight the Great War but I’d be interested to see a picture of my doppelganger.  She then sent me a link which left me speechless.  You see, my friend hadn’t been to the museum, she’d been on the museum’s website.  The Museum of London had had another family activity day themed around the Great War and it was my face being used to promote the event.  I meanwhile had had no idea.

Here’s what happened.  All those years ago I signed a piece of paper which allowed the Museum of London to take pictures of my storytelling sessions.  Its not unusual for me to sign such documents and I’ll be honest I encourage libraries, galleries and museums to take pictures so they can use them in the future.  Whenever I give consent for photos or videos to be made its on the understanding that they are shared.  This is mutually beneficial as I can then use the media in my own documentation and promotion (I still haven’t worked out how to take pictures of myself).  In this instance the photo hadn’t been shared after the event but I knew it existed because some time ago in an idle moment I’d put my name into a well known internet search engine and it had popped up as being posted by CityRead in 2014.  Four years on from the CityRead event the picture was selected to promote a family day because staff felt it summed up the kind of activities that would be happening on that day.  For whatever reason I wasn’t credited in the promotion nor indeed was I contacted about participating in the event.

So why does the use of a photo matter so much?  Well…

It has taken me years to hone and develop my repertoire; I have done thousands of gigs and hundreds of thousands of miles, all in the name of building a reputation as a top quality performance storyteller.  Everything you see in this picture; the facial expression, the pose, the clothes and to a point even the words that I’m saying in the photograph, that’s all me and my work yet my contribution to the photograph is not recognised when its reposted.

I spend a lot of time and energy on getting the right permissions to tell stories.  Whenever somebody takes a picture or makes a video of me I immediately lose control of my work.  If they then choose to put their media onto the internet I have to trust that they do this with discretion so as not to compromise my work or my professional relationships.  In this instance, if this photo had been a video the people who trusted me with “Private Peaceful” (Berlin Associates acting on behalf of Michael Morpurgo) wouldn’t have been at all impressed.

The event that my image was used to promote featured a storyteller and yet I was never asked to participate and had no knowledge that the event was even happening.  So whilst there might be a perceived link between me and the event I in fact had no control over its quality as it was nothing to do with me.  The friend who alerted me to the picture didn’t know this and had got in touch to congratulate me on working for the Museum of London.  What if she or any of my followers/supporters had attended the event on the strength of the picture?  They would be disappointed to discover that they had been mislead.  Storytelling is a resurgent art form and its practitioners are as distinct as any other kind of artist.  I would like to be thought of as more than a thinking man’s party entertainer and we have to be careful about devaluing the storyteller’s art as it will inevitably have a negative impact on storytelling’s integrity.

As a result of the image being reused its probable that more people have seen this photo than saw the storytellings I did back in 2014.  Its a fantastic photograph but when my picture was taken it would have been outrageous to suggest to me it would some day be used to promote another storyteller and yet I have been powerless to prevent exactly this happening.  Yes, my complaint has been upheld but the event has already passed.  Saying this I am thankful that my image has only been reposted by a museum and it hasn’t been associated with anything stranger or more extreme.

When I told my story on social media friends and colleagues rallied around me in shared indignation, baffled at how anybody could be so thoughtless / rude / discourteous and to their credit the museum were quick to recognise that they were in the wrong.  They offered to take down the photo, they are reviewing how they use images in future and they also offered to add me to their pool of freelance storytellers.  Perhaps then this cloud does have a silver lining.

There is learning in this for me too.  I’m going to have to become much stricter about when people take photos knowing where the picture will be used in advance.  I’ll also have to look at the images I use on my website; am I correctly crediting photographers and workshop participants and is there a point at which I should really stop using even the very best pictures?

Imagegate has not been a nice episode but it has been dealt with and I can move forward.  I still admire the Museum of London for their incredible programme of educational workshops and as a place I aspire to work.  They took action as soon as they became aware of a problem and it’s my hope that not only I work with them again but that they will consider how they work with storytellers in the future.

Thanks to everyone for their support.

Look at the picture.  What can you see?

This is the makings of a sensory story.  Using the things you see I told the story of the Prophet Yusuf (some may know it as the story of Joseph) in a 20 minute Religious Education session.  In each session I offered a simple narrative, stopping periodically to share these items through touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste and hopefully enhance the participants experience of the story.  Let me talk you around the table.

1. Spices (green bowl) – at the beginning of the session I placed the story and set the scene by playing some Arabic music and encouraging the participants to smell some Arabian spices to get a sense of a Middle Eastern market.

2. Wool (pink bowl) – Yacub and his sons are shepherds.  I was keen for the participants to have the opportunity to touch sheep’s wool.

3. Stretchy sheet and plastic flashing balls – Yusuf has a dream in which the sun, the moon and eleven stars all bowed down to him.  I got some stretchy sparkly material (the sky) and encouraged the participants to gently bounce the flashing balls (the sun, moon and stars) on the cloth.

4. Water pistol – Yusuf’s brothers throw home into a well – it was enough of an excuse to spray the participants with water!

5. Cloth – the brothers then return home with Yusuf’s bloodied shirt and tell their father his favourite son is dead.  In reality this is an old towel with red paint on it.  It looks and feels pretty disgusting and got some great reactions from the participants.

6. Chunky chain – In time Yusuf is thrown into prison.  The chunky chain is heavy, cold and makes a great noise when you rattle it.

7. Grape juice – in prison the cupholder dreams of giving Pharoah wine. As this session was in a school we offered the participants grape juice.

8. Bread – in prison the baker dreams that birds steal bread from his basket.  These loaves had a  wonderful aroma and contrasting textures.

9. Cow mask – Pharoah dreams of 7 fats cows being eaten by 7 thin ones.  This mask has a sound effect embedded in the nose.

10. Split peas (yellow bowl) – Yusuf’s brothers come to Egypt to ask for food.  The participants could run their fingers through the split peas (grain).

I hoped that this range of objects offered a real range of sensory experiences.  Touch and sight are the easiest to fulfill with taste and smell in my opinion the hardest.  I’m a little bit nervous about allergies and if I was leading the session alone the logistics of offering a taste of grape juice would bring the story to a grinding halt.

Sensory storytelling is perhaps my biggest challenge.  They require a completely different discipline to my regular repertoire.  I am definitely on learning curve and although I’m becoming more confident sadly I get very few opportunities to lead these sessions.  This is a shame because the inclusive and accessible nature of sensory storytelling would mean they could work with anybody.  I devised this story with a mixed group of young people in mind; some with visual impairment, some with hearing loss, some with physical and learning needs and I was really encouraged by the way they responded to the sessions.  I hope that they begin to appear more regularly in my schedule in museums, libraries and primary schools.

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.

Non-verbal storytellers

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

As a storyteller it is not unusual to have people in the audience with a limited understanding of English.  When I presented Private Peaceful I devised a hand out to accompany the session so that learners could follow up the story afterwards.  A hand out is all well and good but what if your audience can’t read?  Well, most of my pieces incorporate a strong visual element so that even if the story is too much for the individual there is something for them to engage with.

I recently visited a school for children with learning difficulties.  I presented Dracula and The Unlucky Mummy to the students (I’d chosen the pieces realising that they are perhaps my most visual and silly) before running a short training session with staff from local schools.  We began the session by articulating what we saw as the challenges in our own working environments to imaginative writing.  It was in this forum that staff spoke about the challenge of working with individuals who for one reason or another, are non-verbal.  In the past I have used this blog to reiterate my belief that we are all storytellers and to discuss Stanislavski’s Subtext but in this piece I’d like to share some ideas about enthusing and empowering non verbal groups with storytelling.  Many of these ideas are inspired by people I have met and worked with over the years and from observing other brilliant professionals at work.  I hope that you will find them as useful as I do.

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

Encouraging Free Choice  If the objective of the session is to get your young people to be imaginative then you may have to empower them with the idea of a free choice first.  I can express my free choice orally when I tell stories but this isn’t possible for everybody.  One idea for encouraging non verbal free choice is through multiple choice activities in which questions and instructions stimulate the young person to narrative decisions.  Examples of possible instructions might be “pick up the object you think is found in the room”, “move to where you think we should set the story” or “point to the name of the character”.  This can be a slow process but through simple instructions and reinforcing the rules of your activity through repetition you will soon empower young people to tell their own stories.

Storyboarding  Another idea for encouraging free choice in storytelling might be for the young person to draw a cartoon strip story.  Using a simple template of boxes or arrows to indicate the direction of the narrative a story can be structured by the young person.  Such storyboards could then be annotated with assistance.

Using Sound and Movement  Perhaps you aren’t looking at the narrative but are exploring the atmosphere and tone of a story.  This could be done through sounds and working in a group as an “orchestra”.  Offering an idea as a starting point such as “the city” or “the seaside” encourage the group to respond through simple sounds or body percussion.  What does volume or pace say about mood?  This is as much a listening exercise as a sound making exercise and will require your group to work with sensitivity toward the contributions of other people.  Continuing on a musical theme you might encourage the group to express their story, mood or a character through movement or dance.

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

Using Props and Objects  It may be possible for the participants to use objects to tell their story using objects or props (placing items as the story is told and moving and animating them according to narrative).  Whilst this is a structured activity it would be encouraging an almost child like play.

As a drama workshop facilitator I have used these activities with varying degrees of success when working in Primary and SEN environments and when devising in Secondary and Sixth Form environments.  I think that these ideas appeal to young people because they are easy to access and own and they are fun.  These games encourage a group to risk being wrong without the consequence of failure.  In terms of the non verbal storyteller, used correctly they play to particular strengths rather than underlining weaknesses.

The success of these ideas inevitably depends upon the level of ability within a group and will require patience (your group may not get them the first time) and a variety of accessible stimulations (props and objects which appeal to the different senses, music or imagery).  In exploring and nurturing what an individual can do we hopefully create an environment in which they are able to tell more and more sophisticated and interesting stories.