Tag Archives: world war one

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.

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.

I Need a Hero!

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.“Where have all the good men gone?” asks Bonnie Tyler in her song, “I Need a Hero”.  Good question Bonnie.  See, the title of her track isn’t just catchy it’s true.  We all need heroes and stories would be poorer without them.  I have written before about fairy tale villains and the modern anti hero’s role in stories but where would they be without a good old fashioned hero to foil them?  The tug of war between good and evil and right and wrong has manifested itself in countless ways through time.  Be it a Knight in shining armour sent to battle a dragon or a humble servant/beggar who’ll save the Kingdom and marry a Princess (the premise of many a pantomime) we need a hero.  What are their qualities and their relationships with their followers and loved ones and what can we learn from their adventures?

The hero.  The warrior, the conqueror, the vanquisher, the heartthrob.  Archetypally the hero is male although not always.  For every Aladdin there is a Scheherazade who demonstrates the qualities of heroism.  The hero is generally young or youthful.  The hero is bold; strong both in body and mind and is respected widely for their strength.    Many heroes represent change and vibrant progressiveness which will shake up a stagnating world.

I have recently been exploring epic poetry and for the purpose of this blog we’ll consider Odysseus, King of Ithaca and the warrior Beowulf.  Both men are legendary figures, first appearing many thousands of years ago with their exploits translated and reinterpreted over time since.  Odysseus the Greek and Beowulf the Scandinavian come from very different traditions but they are both heroes.  Both are bold warriors and leaders of men who have not just defeated mortal armies but monsters too (Odysseus blinding Polyphemus the Cyclops and Beowulf slaying the beast Grendel and his Mother).  They have demonstrated great intelligence and cunning through their various adventures but they are not without falls.  It is Odysseus’ arrogance which leads Poseidon to seek vengeance against his entire crew.  It might be argued that Beowulf dies because he is too proud to ask his younger warriors to fight with him.

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.What of their followers?  Despite gifts and praise, when Beowulf’s followers are faced with a Dragon fear gets the better of them.  At many stages of The Odyssey, Odysseus’ crew verge on mutiny and in finally disobeying his will, they doom themselves.  That I suppose is the point.  The fallibility of their followers is in sharp contrast to the quick wits and mental toughness displayed by the hero.  Our heroes inspire ordinary men to be better than themselves and rise above their weaknesses (in 1001 Nights, the heroine, Scheherazade inspires King Shahryar with her skill as storyteller).

As we remember The Great War I am struck by the relationship between Hero and follower, their relationship with conflict and sacrifice and the parallels with modern conflict and soldiering.  Odysseus is reluctant to go to Troy but his contribution once there is invaluable whilst Beowulf offers his men to aid another Kingdom.  How many brave and loyal men died at Troy, following their leader’s orders, so that King Menelaus could retrieve Helen?  How many brave and loyal men were prepared to lay down their lives because their leader said so, to fight somebody else’s dragon.  Stories and their meanings can be disputed but I think that this is an interesting perspective that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Without meaning to continue the Great War analogy too far, for the hero there is a Home Front.  It is from here that a hero will often find purpose for it is here that they know love.  Odysseus spends time with Circe and Calypso but has a deep and faithful bond with Penelope who steadfastly waits for his return.  After his success, Beowulf is received by Hygelac, King of the Geats and his people with warmth, love and adoration.   It is in the reconciliation of love that we see the hero’s actions have been for a selfless cause.  The hero is rewarded but really everybody’s a winner (Odysseus reclaims his Kingdom and family, Beowulf strengthens the bond with another country and consolidates his position and again, our heroine Scheherazade spares the people of her city any further misery by changing the heart of King Shahryar).  Our hero must understand love and it’s influence on their actions.  A strong moral compass is important to a hero because if they are seen to act out of greed or for individual gain they would be viewed quite differently (Robin Hood is a hero for redistributing his loot not for keeping it!).

It isn’t just love and new found riches that our hero will enjoy.  It isn’t uncommon for them to live long and prosperous lives and sometimes to even achieve further greatness.  Now what do they call that?  Oh yes… “They all lived happily ever after!”

Interpreting The Great War

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

In the course of telling “Private Peaceful” I ran question and answer sessions in order to contextualise the story, the presentation and The Great War.  Questions ranged from “How do you remember all the words?” to “Why do the innocent always have to die?”.  In Lambeth a teacher asked a very interesting and current question which went along these lines: many modern authors take the standpoint that The Great War is wrong and therefore is it appropriate to approach the conflict with this literature?  The session was some weeks ago but I have been pondering my answer ever since.

As Britain prepares to commemorate the beginning of The Great War, how it is interpreted has become a controversial subject.  Historians and politicians have attacked books, film, television and stage productions for painting The Great War as simply a tragic waste of life and reinforcing the idea of lions (the regular soldier) lead by donkeys (the officer classes).  My favourite subject at school was History and this year, as well as Private Peaceful, I am currently working with Hackney Museum to present a series of workshops considering Hackney’s part in The Great War, so I thought I might use my blog to reflect upon the debate.

In 1914 Britain goes to war and thousands of men volunteer to join the fight.  These men volunteer because they believe they are doing their patriotic duty by defending William Blake’s “green and pleasant land” (Jerusalem) from a very real threat of invasion.  Men from across the country rally “For God, Harry, England and St George!” (Shakespeare, Henry V) convinced it will all be over by Christmas.  Of the six million who go to fight 700,000 will be killed.

Of the men who went to fight the likes of Wilfred Owen reflect more bleakly on this patriotic fervour:

“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.” (Wilfred Owen)

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

Compare this stark description with the poetry of Rupert Brooke concerning the duty and sacrifice of the English and you quickly see why the Government of the time preferred his take on events:

“If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.” (Rupert Brooke)

In the years after the war, many soldiers offered up their artistic thoughts on the conflict(notably, Journey’s End and All Quiet on the Western Front).  Whilst these are artistic interpretations of events this generation wrote from personal experience.

The recent controversies seem to surround works like Oh! What a Lovely War and Blackadder.  Those involved in their production had little or nothing to do with The Great War and yet offer their audience an opinion on the worth of the conflict.  Michael Morpurgo writes about The Great War, describing the conditions in the trenches with a palatable harshness which draws in a younger audience and yet he and others are attacked by politicians and historians for insome way, distorting the events.

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

Surely though, this is the role of art.  Surely, art should challenge our ideas and make us re evaluate our world.  Oh!  What a Lovely War juxtaposes songs from the period with striking statistics about The Great War to stunning effect whilst the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth is in my opinion some of the most poignant television I have ever watched.

As a nation we don’t know that much about The Great War.  By this I mean that many of us went through our whole school careers without learning about it at all.  I only began to study it when I took History as a GCSE subject when I was in Year Ten.  You might perhaps argue that for many, it has been left to artists to fill in the gaps.

There are some excellent public chronicles of The Great War but very few people have ever made a mainstream (book, television, stage, film), artistic defence of First World War leaders and their actions besides pointing out their errors and lampooning them.  Perhaps I’m wrong but it would seem that the leaders themselves remained almost silent on the matter (or perhaps their point of view has been drowned out).

It is right that we address how much is known about The Great War and there are risks of confusing art with fact.  I believe that modern interpretations of how The Great War was fought and its consequences do have a place within the classroom if only to demonstrate how our thinking has changed over the last century.  Rather than criticising their use maybe the debate now needs to be shifted to how these interpretations are counter balanced so that the alternate view, that war in 1914 was just and right, registers with modern students and the wider public.