New Term – New Day – New Group
This is a larger group, 11 children present, and a wider age range with more very young ones.
The staff asked me to tell in the main classroom, as I had done at the end of last term, because they thought the children were more relaxed in the familiar surroundings.
They certainly were more relaxed, though I am not sure that was a good thing. I like the sense of special occasion created when they have to enter a different space. In their own space they felt relaxed enough to ask questions, demand snacks, play with BumbleBee and remove the stuffing from a cushion to balance little fluffy white clouds on their heads!
All part of my learning curve.
The older ones were paying attention throughout and I must learn not to be distracted by the babies.
I started with Chanticleer & Pertelot because it has lots of appealing soft-toy characters and a bit of drama and animal noises… but the ending is weak. I must work on that before the next group that I will be meeting after half-term.
Then I told Father Mouse (see my video extract on YouTube http://tinyurl.com/2f9q7bd ) because the puppet works so well… but not, apparently, with very young children. They cannot yet understand the concept of ‘puppet’ and are not impressed.
I ended the session with Mighty Mouse, using a new, larger and more flexible soft-toy mouse. This worked quite well… partly because the most distracted children had wandered off, but also because the new prop is funnier and more expressive.
Then came a general demand for dinosaur stories next time! I don’t know any dinosaur stories… are there any? I will do some research. But I think they will accept a dragon story instead. At least I know they are looking forward to our next session.
Last week I was concerned that working in the main classroom lost that magical sense of special occasion – and subjected BumbleBee to too much love, chaos and attention.
I needn’t have worried.
This time, as soon as we arrived all the children quickly stopped whatever they were doing and went to sit quietly in the storytelling area – no instructions were given – they just wanted to hear stories.
We started with The Singers of Bremen… I am getting better at handling so many props at once and at making all the animal noises. The story worked well, even for the youngest ones. I had found a lovely, large, vicious looking doll as the chief robber plus a couple of Sponge Bobs as his accomplices. these were recognised at once, but the children accepted that they could play the part of robber’s assistants. These additions certainly helped to make the final mayhem more visual and dramatic.
Then came the two linked stories… SuLi and the Sky, and SuLi and the Dragon. The youngest ones found the concept of the sky lying too close to the earth too difficult to follow but they enjoyed watching the props. A few of the children had been in the previous group and had heard these stories once before. They told me what props I needed to find to tell the Dragon tale. They were all eager to see SuLi cut off the dragon’s head! I had found a new dog for the story – a very funny looking deerhound – just his appearance made them all laugh
By this time the youngest ones had had enough and moved away. but the older ones wanted more. So I told The Empty Pot, using SuLi’s cauldron as the flower pot and adding some silk flowers. As I started one child discovered another hole in a cushion and started pulling all the stuffing out. Then the others joined in. This time I simply stopped talking and waited. The staff stepped in, removed the cushion and gathered up all the stuffing. When they had settled down again, I continued with the story. I think I need to find a boy doll for this story – it seems that this age range needs the visual element.
As I was leaving there was a sudden thump on my back as a child hurtled into me and shouted, ‘I love you, Storyteller!’
A bit more difficult this time.
When I arrived they were already sitting in the story-corner, playing some game. This made things a bit chaotic as I had to squeeze through to get to my chair and make room for my basket and for BumbleBee.
I have devised a way of sorting all the essential props for each story into separate bags or boxes inside my large basket – easing my stress as I know exactly where to find everything.
As usual, the Tibetan cymbals worked their charm and helped the group to calm down. I asked them if they wanted a scary story – of course they all agreed! So I told the simple Dark Dark Cat jump story… interesting… most of them have no concept of ‘scary’ at all. It was impossible to build the tension, though they did laugh at the ‘jump’ ending.
Next was the Five Threads story. All the props now live in a very pretty box… and that is what most interested the children. This time they wanted to touch everything. I am still not sure how to handle this. I’ve just had an idea… perhaps if I take a tray with me and place all the props for the story on the tray so that they can look at them and touch, if necessary, before I start to tell. My theatre instinct makes me want to hide the props so that each entrance is a surprise, but perhaps that is wrong for this age group. So I will experiment with a tray next week.
The third story was The Magic Porridge Pot – again the children wanted to touch everything – and there are lots of props in the story. By now the youngest ones were getting restless. It was time for them to go off and do something else.
But the older ones insisted on another story before we finished. Fortunately I had put an extra one in the basket – Why the Cock Crows to call the Sun – it is a simple tale with some attractive props – a soft, bright sun, a duck, a rooster and a tiny bird. The bird sings when I squeeze him and that really fascinated them more than the story.
As I left there was a loud, long chorus of cries of ‘Goodbye Storyteller’
I am learning! It is not easy – I think I expect too much from them as an audience.
Frustrating, difficult, depressing – this really is a steep learning curve.
There was still a great gale blowing outside, after two days of noisy buffeting… I think we were all a bit stressed.
We started with my own Tale of the Tintagel Dragon – reduced to almost bare bones as it was clear the children couldn’t follow any of the subtleties.
As planned, I introduced all the props first: a friendly, soft, young dragon, a cuddly jackdaw, a glittering crystal pendant and a small jet fighter plane. They were greeted with great excitement. Every one wanted to touch every item. Unfortunately this created a new game; from then on almost all the children were focussed on trying to sneak up on me and touch whatever prop I was holding. If one succeeded, then everyone else had to try straight away. it was impossible to get them to actually listen to anything.
So that experiment failed! But the small tray itself is still a good idea – it creates a flat platform on my lap where I can put props down and yet still keep them under my control.
There was only time for one more story – the simple tale of the lion cub from Papa Joe’s story of Jinook the Lame. This has only one prop – a sweet cuddly lion cub – so much easier to keep control… and some of the youngest ones had moved away, so there was less disruption, but it was still not a happy experience. Some of the older ones had sensed victory in a power struggle and were not prepared to give in by being seen to listen.
It is clear that a group of 12 children with ages ranging from 2 to 4 years is just not appropriate for my kind of storytelling. I cannot maintain eye contact with all 12 of them at once – and without that eye contact, my words alone are not enough to hold their interest.
It feels as though every skill I have developed – vocal control and expression, story structure, pace, tension, emotion, shared references and understanding with the audience, subtle jokes and hints – none of them are of any use with this group.
The staff say that the most popular stories are the two, very simple SuLi ones. Is that because the SuLi doll, though not pretty, is very expressive and friendly? Or is it just that the stories could not be more basic? In the first, the sky is still sitting too low on the earth, forcing people to bend down all the time, so SuLi prods it with her cooking stick until it breaks up into little fluffy clouds and flies up high. In the second the village is threatened by a dragon that wants to eat young maidens and frightens away all the brave men – so SuLi volunteers to be the next maiden sacrifice and, with her father’s hunting dog and sword, slays the dragon and marries the king.
Perhaps I can find some more such basic tales and create a series of SuLi tales. I will try.
There are only two more sessions with this large group, then, after the half-term break, it will be a new, much smaller group. There will be only 3 sessions with the new group – so I can use just the most successful stories. Perhaps that will work!
This time the staff had obviously recognised some of the problems and made improvements. The story corner was arranged more formally, with some chairs and cushions arranged in rows. Most of the toys had been cleared from the area and the children had just spent half an hour or so outside playing ‘assault courses’ and were tired and relaxed – and ready to listen.
BumbleBee, though still very keen to come with me, made haste to hide herself under my chair, safe from most of the continuous and overwhelming petting.
In my research during the week I had found ‘The Turtle of Koka’ in Margaret Read MacDonald’s ‘Start Up’ book. It is very simple, repetitive and fun – and I just happened to have a lovely, expressive turtle in my prop cupboard.
The story worked perfectly! Everybody was involved – though I am not sure that they understood the plot, simple though it was. they just loved the turtle, dancing and singing and fooling the villagers.
Then I moved on to Papa Joe’s ‘The Magical Blue Feather’ – again pared down to little more than bare bones. This is a longer and more complex tale, with lots of dramatic tension. The older children were totally absorbed but the younger ones began to drift away from me, though staying close at hand.
The third tale was ‘The Sun Sisters’ – again, very simple and I have some good props: a moon, a friendly sun, some delicate embroidery and a pad full of needles. The thought of needles being thrown into people’s eyes really caught their attention!
Fortunately I had put some spare stories into the basket as the older children would not let me finish without just one more tale. So I picked ‘The Cracked Pot’. It has no visuals except for the pot itself, but by now I was able to maintain eye contact with all but the youngest children – and so they listened.
The last session with this group – and I was feeling a bit more confident. I had fount 3 new stories to try!
The success of ‘Turtle of Koka’ last time prompted me to start by asking if they wanted to hear it again. The answer was a resounding, ‘Yes!’ – and the story worked beautifully, just as before.
This put all of us into a good mood and I was encouraged to move on to the new stories. First came Margaret Read MacDonald’s ‘Turkey Girl’ – a simple tale of a girl who loses her turkeys because she wanted to dance. I had only the one prop – a bright, soft turkey – but there were lots of opportunities for turkey gobbling noises and a bit of drumming on the arms of the chair. It worked ok and I will try it again with the next group.
Then came ‘SuLi and the Elephant’, based on ‘Unanana and the Elephant’ by Papa Joe. Lots of props in this one… SuLi, her Little Cousin, her 3 children, various animals and a huge elephant – plus SuLi’s cooking pot and her sharp knife. In this story SuLi has to rescue her children from the elephant’s stomach – a variant on Jonah and the Whale and other such tales. It worked well but I could tell it better. It is good to now have a series of three SuLi stories.
The children insisted on one more story and I had found a very short one – Margaret Read MacDonald’s ‘A Lover of Dragons’ – it is very simple indeed – a rich man loves dragons and has paintings and sculptures of them everywhere – but is terrified when a real dragon comes to call. Again, I think I could tell it better and will work on it for the next group.
Only the very youngest children drifted away this time. I did have to suggest a couple of the others put their books away until we had finished, which was a shame as they were sharing a discussion about the pictures, but it was very distracting.
Half Term Thoughts
Last week was amazing – exhausting – a valuable learning process.
On the Monday I was booked to tell to a WI group meeting – my first adult audience in ages. And it was brilliant! They loved the stories – they loved my dogs – they bought copies of my book – and they boosted my confidence. I had begun to doubt my abilities as a storyteller. The difficulties I was finding in telling to the pre-schoolers was beginning to drag me down. I really needed this boost.
Then the Wednesday pre-schooler session worked well. I was feeling more in control and able to relax and enjoy myself a bit.
On Thursday I was in a primary school, telling first to Key Stage 2 for an hour, and then Key Stage 1 for 30 minutes. It was another confidence builder. The school is small – just 65 pupils, and they are very disciplined and friendly.
On Friday I was in another small primary school – just 44 pupils! Again an hour for Key Stage 2 and 30 minutes for Key Stage 1 plus pre-school. Not quite so disciplined this time.
My sessions with the local pre-school have helped me to feel much more comfortable about telling in schools. I was able to select a basket of stories that I knew would work for Key Stage 2 and another basket of stories appropriate for Key Stage 1 – all of them stories that I have been telling in the pre-school.
With my more relaxed approach, I found I was becoming more expressive – but by Friday I was very tired – not just because of the storytelling. My house was full of builders – I had no kitchen and everywhere was blocked with kitchen furniture and piles of food, crockery etc. Even the dogs were feeling the stress.
So I don’t think I was telling as well as I could on Friday – it was not as happy an occasion as on Thursday – but the children and staff seemed happy.
The stress affected BumbleBee and she found it hard to settle down on her rug during the Friday sessions… this was a bit distracting until she finally settled under my chair so that, at the end, it was HoneyBear who had to cope with all the love as every child needed to come and stroke her. She is not so keen as BumbleBee on such attention, but she bore up well – pretending to be fast asleep with her head on my foot. I could see her thinking, ‘If I keep really still they will all go away…’
After half-term I will be with another pre-school group for 3 sessions. This should be a smaller group and will give me a chance to improve my telling without needing to find yet more stories for this age-group.