The power of storytelling in schools

Settle Stories was set up in 2010 by Sita Brand to promote literature, reading and storytelling for the local Settle and wider Yorkshire Dales community. Since then the charity has worked to increase access to traditional and modern forms of storytelling, to encourage people of all ages to interact with storytelling and to tell their own stories. The organisation in this time has introduced audiences of all ages to themes, cultures and stories they would otherwise not have access to.

One of the major strands to Settle Stories work is a Learning Programme where artists and storytellers tour local schools conducting themed tours such as World Book Day or Black History Month. This learning programme engages over 6,000 young people over the course of a year and has a huge impact on the literacy of the young people as well as exposing them to different cultures.

I spoke to Sola Story and Gauri Raje who have both been touring schools recently, and asked them about their work and the experiences they’ve had as part of this programme:

Q: Can you tell me a bit about the work you have been doing with schools in partnership with Settle Stories?

Gauri: This was the first year that I was working with Settle Stories in schools. The years I worked with ranged from 5 years-10 years old students and each of the schools had specific themes ranging from stories from around the world to stories of war for a 10-year-old class which was working on the World wars, and two schools also wanting storytelling as a way for students to access mathematical and numeracy concepts.

Sola: In partnership with Settle Stories I visited 6 schools in the Yorkshire and Lancashire areas to tell stories to all the pupils in each school. This took a general format of first doing an assembly and then visiting each class or year group depending on school size. As it was Black History Month, I told a selection of stories from Africa and stories I have written. Many of the children did not know anything about black history month and had not heard of Nigeria where I hail from (although they'd heard of Africa!). However, we had such an engaging and high energy time together, that I bet if you ask them now, they'll know! 

The stories I tell fall into a genre that I've named 'Physical Storytelling'. As with physical theatre my embodiment and physical characterisation provide a visual to the storytelling that enables audiences to form an even deeper connection to the narrative. I also use traditional African techniques like call and response and audience participation: song, movement, dance etc. to really energise participants and ignite their imaginations!

Q: Could you tell me a little about your background and work you’ve been involved in in the past? 

Gauri: Most of my storytelling work has been with adults or young adults. I work with storytelling mainly in India and Europe. In Europe, much of my storytelling work has been with migrant communities, first as an anthropologist-academic, then as an ESOL teacher designing creative language courses and later as a storyteller. 

Much of this work springs from my work with displaced communities in India as an anthropologist since 1995, and my experience of being an adult migrant to the UK since 1999. I have also worked with an environmental organisation in India since 1992. 

I return to India for 3 months every year. I have conducted workshops in storytelling for adults from different background since 2011, and have directed and told stories since then, as well as storytelling performance evenings. I have also developed storytelling workshops to teach maths to children in Indian schools. 

Sola: This a great question, because someone once asked me what storytelling is worth. In response to that answer I thought about the hundreds of hours of practice over 20 years that I have put in; the many audiences that I have engaged in the UK and internationally; the trials of fire (e.g. a completely chaotic school assembly); the flops; the successes; the hours and hours of writing and rewriting; the negative comments of 'helpful' editors; the recordings, the watersheds (writing, publishing and for the first time telling my own authored story 'Nyinka's daughter). I thought about all those things and came to the understanding that I have developed this craft and this art and made it my own. As such, for the inspiration others tell me they feel and that which I feel myself, for the emotion, the laughter, tears and the (delicious) fear evoked by my stories; for the living connection to an ancient tradition, the primary form of human mass media communication, my answer is storytelling is priceless! 

So, I have been storytelling in schools (primary, secondary: pupils and Inset), FE colleges, borough Councils, NGO's, Companies, community organisations etc. over the last twenty years. I have worked in many parts of the UK and also in Uganda, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Egypt, Grenada and Jamaica. 

Nowadays as well as entertainment, I use storytelling to engage participants in issue based workshops and in promoting personal development through Mindfulness and African Martial arts (KaZimba Ngoma) in which I am a trained instructor. 

Q: Could you share any special moments from the work you’ve done with the schools?

Gauri: The children were very curious and eager to learn about cultures and practices other than their own. In one of the schools we spoke about ways of honouring trees through an African story. Students were eager to go out and explore similar such traditions in England and the teachers felt they were learning something as well.

Working with middle eastern stories around mathematics and algebra worked very well, and I received an appreciative email from their maths teacher to say how curious the students had become about maths and algebra. She also sent me a few articles she had found while researching the questions students put to her on mathematical concepts after the workshop.

In one of the schools working with Egyptian history, I told the origin myth of Isis and Osiris and after the workshop students asked me to come back with Greek and Indian myths. The best moment was asking 5 year olds about the largest number they knew, and one of the students replied 'Infinity'! It stumped their teacher quite a bit! And to hear 10 year olds say 'cool!' when solving an algebraic mathematical riddle that was 200-year-old with them.

 Sola: A special moment happened after I told Densu's Journey, a tale about the courageous response of a boy facing a lion. The year 6s loved it so much that they came back in the afternoon and presented me with an art piece (see image) they had made to represent the story! I was very moved by this. Thank you to the pupils and staff of Ightenhill Primary School for a wonderfully welcoming day! 

Q. Were there any challenges you faced as part of this work? 

Gauri: I enjoyed every moment of my 3 days of school work in such a beautiful part of Yorkshire.

Sola: The major challenge I faced was my car breaking down on my first morning in Settle! Sita had to drive me to Cowling Primary School, which proved to be a blessing in disguise, as we had a very inspiring conversation on the way!  There were no major storytelling challenges. There was a bit of wariness from staff on my first encounter with a few of the schools: they were all white, I'm black, (c'est la vie) but this soon morphed into mutual respect. 

Settle Stories is always running schools tours - the next one is taking place this December and will explore how Chistmas is celebrated around the globe.  Find out more by contacting Charles on charles@settlestories.org.uk or give him a ring on 05603 845693

 Article by Charlotte Furness