Hammer out a good tale

7th April 2000 at 01:00
What is percussive storytelling? Frances Farrer on a remarkable scheme

Storytelling as an activity for children of such severe disability and sensory deprivation that the only impression they may gain from it is percussive might be considered strange. That it is not only possible but enjoyable and fruitful is shown by the work of specialist storyteller Keith Park, and it is inspiring to watch. Keith Park is an advisory teacher for Sense, the National Deafblind and Rubella Association. He works in special schools in the boroughs of Greenwich and Lewisham in south London, and believes storytelling to be a fundamental element of all human experience, far more important than reading and writing. He sees it as essentially oral, a social event meant for participation and performance. The children he works with have a range of learning difficulties, some have some speech, many have only sound, some do not even have that.

A consequence of bringing his perception to work with multiply disabled children is the development of a method called inclusive storytelling for use with children with severe and profound learning disabilities. Its success rests largely on rhythm, with two more Rs - response and repetition - also essential. Children who have some language understanding can participate with sounds or chorus responses, those without can make a beat with their hands.

The use of literature is an unusual aspect of this work. Keith Park says he had not considered ways of making it viable until he and Nicola Grove, a speech and language therapist now at City University, started to develop several texts after their first effort based on a Greek myth, which they have published. Odyssey Now is a wonderfully simplified, dramatised version of the myth. Keith Park has also helped to create other set pieces based on Cinderella, Red Riding Hood and A Christmas Carol. They involve a high degree of performance; children respond verbally or beat a board or tambourine. Rhythmic pieces such as poems are particularly suitable, otherwise stories are rewritten for call and response into eight-beat lines and four-beat half lines. For example:

"Scrooge is my name" "Scrooge is your name" "Loads of money" "Loads of money" "You want presents" "We want presents" "Very funny!" "Very funny!" "HUMBUG!" Behind Keith Park's work lies complex theory on the stages of perception. In practice, for example, small groups of teenagers may work on developing social cognitive skills using complicated stories. Elements such as trust and betrayal, realit and appearance, can be demonstrated. The notion that what someone says may not be what they mean is complex, but may be possible for some children. The story of Red Riding Hood, in which the wolf deceives the grandmother and then tries to deceive Red Riding Hood herself, is a useful text. Children who do not communicate with speech, sign or symbol can use such a story for turn-taking and anticipation, using body language; those with language may be asked questions such as, "Who does granny think it is?" Or, "What does Red Riding Hood know?" An astonishing collection of stories and poems has been assembled. It includes Seamus Heaney's Bone Dreams, and Beowulf (good for dual-consonant words), Coleridges's Kubla Khan (excellent for step-dancing, as a magical incantation), the beginning and end of Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, the story of Joseph as told in Genesis 37-45, and Eliot's The Waste Land. Let those who think such works too difficult for children take note.

"The most able can talk about the stories," says Mr Park. "They can investigate character and plot. For those with impairment, the rhythmic, lyrical stories can be beaten out on the resonance board or on tambours. We can make literature available through games; we can make it accessible and the sky's the limit." He says it is not necessary to see language as a code to be taken apart into its component parts. "It is possible to enjoy a piece like Kubla Khan without understanding the words, and for that to be a legitimate way of experiencing it." After all, the rhythmic treatment of prose stories has a long history, as in Scandinavian cultures. Longfellow was inspired by Finnish rhythms for Hiawatha, for example. Riverboat songs from the US offer another rich source.

One of Keith Park's regular schools is Maze Hill in Greenwich. There, he works with resident speech therapist Sarah Barrow on aspects of poems and plays. In some groups children are supported 1:1 and participate by beating a board or a tambour. In others, stories with verbal responses are possible. A group of 14 to 15-year-olds is currently working on Jack and the Beanstalk. They work on inferencing answers to questions not directly available from the text: "What did the giant eat?" "What did Jack do when he went to market?" The call: "Jack chopped the Beanstalk - CRUNCH!" elicits the reply: "Everybody heard it!" Sense, 11-13 Clifton Terrace, London N4 3SR. Tel: 020 7272 7774. Website: www.sense.org.uk'Odyssey Now' by Keith Park and Nicola Grove is published by Jessica Kingsley (pound;16.95)

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