Listen with teacher

9th January 1998 at 00:00
The late poet and professor Alexander Scott famously defined "Scotch education" as "I tellt ye, I tellt ye". Traditional pedagogy may have had little truck with fun and enjoyment but, judging from an in-service day on storytelling, those days are long past. And in the past they will remain, at least if storytellers have anything to do with it.

Last term a "Common Wealth of Stories" training day was held at the Netherbow Arts Centre, Edinburgh, as part of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival. The festival takes storytellers from around the world into schools and provides platforms across Fife, the Borders, West Lothian and Edinburgh. But this new initiative also brought some 30 nursery and primary teachers to workshops with the artists for a day.

The Scottish storyteller Ewan McVicar defined the day's aim as "showing that learning should be fun and mind-expanding. The oral skills and the improvisation skills in storytelling are life. It's not just the 'what' that matters, it's the 'how'. The child or pupil can see that you're part of the experience and they can learn to participate and not just sit passively. "

Certainly, none of the teachers got away with sitting passively. Guyana-born Mona Williams had them singing, chanting and dancing through narrative songs, nonsense rhymes and traditional tales.

"Storytelling is an accessible way of introducing children to the enjoyment of complex literature," she said. "Like all literature, it is a way of showing us our humanity. It's complex and it's profound and it teaches you to be human.

"Adults may bring different layers of comprehension to a story, but in my culture a story is a story. I don't believe in stories for children. I don't like namby-pamby stories. They must have a text and a sub-text underneath the words."

According to the festival's director Donald Smith, "storytelling takes you into every area of the curriculum - and it's fun. It relates human culture to the physical environment in all possible ways."

Both Smith and McVicar stressed that teachers can develop their own storytelling resources by collecting playground songs and rhymes from the children as well as by bringing older family members into the school who might have traditional stories to tell.

That said, McVicar argued "stories are not museum pieces. They should change, or at least have the potential to change in the telling. A good storyteller will also be aware of the child in himself or herself. The adult part can organise, structure and censor, but the child inside provides the energy.

"And songs have stories in them, too. You can either treat songs as songs or you can go on and unpack the story in them."

According to Glasgow storyteller Michael Kerins, "the best listeners make the best storytellers. That's how you get to be good at it. It's as much about listening skills as it is about speaking."

Last year marked the official launch of the George Mackay Brown Memorial Scottish Storytelling Centre at the Netherbow and the publication of the Scottish Storytelling Centre Directory, which provides information on and contact numbers for over 30 Scottish storytellers willing to visit schools throughout the country.

Raymond Ross

Further information from the Netherbow Arts Centre, Edinburgh, tel: 0131 556 95792647

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