Storytelling is beyond price

7th January 2005 at 00:00
A good tale costs nothing - but try telling that to publishers.

Under a leafless tree on a cold winter's day, a woman put on a velvet beret and a long frock coat of worn green brocade over her trousers and jumper.

Around the tree a circle of children and parents watched as she picked up a bongo drum and sat down to face them.

The storyteller had arrived. And she told the story of a king, two daughters, two suitors and a beast who lurked outside the walls of the city. In the middle of the king's courtyard was an old tree which was dying.

She changed the scenes with a drum beat. Time passed with the shaking of a maraca. Children's heads nodded and mouths moved as her refrains became more familiar, more entrancing. "And in the middle of the courtyard, the leaves were falling, falling off the old tree."

The story ended with the death of the beast and the rebirth of the tree.

The spell broken with three beats of the drum, the children ran off to the education hut of the wildlife centre, where they cut out paper creatures to hang on the tree. And while they busied themselves with their woodland epilogue, I thought about Philosophy Bear, who had landed in a shiny wallet on my desk a few days before.

Philosophy Bear wears a T-shirt which says "But why?" and accompanies a resource pack: a teacher's manual and four story books (pound;39.95).

Extra Philosophy Bears (dear teacher, you may wish to scatter them liberally among your class) can be bought for just pound;2.95 each.

Knowing there's plenty of space in the timetable and a luscious surplus in the school budget, Network Education Press has come up with the idea of filling it with P4C (philosophy for children - stick with us and we will make all textspeak clear). But Why? Developing philosophical thinking in the classroom, by Sara Stanley with Steve Bowkett, "opens up the realm of bigger and deeper thinking in the classroom - even for the very young."

Just what was needed - Platonics for the playgroup.

But perhaps that's a bit flippant. P4C, the authors are keen to point out, is not concerned with particular philosophers, but rather with the big questions. These are, they tell us, Do We Exist, How Do We Know Truth, What Is Belief, How Does Power Affect Us, and - a nice one for the lesson just after lunch, this one - What Does It All Mean?

For most of us - scholars of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Aristotle apart - the answer is 42 and get on with your life. The real question is: who needs this most? The children, the teachers, or the publishers? I think we know the answer. Even Philosophy Bear, usefully hanging from a keyring, that essential for all KS1 children, could work that one out.

Imagine you are a Year 2 teacher. Lily is scratching the largest colony of nits you have ever seen; Josh is stabbing at the air desperate to tell you he has just worked out all the prime numbers to infinity; Zac has just succeeded in reading the words Biff and Chip for the first time. You settle down to ask them 'What Does It All Mean?' Like heck you do.

One of the things you might do - if you could stand the lack of structure, learning outcomes and boxes to tick - is tell them a story.

"I think the tree was poorly because the people weren't happy. The king wasn't a good king, was he?" Bedtime on the day of the storytelling: "I put a squirrel in the tree. Do you think it's still there? Perhaps a real squirrel will come when the leaves come back."

"If the brave suitor had been killed, then the tree would still be sick, wouldn't it? He could have died. Then it wouldn't have been a happy ending."

When I am retired and no longer need to earn a living, I shall sweet-talk my way into one of my grandchildren's schools and become a visiting storyteller, complete with bongo drum and funny hat. And while I am there I will sabotage any spurious profit-making nonsense I find in the resources cupboard.

Children need stories. They make them think. They make them ask questions.

They show them other worlds. It's a very simple and very old idea. And it costs nothing. That's why educational publishers think it should be improved and given a profitable new look, enshrined as a subject - say P4C - and assigned a budget. And a jargon, of course.

Stories with or without books have always asked the big questions, have always explored what it is to be human.

Stories lift us beyond the black and white into the realms of morality, of questions of outsiders and insiders, of our identity. All concerns of the primary schoolchild. Grendel has a mother. Caliban, in a much later storm-tossed story, has a mother. Ambiguity and dilemma: Greeks and Romans; a brave suitor and princess with no choice.

Stories creep into our language precisely because they hold our experience up to the light. That's why a man who won't grow up is a Peter Pan; why we all know a Bridget Jones; why judges call self-aggrandising liars Walter Mitty; why when we're tired by a relentless optimist we call her Pollyanna; and why we think Jeffrey Archer was made to be Toad.

The P4C resource pack is sprinkled with images of Philosophy Bear. A teacher may soon feel about him as a journalist does about the Microsoft Office assistant paperclip. He is, says the author, essentially like a questioning child, whose thoughts wander freely and is always asking the big questions. Any KS1 teacher has up to 30 of these in her class already.

Why get another one, with a keyring through his head?

I suppose, keen on encouraging clear thinking, you might turn to the case studies in the book. But do you really relish such things as advice on "handing over the facilitation of the dialogue to the community of enquiry"? If you don't believe me, that's on page 62.

Perhaps the "bisociation game" and the simile game will grab you. And then there are the thinking journals the children will be keeping and sharing with their parents. Won't the parents be pleased?

As they walked away to the car park on that winter's day, the children looked back at the tree, its newly made life fluttering all over it. The storyteller? Well, she had disappeared, though the woman walking to the bus stop with a canvas bag on her shoulder looked familiar.

What she left behind and the children took away with them were the thoughts and the questions. They took them to bed with them. They will grow up with them. That's what good stories do.

So if you're a primary teacher, spare yourself the facilitating, the evaluation and the case studies. Tell them a story instead. "Once upon a time, there was a time-wasting little bear who was always spending his parents' money."

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