After masterclasses in storytelling techniques, Fallin primary pupils have set up a captivating enterprise, Douglas Blane writes
Four-year-old human brains are not mature enough for concentration. They flit from one thing to another, sucking up images, sounds and sensations. So anyone who can hold the attention of a roomful of four-year-olds for an hour must be worth listening to.
The P5 and P6 pupils from Fallin Primary, Stirling, who are seated in pairs around Meadows Nursery telling tales to the youngsters, are doing so with ease. In one corner, Rhanna Valentine and Christopher Wood are nearing the end of a story about a Christmas pudding, which has already been mistaken for a snowman's head, a milkmaid's stool and a football.
"It rolled down the hill, chased by all the people and landed at the king's feet," Rhanna tells her rapt audience. " 'What is the meaning of this?' the king roared, and a voice from the crowd shouted 'Merry Christmas'. 'I'll show you Merry Christmas,' said the king, and stuffed the pudding into his cannon, because he thought it was a cannonball."
Christopher takes up the story. "It went 'Kaboom!' and everybody was showered with pieces of Christmas pudding, and they all sang 'We wish you a Merry Christmas; We wish you a Merry Christmas; We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.' From that year on, the people always celebrated Christmas by shooting Christmas puddings from cannons. The end."
There is a stunned silence from the little ones, before a smiling, pig-tailed girl pleads "Again!"
Having exhausted their rehearsed repertoire, the pair confer quietly, then embark on a tale about the Giant's Causeway they heard for the first time the previous week, during a storytelling session with student teachers at Jordanhill.
"We have also had the class telling stories at an over-60s club and to the younger children in school," says their teacher, Fiona McGee. "So they have gained a lot of experience in a short time."
Storytelling captures the imagination of a whole class, says Mrs McGee, stretching individual capacities and improving kids' confidence. "The idea was introduced last year by my job-share partner, Julie Allison, to quite a challenging class, who did so well with it that she and I decided to extend it this year and take it out into the community."
This brought new challenges for this year's pupils, who have organised and run the project, under the guidance of the two teachers, as a non profit-making enterprise activity, with assigned management, technical, financial, marketing and secretarial teams.
"Going to Glasgow and telling their stories to adults at Jordanhill was a big thing for them," says Ms Allison.
"We wanted to build their confidence by taking them out of their comfort zone. They were nervous and their eye contact wasn't quite as good as before. But it gave them the opportunity for discussions and they realised they were experiencing the same feelings as the adults."
There is no lack of confidence, expertise, eye-contact and dramatic expressiveness on display as the Young Fallin Storytellers relate their tales, using techniques learnt during four afternoon sessions with visiting storyteller Fergus McNicol.
"He was brilliant," says Mrs McGee. "He told them his stories and they loved them. Then he showed them the methods they could use to memorise and deliver a story, so they could become storytellers."
Story maps, headlines and visualisation all help to fix a story firmly in the teller's mind, explain the pupils. But there is no substitute for practice, using whatever audience is available - mums, dads, other relatives, teachers, classmates or even just a mirror.
"A story is different every time you tell it," says Christopher. "It grows stronger the more often it's told. You have to imagine yourself as the characters, like you're the Santa, so imagine what he would say in the situation in the story."
Most of the pupils admit they are nervous before a storytelling session, but the feeling tends to vanish once they start.
"It really has made a difference to the confidence of the kids," says Mrs McGee. "They all have their own way of telling a story. Some children are naturally quieter than others and this brings them out of themselves, encourages them to talk more.
"It has got everyone interested and involved, including the boys, who are sometimes not as keen on literature as the girls."
While the storytelling has developed performance, language and creative skills, the enterprise side of the project has given the pupils responsibilities, allowing them to demonstrate unsuspected levels of maturity.
"This is a nice class anyway, but their behaviour has improved since the start of the project," says Mrs McGee. "They all feel, now, that they have something worthwhile to say."