Tell them a story

29th September 2000 at 01:00
As Sally Ballard finds out, it can be the difference between chaos and calm in the classroom

Class control? No problem - if you're a storyteller. One of the oldest forms of communication is undergoing a resurgence in schools with the promise that it could have your class hanging on your every word. Not only have some teachers given up their day jobs to become one of the growing band of 300 professional storytellers in the UK, but teachers themselves are being urged to look at storytelling techniques as a way of keeping a class in check.

Cancer forced Graham Langley to give up his job as head of drama and performing arts at a north Lincolnshire comprehensive. "I loved teaching and loved the kids," he says. "But after my treatment I didn't have the energy to go back in the same way, so I took up storytelling which meant I could still work in the classroom." He's been at it now for eight years, working throughout the country and using his skills in anti-bullying sessions.

During his 20-year teaching career, Mr Langley had already discovered the magic of storytelling in the classroom. "The first time it happened, I walked into a class where the kids were practically swinging from the chandeliers. I started telling them a story and soon they were eating out of my hand. I was amazed at the power this very simple thing had over them," he says.

"It is a common experience for a teacher to say to me, 'This is a very disruptive class and they probably won't sit still for more than half an hour'. An hour and 10 minutes later, they are still locked into the stories and would happily give up their playtime if I asked them."

Mr Langley often uses storytelling to calm a group of fractious children. "I use it to create a bond between me and them. They sit and listen, get drawn into the story, and that's when a relationship starts developing. I use this same technique to carry an anti-bullying message.

"The kids start to empathise and relate to the characters in the story, and it is that empathy that I use. There is no finger wagging. I just give them these experiences; let their imagination put them into the characters' shoes and then we talk about it and discuss it afterwards.

"Storytelling allows you to move with the mood of the pupils. By keeping eye contact, you can see whether or not what you are saying is hitting the mark. You have complete control." His favourite stories are English folk tales and legends that he retells in a contemporary setting.

Storytelling requires performing skills, says storyteller Tim Sheppard, who also runs courses. One teacher has attended five of his workshops. "She feels it gives her an extra edge of confidence, that she is developing a better rapport with her class. She used to control by shoutig, something she doesn't like doing and which makes her feel frustrated and powerless. But now she is relaxing more - by drawing the children in, they don't cause her so much trouble."

Pie Corbett, a former primary head, writer and national literacy strategy adviser for Gloucestershire, believes that storytelling has an important part to play in the NLS by enriching and bringing creativity into both the literacy hour and the teaching of English.

Mr Corbett, also a part-time storyteller, believes there are immense spin-offs if storytelling skills are interwoven with basic teaching skills. "Everybody loves a story. There is something mesmerising about someone telling a story," he says. "The class is looking at you but you know they are seeing something in their minds - you can see the emotions on their faces. You can hold your class in your grip because storytelling is utterly magnetic."

Mr Corbett sees stories as moral, social and emotional tales which help us explore the subtleties of human life. "A hundred years ago there was a set of stories every child would know and be told. They would be examples of how we live, how we behave and how we treat each other.

"Stories are also a way of wrapping up the truth to make it more palatable. Cinderella can be told to convey the meaning of abuse and cruelty. Shirley Hughes's Dogger can be told in storytelling form to show that it is a kind and good thing to make a sacrifice occasionally."

And does he regret leaving full-time teaching for a varied and multi-task career in education? "I would not want to go back into school full time. I find this a great way to work, and I get huge satisfaction bringing in new ideas. And I feel free to concentrate on supporting and developing that work."

Graham Langley can be contacted on 01629 826939. Email: Sheppard. Tel: 01179 248751. Website: Corbett. Email: For details of festivals, workshops, events and resources, contact the Society for Storytelling. Tel: 0118 935 1381.Website:


* Make sure the story is relevant and appropriate.

* Keep it brief and simple - especially for young children.

* Maintain eye contact with your audience. It will help you to read their response and you can then adapt the story to suit their mood.

* Choose a relaxed, distraction-free place to tell your tale.

* Attend a storytelling weekend or one-day workshops.

* Watch and listen to other storytellers. Several festivals are held during the summer.

* Practise your stories in front of your dog, your mirror and forgiving friends.

* Start a storytelling club at school.

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