IT’S A GREY midweek morning and there’s a visitor to Corsham Regis Primary Academy’s reception class. The children watch with wide-eyed fascination as she tapes off a staging area and explains that within this space, all manner of tales will come to life.
Trisha Lee, artistic director at charity Make Believe Arts, is in school to deliver a session of helicopter stories – a learning strategy in which the children will have the chance to tell stories of their own. These stories are scribed word for word for them by a facilitating adult and then acted out by the group.
According to schools that have tried the approach, it can assist in anything from developing emotional intelligence and empathy skills to assisting creativity and emergent writing.
The idea for helicopter stories has its roots in the work of US kindergarten teacher Vivian Gussin Paley back in the 1960s. At Corsham Regis, I see the method in action.
How does it work?
Lee helps the children to prepare for their own experience by reading some of the stories that have been told by children in the past. The students are in a circle and she asks each one in turn to perform some small role in the story, taking their place on the masking-tape stage. (The first tale is about a group of five spiders and the children love imagining how such spindly creatures might move.)
Everyone is given the chance to have a turn and no one is left out. Lee is keen to stress that this inclusivity is key.
“What has always excited me is that it has something for everyone, regardless of gender, or EAL, or specific needs,” she explains.
Next, it is time to tell their own stories. While it’s a confident and articulate little girl who volunteers to tell her own story to the group first of all (in which a family are forced to move house by “wood men”, who come and chop down their trees), later on, less likely children come forward to share their ideas, sometimes to the surprise of the adults who work with them.
“We were surprised by the lack of prompting to challenge and encourage some of the quieter children but as the session continued, many of them suddenly became more animated and willing to join in anyway and in the end, all of the children seemed to thoroughly enjoy the whole experience,” says Ceri Stone, FS2 teacher at Corsham Regis.
That’s not to say children are pushed into taking part. When an initially willing volunteer changes his mind about sharing his story, Lee is keen that he should not be forced, emphasising the importance of being a story listener as well as a storyteller.
The role of the teacher
This gentleness can sometimes translate to more controversial aspects of the strategy – not only does Lee not force participation, she doesn’t direct it either.
“I don’t lead the acting out with gestures and I don’t prompt the stories or correct the grammar – I write exactly what I am told and accept whatever a child tells me in the scribing,” she says. “It’s often when children realise they cannot fail that they start to excel.”
Lee emphasises that she will take the time to model correct language back to the children when describing the action for a story, but as far as the story itself is concerned, if a child says “they was scared”, then this is what gets written down.
This seems to go against the natural impulse of a teacher, but by focusing on the fact this is not about Spag but creativity, you soon get over it, says Helen James, headteacher at Chisendale Primary School in Tower Hamlets, whose school is now working with Trisha as a centre of excellence for the approach.
“It’s about connecting with the children’s imagination and encouraging creativity rather than just a focus on grammar and being technically correct,” she explains.
It might also be the case that too much emphasis on mistakes here would be rather missing the point, which is to “support children in feeling valued for their stories and the voice that they are developing,” as Lee puts it. And child and adolescent psychotherapist Alison Roy says that the importance of stories when it comes to children developing their identities should not be overlooked.
“Stories provide the perfect opportunity for children to transform their world and experiences,” she says. “They can help them to develop a mastery over a situation or experience that might otherwise feel overwhelming.”
In other words, the control that the helicopter stories approach gives back to children may be a key part of how it helps them to achieve.
So what’s the story (pun intended) for schools interested in trying it for themselves? James advises: “It’s easier than you think to get it started, as the children enjoy it so much and once it becomes a habit, then everyone expects it. It isn’t time-consuming and does not require resources other than a notepad, pen and some masking tape.”
At Corsham Regis, the children have created their own stories that are variously weird and funny and touching, too. They’ve also had a jolly nice time. And maybe, just maybe, the idea that stories can be a jolly nice time is the most important one of all.
Kate Townshend is a teacher in Gloucestershire @_KateTownshend