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'We must recover storytelling habit'

Raymond Ross marks today's national Tell A Story Day with an interview with Shai Schwartz, an international master of the craft

Every teacher should be a storyteller, says to internationally renowned artist Shai Schwartz, who is appearing at this week's Scottish International Storytelling Festival.

"Storytelling is a great communicative tool which should be part of every teacher's professional training so that they can tell stories and elicit stories from children," he says.

"Narrative is captivating and promotes self-identification. If you bring the material you want to teach into a narrative the pupils can identify with, then you are bringing it into their experience, into the way they think and feel.

"We all think in terms of narrative, a past, a present, a future, a beginning, a middle, an end."

An actor, director, playwright and storyteller, Mr Schwartz has been involved in storytelling for 30 years, including training teachers across Europe and America and working with the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture in London, where he uses storytelling as a therapeutic tool.

"In storytelling you can work on issues through displacement. Is there a bully in the class? Tell a story which gets the audience to identify with the victim of bullying and discuss it afterwards.

"Through this displacement the meaning should be powerful and clear. How far you take the discussion depends on how therapeutic you want to get," he says.

This is the basic method he adopts with traumatised children, the unaccompanied minors who have fled torture and rape to seek asylum in London, most of whom are former child soldiers.

"We have found displacement through storytelling is a very powerful tool,"

he says. Through exposure to and involvement in storytelling, all children can learn to connect with their own thoughts, fears and fantasies, he says.

Mr Schwartz is the educational director of the Israeli Children's Museum of Holon. "The exhibits are theatre sets through which the children are guided by facilitators, all trained actors. It's about undertaking journeys to develop emotional intelligence," he explains.

The children can go on a space journey, for example, where they meet aliens who at first sight all look the same - the stereotype - but, as they engage with them, they realise each has a different personality, different moods and attitudes, and the children have no choice but to engage with them, because they need their help in order to return to Earth.

In the museum, the children go through enchanted forests and slide down a rainbow to meet a wizard, all of which sounds magical enough. But what makes Mr Schwartz laugh isn't this kind of magic at all. It's the snow machine that's there.

"The children walk through a snow blizzard. Imagine it, a snow blizzard in Israel!"

Storytelling develops the imagination along with linguistic and mental co-ordination and the child who is learning to tell is learning to edit, to choose the right expressions, thus becoming richer in language, he says.

"Storytelling looks into the eyes of people. It develops a sense of humour, a sense of proportion, a philosophical way of looking at life and of dealing with emotional problems, allowing the child to connect with all sorts of materials."

Mr Schwartz, who describes himself as a follower of Paulo Freire, the progressive Brazilian educationist best known for his 1970 classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He does not think of the child receiving a bank of knowledge. Rather, we have to find ways to explore and develop the child so that he or she will learn for himherself.

Living in Neve ShalomWahat a Salam (Peace Village), the unique Jewish-Palestinian co-operative in Israel, Mr Schwartz uses storytelling to promote dialogue between different and sometimes opposing identities. It is central to his life and work.

"Humanity is one tribe and sharing stories enhances social bonding. In fact, sitting around telling stories, sharing songs and music is the most powerful social bonding we have," he says.

"Storytelling is the ancient way of passing on traditions and values, of celebrating occasions. Because of television and other pressures, we are in danger of losing our social binding myth.

"TV is taking from us our imagination and our sense of time. Stories are set in timeless time. That's the no place they take us.

"Quite simply, storytelling is something we have to recover."

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