A long time ago: the retelling of very old stories. Writers in Schools revisited

It’s a bright Saturday morning deep in the frosty Staffordshire countryside. Greg (teacher) and Pat (writer) arrive simultaneously at the school gates and we’re all let in by the caretaker who’s come especially to open up the building. There are no children in sight yet: it’s the weekend after the half term so there’s some anxiety about whether they’ll remember to turn up or not. Placing this outside the curriculum and even outside the mainstream timetable suggests that this is driven by an agenda of ‘enrichment’ rather than ‘entitlement’ – relying as it will do on students memories, parents encouragement and the absence of lesser distractions such as boy / girl friends, imminent football matches later this afternoon an all the usual distractions of a (cold) Saturday morning…. We’ll see….. and as I write, one girl arrives, Laura.

Pat starts with a story he learnt from his great aunt – “who would be 115 years old if she was still alive. A long time ago….” and he continues with the story of a woodcutter, a version of Hansel and Gretel – but without the wicked stepmother – and after some five minutes, someone’s mobile goes off which generates a moment of distraction and embarrassment for Laura who’s sat to his right.

But as in the case of where Pat relates his story to new, non-committal and inattentive ears of young children and teachers, the re-telling of the old stories of writer, teacher and children is not without its own diversions, asides and re- interpretations.

Pat moves onto a second story, one from Nigeria – “I’ve found that is popular with secondary school children…” He points out that the story will have a dilemma in it. The kids are still sat still, listening in their own ways – but let’s not forget this is a Saturday after half term and the group are here voluntarily… the session is built upon focussing for a presentation at some point in the future in a middle school, working with younger kids.

Unlike much secondary work which gets kids to focus on (and be frightened by) their future employment prospects, the future in this session is relatively benign event in which younger kids will benefit from the efforts of the group here. This is about a contribution to the local community’s future; not about the future achievement or attainment of a specific individual (although that of course may well be an outcome too).

Laura writes some notes on one of the scraps of paper; the collection of pieces on the floor suggests a small scrap yard of paper clippings which might eventually be elaborated into some kind of artefact…? Mark demos a story he remembers, using his folded boat paper as an aide memoire to the story telling; he starts the story of a shipwreck, and tears something off to indicate the progression of the story. They start to think about telling the Hansel and Gretel story of earlier. Pat talks about how the brain can remember anything… and how we emphasise aspects of stories in order to persuade, ask for sympathy etc.. He splits his group into partners; they have to share memories and see how they can be turned into stories: “Put your hand up when you think your memory has turned into a story…”

The final part of the session and Laura feedbacks the stories she’s read through the course of the day – without props in some cases but with fragments of learning of presentational skills – variation of voice for example in order to surprise the audience… both Greg and Pat comment on linguistic specifics which make the story her own: in the process Pat refers to the specific nature of the Leek / Staffordshire accent. I wonder if she is aware of this accent. He finishes off by asking for any questions from the group; these revolve around how they will get time to practice their newly acquired skills and stories; the logistics of the mainstream timetable; the issues of how to catch up work; the confirmation that other teachers are aware of the demands that the children now face in their short term futures.

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