Pene Balk–Jarvisis a literacy resource teacher from New Zealand and is part of the team setting up Storytelling Schools there. This summer Pene attended our summer school in Emerson College, and visited three ‘outstanding’ storytelling schools: School21 and Mayflower in London and High Meadow Infants in Coventry. Storytelling Schools (STS) interviewed Pene about her trip.
STS: Tell us about your work in New Zealand.
Pene:Three years ago a group of Literacy Resource teachers in Christchurch started using the Storytelling Schools Method after one of our resource teachers, Lis Swanson, had discovered the method online and purchased a teachers handbook. Following success with individual classes a number of schools have now signed up to become Storytelling Schools using a whole school approach. I am one of the team providing mentoring and training for these schools.
It was clear from the start that the method worked well because (a) the children enjoyed it, (b) it was easy to see the results in the children’s oracy and written literacy, and (c) the teachers felt empowered as the method gave them a framework with which to plan their teaching. Teachers saw the immediate impact on children and wanted more.
In particular it has been satisfying to see children excel at storytelling, allowing them to express themselves orally even though they struggle with written communication. There are so many examples of ‘low achieving’ children making up and telling really wonderful stories. The method is fun and yet gives purpose and meaning to learning.
STS: How was the summer school?
Pene.The five-day summer school provided a wonderful opportunity to train with others while immersing fully in the Storytelling Method. It was a great chance to gain confidence by seeing all the methods in the handbook being demonstrated and then experiencing it first hand. It really showed how exciting and enjoyable the approach is. Also it was really interesting to get to know educators from other countries and share experiences and ideas together.
STS. How was your visit to School 21?
Pene:It was inspiring to see the Storytelling Schools Method being used with such skill and passion. Even though it was only the second week of term it was clear that children were engaging fully with the method. They understood it and knew how to put into practice. I was inspired to watch staff reviewing and adapting the methods to best meet the needs of their classes. I loved watching Kate make up bespoke drama exercises to support a particular writing task. Teachers said they felt empowered by the method and liked the way it helped accelerate new vocabulary learning,
STS. How about your visit to Mayflower School
Pene: Mayflower was so impressive and especially so given that the children come from such disadvantaged backgrounds and almost 100% with English as an additional language. The school was so welcoming and caring and felt like one big warm family. In Mayflower they have been using the Method for many years and you can feel how deeply embedded it is in the teaching culture.
I was impressed by how children were getting on with applying the method themselves, sometimes with minimal input from staff. Also, it was good to watch the way the staff planned for their units, adapting the method to their teaching goals and coming up with all sorts of ways to support the learning through rich experiences.
Again, teachers emphasised that the method was an effective and efficient way to building up new vocabulary before learning to use it. They know of no better way.
STS: What about High Meadow Infants
Pene:High Meadow is a superb infants school in Coventry. Again I was struck by three key ingredients: first the head teacher was passionate and 100% committed to the method. Second the teaching staff were clear about why and how they use the method across the school. They have seen the benefits and know that it works. Finally, the children were secure in the learning routines and knew what and how they were learning. The quality of writing was just amazing.
All three schools had a clear vision of what they wanted to achieve and how. This was clear in the planning and in the teaching which was purposeful and systematic. In all three settings parents were actively involved, encouraging storytelling at home and sometimes bringing back new stories from their own cultures and backgrounds. Storytelling provided a way of valuing multiple cultures and languages, linking families into the learning community.
STS: what will you do with this learning back in NZ?
Pene:As this trip is sponsored by the Ministry of Education, I will write them a report on what I have seen and learned and the implications for STS in New Zealand. The report will then be shared with colleagues and schools in the area where I work as a way of encouraging new schools to consider using the method.
I have seen how the method can be used to build a school-wide culture of learning where both teachers and children can understand both how they are learning and also how it fits into the overall learning scheme. This sense of an overall systematic approach is empowering for both teachers and children while enabling those inclusive features to blossom: engaging, fun, playful, creative, ideas-led and leading to impressive progress in both oracy and writing. It is so important for teachers to feel part of a bigger system of learning and Storytelling Schools does this in spades.
Also, I now understand better how crucial the teaching of shared writing is. At first I found it a little overwhelming but now I have seen how it can be a simple and fast way of showing how to write so all the students feel able to have a go.
Finally, I have learned about leadership. In all three settings the leaders were clear, passionate and committed to the STS method. You could see how the teachers fed off that passion and passed it down to the children.
I so wish I had known about this method 20 years ago. Now, after a lifetime of teaching, I have found a method which really works for all children and delivers such amazing results. Even though I am not a confident writer, the Method allows me to be a confident teacher of writing. It also delivers such amazing results. There’s no arguing with that!