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When we speak of traditional storytelling, the term ‘traditional’ does not necessarily refer to the type of stories told but rather to the act in itself. “Traditional storytelling is an art – and a form of communication that creates internal images in the listener’s imagination rather than show or dramatizes visible images. The traditional storytelling takes place as an open and direct two-way communication between the storyteller and the audience and allows for interaction between those present.”
This definition, as it is used in the curricula at the Norwegian HiOA is one of the many definitions of ‘traditional storytelling’. It highlights something essential: the ability to create inner images and it emphasizes the active role of the listener in storytelling. The social context (where it happens), why it is told, the narrative competence, the nature of the public are all important elements in the understanding of traditional storytelling.
Storytelling is an integral part of the human experience, allowing us to understand our world, communicate with others, and express ourselves. The value of stories and storytelling has long been appreciated in educational programs for children and adolescents, but when it comes to adult learning, formalized methodology and curriculum structures involving storytelling are still lacking.
Storytelling in Adult Training
In an effort to respond to this need, the Sheherazade team has undertaken a research project to see how storytelling is being used in adult training. Our research has shown that adult trainers are interested in learning more about using storytelling in their training activities. Many of the storytellers we spoke with were also excited about the possibilities of applying storytelling as a pedagogical tool. The challenge thus comes in bringing these groups together.
Apart from storytelling trainings focused on teaching it as an art, storytelling seems to be rarely included in formalized adult training curricula as a pedagogical tool. When it is used in adult training, storytelling proves to be adaptable to a wide variety of educational settings. The examples found by our partners include trainings targeting adult trainers such as psychology professionals, foreign language teachers, and community workers, as well as “end-user” adults such as migrants or language learners.
The curricula we have discovered do not include details about the specific activities used involving storytelling, nor information about how storytelling techniques have been adapted to the context of the course. The trainings are usually one-time or short-term sessions. Our research reveals the need for a formalized written support on the use of storytelling as a pedagogical tool in adult trainings. Such a document could serve as a guide for adult trainers in the following ways:
• Presenting guidelines on how adult trainings involving storytelling can be structured
• Giving insight into the advantages of using storytelling in an adult training context (promoting storytelling)
• Providing tips on how to use storytelling with different target groups
• Introducing trainers to the technical aspects of storytelling
• Presenting specific storytelling activities/approaches which can be used in adult training
• Providing theoretical background on the use of storytelling in adult training
The upcoming phases of our project will produce deliverables to address these issues.
Storytelling as a Pedagogical Tool
As we spoke with storytellers to see how they use stories in a training context, several trends stood out in the methodological approaches they employed when incorporating storytelling into adult training.
Many of the storytellers agree that a preparation phase is vital to the successful use of storytelling in the classroom. They find it very important to give learners a chance to “warm up” before working with stories in a training course, especially if they are new to telling and listening to stories as an adult. “Warming up” activities need to not only prepare them for the work that will follow, but also to put them at ease and relive tension and nervousness they may have.
Four key “warming up” steps were mentioned in our interviews:
a) Establishing the goals of the training
b) Creating the right atmosphere for the training (room set-up, etc.)
c) Establishing confidence and trust between participants
d) Preparing participants to think creatively (often done by starting with a story)
Technical activities are the “meat and bones” of the storytelling process. These activities allow learners to improve their storytelling skills while also working on skills more closely related to the main goals of the course. Our storytellers find the following types of activities important:
• Training on physical movement/gestures/breathing
• Word games/work on speaking
• Techniques for delivering and remembering a story
• Emphasis on the importance of both practical and technical activities
• Importance of dialogue
One of the challenges inherit in storytelling is the process of going from the written language to conveying ideas orally.
The workshop portion of an adult training involving storytelling thus focuses on the specific goal of the course and how storytelling can be used to achieve it. Some examples of course topics that would be ideal for storytelling include language learning and courses promoting the integration of at-risk groups. The possibilities for incorporating storytelling into adult learning are endless.
In the performance step of a training involving storytelling, learners have the opportunity to tell their own stories to each other and listen to the stories of others. Because telling a story alone in front of an audience can be intimidating for some learners, it is helpful to allow them to work in pairs or trios.
Some quotes from the interviews with the storytellers
Leah Davcheva (BG): A trainer / facilitator needs to make sure she has a full grasp of the task and the emerging context when deciding what story to tell herself or invite others to tell. In other words, customising or asking for a story to be customised to the group is essential. Willingness to be vulnerable with the group is another prerequisite. Authenticity is important by way of engendering trust. Related to this is the congruence between the story one tells and their behavior. A facilitator needs to remember that she should elicit more stories than she herself tells. Openness, respect and withholding judgement are also important. And finally, a facilitator needs to build in room for story sharing when she designs her training.
Jacques Combes (FR): With adults, you need to reassure them of the value of what they have to say, of their story. You have to put them at ease, taking their life experiences into account (e.g. difficult migration trajectories), so that storytelling can be a distraction and a positive experience. Combes also finds that a good group dynamic is very important to a successful course. In his current course with recently arrived immigrants, he focuses on creating conviviality among the students so that they are more open and trusting with each other. He does this through exercises (on the body, the imagination, speaking, etc.) and through group meals in which each student brings a traditional dish from their respective countries.
David Heathfield (UK): I make the purpose, structure and content of the program as clear as possible in the description people read when choosing the program. I find out about the expectations and wishes of participants before and at the start of the program and there is regular reflection throughout the program. I make the environment secure for participants by agreeing and setting clear boundaries so that they are able to be playful, experiment and take risks while feeling supported by me and by each other. I follow up the program by making myself available to communicate about people’s experiences and queries.
Suse Weisse (DE): With most groups I am not so involved in the technical elements of storytelling. I don’t use storytelling to teach ‘performance or communication techniques’. I use it as a direct way to the minds of people, to make them open their minds and hearts. I think it is ideal to help people relax, to become a group. They come together by singing songs, by listening to a story.
Caroline Sire (FR): They learn to go from written language to oral language and to listen to words not only for their meaning, but their sound as the language becomes almost musical (rhythm, word choice), etc.
Iwan Kushka (UK): writing exercise: how to remember stories and how to write them down? Using the story told at the very beginning, have people identify the ‘bare bones’, the ‘skeleton’ of the story.
Story is led by images, write down the steps of the story. Demonstrate the main tools of the storytelling trade: body posture (sitting or standing, connecting gaze, body posture to ‘embody’ different characters, how to represent dialogue, importance of pauses, how and when to invite audience participation, how to create a ‘story map’ (visualizing the different places that appear in the story, placing them to your left and right).
Diane Sophie Geerts (BE): A workshop should always be a subtle mix of theoretical contribution and practical applications. Every workshop should take into consideration respect and integration of each person. The capacities of every participant should be valorized so that he can use the proposed tools blithely and without fear. I also think that the goals of the workshop should be clearly explained before the start of the workshop.
This workshop would consist of a part where stories and there richness are discovered, and also of a more technical part on oral storytelling.
Margaret Wenzel (AT): The dialogical concept of storytelling is the basic structure of each training. The telling and listening, reflecting, structuring and the feedback I get. I always tell a story as introduction. “Can you learn telling stories? “, that is often one of the main questions at the beginning. I tell the story integrating my know-how about storytelling. Then the next step is that I let them describe what they have noticed and after that I can go on. The curriculum can only be developed in the dialog with the participants.
Aideen Mc Bride (IE): Adults with literacy problems could listen to stories and communicate their own without having to read or write. This means that they can expand their vocabulary and become comfortable with the language before they ever had to open a book. It is a ‘very honest and informal way of teaching where you can ‘slip the message in’ without intimidating your trainees. If you have people who are nervous or scared by the formality of learning all that can be left aside while the story is being told.
Rien Van Meensel (BE): I worked for a year with foreign women who attended the integration course (obliged by the state). With those who didn’t speak a lot of Dutch we worked on recipes to break the ice. Later on we told stories and we worked on their life stories as well. These stories were really emotional, we used the techniques of traditional storytelling: we sat in a circle with a candle in the middle, they had to create an image from their past and choose a beginning, a middle and an end. They told stories about the house they lived in, their journey to Belgium and the future they wanted for their children.
This article is based on extracts from the Sheherazade manual that will be a major outcome of the project. The manual targets adult educators willing to introduce storytelling techniques in their work with adults. Full texts will be available soon on www.sheherazade.eu.
Landcommanderij Alden Biesen, BE, coordinator.
Fabula, storyteller association, SE
Oslo & Akershus University college, NO
CVO Landen-Leuven, BE
Meath Partnership, IE
ELAN Interculturel, FR
Sofia University, BG
Sheherazade is a Grundtvig Multilateral Project.