The Importance of Storytelling : In Conversation with Trisha Lee from Make Believe Arts
Trisha is passionate about Gussin-Paley but she is even more passionate about the rationale for storytelling and why its so important. She rails against the schoolification which squeezes out storytelling in favour of learning the structure of writing so now children can tell you what an adverb is but are writing in a way that will never be listened to.
Listen to Trisha talk about storytelling as oral stories, poems, formal books and audio books. She reminds us that Gussin Paley read books like Charlotte’s Web to four-years-olds. She sees children able to understand much more complex ideas through stories. Because of COVID-19, she has recorded stories and poems with music to share with people on her website.
Hello, and welcome to talking early years and today I am having a undoubtedly lively conversation with Trisha Lee, who is the artistic director of make believe arts. And I'm I think we go back some years Trisha Tandy, can you remember when we first met? I think if I don't know, it's quite a long time ago. I mean, I would say early. I don't I have no idea. I really can't remember. I know we go back a long way, though. I wonder was when we were going back when it was about multi generational and we were talking with a number of artistic organisations about how you bring you build a bridge multigenerational between art organisations and the early years. And we had a meeting somewhere in London and sit I think, Sid said Thornberry, from at the time, the Conservatoire was was there. Do you remember all? Yes, yes, I do. I do. Yeah, no, no, remember said I haven't said for years. But I do remember her very well. But yes, gosh, that was that the arts count. So yes, yeah, it was it was it? Yes. So tell us since then, which is probably you know, I hate to say this, but it's probably 10 years ago. Since then, tell us the story of make believe it and and how you've developed and where you're at now, who make believe arts, we started in 2002. And as a theatre and education company. And since then, initially, our focus was helicopter stories was always one part of our work. But we also did creative approaches to mathematics, we did a lot of work with science, we did a lot of intergenerational work, we looked at a whole range of different areas that we covered. And then over the last few years, since 2015, we have gradually stripped everything away and made our focus completely within the early years, and around helicopter stories and what we call the storytelling curriculum, which is based on the work of Vivian gasim, Paley and the storytelling curriculum that she had within her classroom. So we've kind of shrunk. Whereas a lot of organisations grow bigger, we were growing bigger. And we've really focused on becoming much more strategic and targeted in what we were doing. And that grew out of the love that we develop for helicopter stories, and how important that work feels and how important it felt to be focused within the early years. So the age group we work with now is two to six year olds. And that's, you know, that's a key part. So that's been quite a big change for us over the last five years. And and who is part of your team now? How does the team look like now? So there's only three of us now. So there's myself. There's Eileen Hill, who is the Education Director, who I've worked with since we started, so she's been with us all along. And then bill Moody, who's the administrator. So it literally is a very small team of three of us, with me and eila being the key people who do the delivery. Well, I mean, I was very interested in what and I've always watched your work actually, because because of the helicopter. I fell in love with Vivian Garson Paley when I first read, you can't say you can't play. And I, I hadn't thought about helicopter stories or anything like that. But I loved the fact that she understood the philosophical debates that go on in a nursery between your average three and four year old. And the way she had used that story to tell a story to everyone else about how children need to find a way to get to the rules of the game, because at the time, and I think still, there's a lot of this golden golden rules and you know, all that sort of stuff. And I often wonder about whose golden rules they are. And from that I got really interested in her work and discovered helicopter time. And then we, again, I'm very bad on dates, but she was invited to a conference in Brent and I was able to go there with quite a few of my staff and we were very excited to to meet this very unassuming Woman, but who had a great tale to tell? So tell us your journey with gustan paleo and how how, you know, you got involved in terms of which was the book that you know, you think sort of all the songs her up and you know ever was on a desert island disk which of the gustan Paley books would you take with you? Well, the my my way of meeting her somebody handed me this was in 1999, somebody handed me a copy of the boy who would be a helicopter, one of her books and said, Oh, you might like that you do this theatre stuff. And they didn't realise that at the time, they would check they were handing me the thing that would change my life. So I suppose on my desert island book desk, that book would have to be there because it is the book that changed my life. And then, I, I think my relationship and my friendship, Vivian, and you know, was our patron it make believe arts from the start of when, you know, when when we started, and also she's been my dear friend. And I really put my relationship with her down to the fact that I work in theatre, not education. And in theatre, there's really big push that what we don't do is we don't just borrow things, we get permission. Copyright is huge within theatre, whereas in education, we're brilliant at borrowing things, aren't we magnifying God take a bit of that. And I'll use that and I'll blend it together. So because we wanted to develop her work, we had to get in touch with her. And so I contacted the Chicago laboratory school where she was working and asked her, I would like I asked if I could have her contact details, and it was 1999. And someone gave them to me. And even at the time I was going, I'm sure I shouldn't get these. And I wrote to her, and she was coming to London to do some work. And she was also with her husband on holiday, about two weeks after my letter. So we came and we met up. And that's been key is that, I mean, I've since that time, I've met with her so many times. She was in Ireland that time. And Brent you're talking about, I was there. And I actually got to do a workshop at that same conference alongside her. And I remember, Vivian came and watched me delivering a workshop on her approach, which has to be the scariest thing I have to do. But I, you know, I've been really lucky. And we wrote to each other for 20 years. So Vivian died in July 2019. So, you know, a few years ago now coming up. But during the 20 years that I knew her, we she was my friend, I stayed in her house, I worked at the Chicago laboratory school, she invited me there, and I got to work with some of the children. And I think the biggest thing for me in terms of Vivian is the way that she was so open and would so listen to all children and would really prioritise them. I was writing something recently about Vivian and I was talking to my son about it, who's 28. And he remembers because he came over, we were in Texas doing some work, and Vivian was there. And there was a whole group of people. It was a conference, and it was after the conference. And my son was only sort of 11 at the time. And he remembers that he said something about what happened with a group of children. And everyone carried on talking and nobody listened. And Vivian stopped a whole conversation of adults and said, Sorry, I think Callum said something and listen to him. And he's like, 28 now, and he still remembers that. And I think that really sums up that she listened, and she made everyone feel valued. And, you know, for Vivian, it was about bringing in the outsider. And I know for me, as the child who spent a lot of time outside the classroom, I was in so much trouble at school. And I didn't fit in and I wasn't allowed in a sort of I got told off for talking too much for fidgeting. And basically, I should have been doing drama and storytelling, and then I'd have been perfectly focused. And for me seeing Vivian working with children was the first time that I found a connection and when this is where I fit, and this is a way that I can fit in education, which is why I've made it my life's mission to share her work and kind of get as many people doing it as possible. And we have been using helicopter. I've forgotten how long now but very long time certainly we were using it when we went to see her in Brent because we were interested to see what her take would be on it but for me helicopter is, is I think it's an essential part of any any delivery of any pedagogical perspective or, or any curriculum, because it gives children a voice. And at least we work with children from a disadvantaged background. And they don't often have a voice. So for me, that's a helicopter is a good way of doing it. But talk to me about how other people are using helicopter and how it's kind of, in a way, developed. And you know, what your experience of it is in nurseries in the UK, particularly well, maybe even more specifically in England. So within, within England, we've been really pushing for it to happen. And so I know that it's happening more now than it ever has been. It's interesting with the name helicopter stories, because that's what we called it, not what Vivian called it. So whenever that helicopter stories is named, I know that it links back to the work that we were doing, Vivian called it storytelling and story acting. We accidentally named it from that book. But through, there's a lot of local authorities that are really working on embedding it throughout the local authority. And I think it's in essence how to cop stories is a very simple approach tells you their story, you write it down, and then you all come together and you act it out. And I think the complexity of it is to do with the child centred this and changing your perspective so that you're not leading, you're not trying to get the child to act in the way you want them to act. You're not trying to, to prompt them for their story. You're writing it for Beetham, you're getting the story to be exactly as you as the child is telling you. So you're really valuing their voice and their unique way of speaking. And I think that's been the thing that we've seen working around the country, is actually that people are beginning to really take that on and enjoy it and where helicopter stories is working. You see such massive improvements in children's speaking and listening in their, the way that they communicate with each other how they feel part of the group. And we've been working on a longitudinal study over the last three years, which came to a crashing end in March 29 2020 2030. Archie, yes. That March deadline, I haven't been with children since then. So hopefully, September, I will be back in schools working with children again. But we were working with children from preschool, and right the way through to year two. So tracking children from two to seven. And actually looking at how the development of their stories was what happened in terms of them working as a group and tracking different groups of children. And also looking, the preschool that we were working with was a feeder to the primary school. So we've taken children across there. And it's actually what my next book that I'm working on at the moment will be all about is actually looking at this growth of the storyteller. And what happens when children are doing it consistently, from the age of two, right the way up to the age of six or seven, within primary school. And what we're finding is that it's it's not just about their storytelling developing, obviously, that's one side of it. But also what's happening is that the way they function as a group and Vivian talked about, that you develop a community of storytellers, and they borrow images from each other. And, you know, all of this wonderful richness happens. But also in terms of personal social and emotional development, the children care about each other, there's nothing better that you can do than listening to each other's stories to make you feel empathy for each other to make you care to make you feel in a place where you're secure in your safe. And that's something and we've watched them writing developing children because not because we asked them to write, but because they choose to that actually, if it's not your turn to tell a story. Then you pick up a pen and you write your own story, whether that's with emergent writing, or you know that you're beginning to write words or you know, eventually, which is year one and year two is going on two sentences. And I would make sure that all those stories got acted out as well. So we've been able to really see a development because we've needed to track the long term, because there hasn't been anything that's going we need to keep doing that and I think that's my big Push is that, you know, this isn't something you do once as a one off, the benefits come from doing it on a regular basis. I would agree with that, actually, because it took us a while we call it helicopter time, we've always called it helicopter time. And it's about how do you get in regularly in the setting. And we have a great advocate of it. Stacy, Jane Whitfield, she was at the time, she was the nursery teacher and the teacher at the barracks nursery and hyperbaric that take that, that takes us right back. And she fell in love with the whole idea of the children being given a voice. And we kind of created our own system around it. But it's, it's quite interesting about how it has to be bedded into your, your sort of weekly, you know, routine. And, and it doesn't matter if it gets slightly wrong, because what we tend to do as children all adds to the story so that the choir children have a voice as well, then the staff generally write it down, although sometimes the children write their own version as well. And then they act it out. But yeah, but it's, I'm just interested to see to hear your thoughts about the importance of it being bedded in as part of a way of doing things. So how do you think with your passion and your knowledge and your experience across the piece from two to six and seven? How do you think the power of of helicopter stories or helicopter time, or just storytelling generally can really challenge some of the kind of wider policy narratives that we're having to negotiate at the moment around phonics and school education? And oh, yeah, it feels much more formulaic, and perhaps on lack of creativity in that approach. Yeah, no, I mean, I, it horrifies me, the school of education that you're talking about, I feel that what we are doing is we are shutting many children out of education. And one of the things you know, that we need to be doing is we need to be developing a love of learning, and that doesn't come from school, ification, that doesn't come from baseline testing, it doesn't come from constantly feeling like you have to do things in this way. And it also doesn't fit with where we are, I mean, you know, the 21st century, in terms of, you know, what do employers look for in their future, you know, people they're employing they look for creativity, creativity is in the top 10 things that employers want. And we are schooling our children out of being created, and we're doing it through introducing, I mean, you know, the teaching of how we teach grammar is ridiculous in, you know, in the way that I see it. If we teach the two together, we teach this sort of in a ridiculous way. But we have to label what we're writing about in a way that a writer wouldn't know, writers don't know what each word is. But actually, we're expecting our children to And likewise, because of that, we can expect our teachers to learn this stuff to teach children that nobody actually needs. And what we're not doing is we're not supporting the development of creativity. And actually, when I look at the three and four and five year olds that I work with, they are hugely creative. We are creative individuals, we come into this world creative, our brains are hard wired to make sense of the world via story that is the tool that we use. And you can see that in the way children play with language the way if you support them through helicopter stories, and you allow every child to have a voice, and they feel confident that they're not going to be criticised or corrected. As they tell that story, then what you do is you help that to grow. And you also help them to borrow their images from other people in the classroom or the children. And I think what we're doing by testing by going this is the only way I know so you know, the other thing that really no, we end up teaching adverbs. And you know, and then you just end up with this really awful writing. That's far too flowery. And that is easy to take, oh, they've done for adverbs. So I can tick that I can go that. And it's not about creativity isn't that so what happens is then people go on to write as they grow older children start writing and they might write things that get ticked, but they're never going to write things that are listened to, because it's actually too weighted with adverbs without objectives with flowery language. Yeah, I know. It's, I hate the way that schooling is going and it scares me, but it's also it's the reason why I failed at school. And I failed because I was sent outside the classroom because I couldn't cope with that way of being schooled. And I think that's what's happening to so many children. And there'll be certain children who will thrive on it, who will like that linear way of learning. And actually, they need the creativity, because actually, they need to open up in a different way. But there will also be a vast majority of children who won't succeed in that environment. And then you have COVID, and children who have been isolated throughout this period of time to that. And you just think, how can they cope, what they need to be doing is learning to work in a group again, and caring about each other and nurturing and developing emotional intelligence. And for me, it's not just about helicopter stories it's about children need to be hearing more stories. They need to be hearing more poetry that is going out of our society, we're not sharing as many stories and when schools and settings feel pressured to go alongside and be more schooled in the way that they were. That's the thing that gets pushed aside. And yet, when children listen to stories, they're developing their emotional intelligence. they're beginning to put themselves into other characters, viewpoints, they're learning all of those things that we're trying to teach like beginnings and ends of stories. They'll learn them through hearing stories. In Vivian Cassie Paley's classroom, she read her four and five year old stories like Charlotte's Web. Yeah, the tinderbox, you know, these beautiful stories, and you kind of got I mean, I don't know many people who read Charlotte's Web to young children in that way. But children can cope with stories beyond their years and need to be hearing language beyond their years. Absolutely. Um, it's very joyful to hear you talking about this, actually, and I'm just thinking about how much time you have or how much of your proportion of your work is about supporting staff to become storytellers themselves. Because if you look at the marketing word, if you look at the corporate world, it is all about storytelling, every advert every tick tock every this that the other its tells a story by can say this is the beginning. This is the middle and this is the end, but it actually does tell the story. And the school or the education department seems to be back in, it's really gone backwards in terms of them fails to recognise that the rest of the world is making its money by actually telling stories and convincing people to do stuff. So how much of your time is supporting staff to become confident storytellers? Both in terms of the way they read the book, so you don't have that awful doll. children, children, oh, sit down, sit down, you know, spend the whole time go night, bring your legs, bring your legs, it, you know, that sort of stuff and the way that children just really suicidal at the end. But because what struck me and what we've discovered from some of the work we've been doing, about reading and storytelling is actually nobody gets taught how to read a story as part of their training. If there's a kind of assumption that because you're in the early years, you're automatically can tell a good story. Why that is not the case isn't? No, no, no, no, definitely. No, unfortunately, it's not part of our work. Although I'm listening to you going, Yeah, maybe we should do some storytelling training. What we've done recently, though, is we've created because of COVID, we had to put a lot of our work online. And one of the things that I've been passionate about, and it comes from the same place as you're talking is getting children to hear lots of stories. So I've been working with a musician. And we've created the story basket. And the story basket is 15 audio only stories because for children aged three to six, and their stories like the ugly duckling, the 12 dancing princesses, and they're on our website, and it's a subscription 30 pound for a year to have it for your school or setting. So it's you know, we tried to do it really affordably. But they are beautiful because the musician has worked alongside me to ensure that their sound effects there's really rich, vibrant music, and the all comes from that place of going. How can we get children to be hearing really high quality stories in this way and experiencing those stories, the 12 dancing princesses I rewrote the end. I couldn't bear that Oh, and then you choose which of the 12 you're going to marry. That's like not good. What happened in the story I have? Well, they all went off dancing together, it's fine. But actually, you know, these stories are beautiful, the idea of these girls sneaking out, you know, going in Swan shaped boats across the water to dance every night and nobody knowing where they've gone. I mean, these are magical stories. And I think the more we can share those sorts of stories with our children, the richer their language that all of those things will be. But it's interesting when we do our helicopter stories training. And when we do that face to face, we talk a lot about how we work with children, and you know, sort of what is it that we're doing, we always demonstrate with children. And when that's happening, we're always asking what is it we're doing, and a lot of that is intonation. A lot of that is pausing and listening and hearing what the child is saying and reading a chart. I mean, for me, it's whether whether I'm reading a story, or orally telling a story, or whether I'm reading a story, a child told me, each of them has to be given that weight, and that magic, exactly the same. So when I read a child's story, I will, I will layer that with the same level of Wow, this is amazing, even if it's just one word. And then we're there. And we see the rest of the story. But it's interesting. We don't at the moment offer training teachers had to be storytellers. But I'm noticing it in my brain, I think you probably do well, if you did, because they're not taught about that at all. And to me, and therefore you have lack of confidence about the kind of stories you will tell or as the children always say to me, if I one of my favourites is the Harry tall, I love to tell them the story of the Harry Potter without a book. And then you change the words going along. And you say once upon a time, there was a nursery, in motion street in London and there isn't that. You know, and then you sort of say, and two children arrive late. And and then you say, you know, Savannah was very late this morning. So that as I Oh, my God, Is that me? And they're all looking. So you don't have course have to think of every one of them have got to have a part in it as you tell you the story. But just to have more people who were brave enough to do that, I think is really proper, it's really important. And I think it's also genuinely great fun. Yeah, yeah, definitely. And it's it's interesting, because it's improvisation, which is one of my favourite theatre occupations is like, you know, but it is it's about making things up. And children are fantastic improvisers. That's what? And, you know, as adults, you're right, we do need to kind of meet them, and come on, okay, what's happening here and be able to improvise in that way with them. So yeah, definitely. I think it would enrich helicopter time because it gives staff the confidence, you know, you know, when you're going around the room, and you start the story with once upon a time, and the child says something? Well, I do a lot of that with the staff. And I go right now imagine your three. So you know, how does that feel. And it takes them a while to get into the headspace of a three year old and feel free enough to be able to say, there was a dragon. And instead of going, there was a dragon who had to go shopping, you know, and you're already in there kind of grown up space, there was a dragon who had an itch in his ear, you know, that sort of thing. And it just kind of makes it just more fun. So I would I would be delighted if you did some more training on that front. And then the other thing with that, is that what, what we what where the story basket came from was because we were doing that, and it's exactly what you're saying. It's that thing of, we need to fill the story diet of children. And I think that's what Vivian was doing. Vivian wasn't just doing storytelling and story acting, she was filling a story diet for her children, and they would act out stories that were three books or they adapt that story. She'd make up, they'd act out nursery rhymes, they'd act out poems. And that's why for us why we been creating the poetry basket is another thing that we created, which is poems for teachers to learn. So they can teach with actions so they can teach them to their children, because it's making sure that we've got that amount of stuff in our repertoire when we're working with children, isn't it? It's like, Oh, we need stories. We need these things. And it's so easy when you start focusing on grammar and phonics to go, Oh, I haven't got time for that and to forget those things, and you know, that being where your brain goes rather than what stories have I learned in Erickson University in Chicago, the teachers, the trainee teachers there for early years have to learn 40 poems or rhymes as part of their training. I'm so clever this and I'm also going to add to our interview process. We always get them to do to tell a story, but I'm also going to ask the question, What is your favourite story to? Yeah, already, thank you, you've already given set to two things that the rest of the staff are going oh my every time she goes out, she comes back with something. But that's learned 40 I might not push the 40 but at least go 1010 proper ones with the Makaton signs as well. Yeah, well, that sit with the poetry, baskets, 36. So it's 12 per turn. And the idea of that, and some of them are seasonal, and you know, there are all sorts of sourced from anonymous authors. And but but it's about the actions, it's about, you know, and what I'm getting feedback on is that children are learning the poems with the actions and being able to go around this setting and recite them and, you know, sort of that it becomes part all what, what they're doing, how they're doing. And that's how we enrich language. That's just brilliant. So that's definitely my call to action. And I should be doing something about that this week. So anyone listening from leave, be warned, I'm on my way. But what would your call to action be to share for for the sector? My first thing would be, I'd be stopping the baseline, that would be the thing that I do. I know, it's not something in my power, obviously. But I just I think, you know, taking children out the moment they arrive is not right. And in its place, I would be my call would definitely be telling stories and poetry and sharing that with children alongside helicopter stories. I really do think that every child in the early years, deserves to have their story, listened to written down word for word, and then acted out. And I think if we give that to children, and I saw Vivian just before she died, and I promised her that I would make sure that we keep I will push for this to happen as much as possible. And that's my you know, and I hold that I want this to happen. Fabian gasim, Paley's now mustn't be forgotten. And we must keep telling, taking stories from children. And that's something that is so important to me. So yes, that's my call to action. Listen to your children write their words exactly. Then act them out. We have to act out those stories is vital, because that's why children that makes the leap for them from the spoken to the written to the acted out to actually completing the whole circle. So they see how the effect of that well, this is very, this is such a lovely conversation. I'm so glad we've managed to get this in the diary. Thank you so so very much. I have written so many notes, but it's great to find someone else who loves the work of Vivian Garson Paley and certainly I believe she'll never be forgotten. Thank you. Thank you for joining me today. If you liked what you heard, please share it. Check us out on our website big.org.uk