Talking SENSS with Graham Langley, Storyteller

Interviewed by Helen McKay, on the Parramatta Rivercat, August 1997, travelling from Rydalmere to Circular Quay.

Helen: Graham, you are a Storyteller from England, having a look around Australia and I understand you have a special area that you’re working in back home – an anti-bullying programme in Schools. Can you tell us about this?

Graham: Yes – all schools have a degree of bullying in them. Doesn’t matter what the Head Teacher or Principal may say in order to give his school a good image – all schools have bullying of some sort or another.

About two years ago, I was asked to assist in a project – an anti-bullying project – in three schools. I was given three days in each of these schools. I used a combination of storytelling, drama and discussion, games and songs, and for those three days in each school, I worked with very difficult classes. The results were quite surprising. It started from there.

Helen: When you say the results were very surprising, what do you mean by that? Did it cut the amount of bullying in the schools, or did it make the children more aware of the problem?

Graham: As it happened, the schools that we were allocated to were very difficult schools; we weren’t targeted there for no reason. As well as some very persistent bullying that was going on, there was a lot of very aggressive behaviour between the children – very aggressive speech and attitudes, as well as particular bullying incidents that were giving concern.

That was very much reduced and the teachers were very surprised. It has to be said that several of the teachers were quite sceptical of the whole approach, but in the course of these three days, they were really won over.

We set up a program, initially for three days, but then we reduced it to a two-day program, and gradually it developed, as we used storytelling in different ways. My initial approach is to say that one thing about storytelling is that people involved in listening and telling stories, are involved together.

Helen: It’s a community activity?

Graham: Yes, it’s a community activity.

Helen: It can’t be passive in any way?

Graham: If children are involved, if children are engaged in listening to the story they are engaged actively, their imaginations are running, things are happening to them. They are sharing the emotions of the story; they are following the storyline.

Lots and lots of really great things are happening with kids when they are listening to a story that is being shared with the whole class – even that, in itself, is a good thing. The fact that here we’ve all enjoyed sharing a story together – an enjoyable experience, that in itself is one thing, but they’ve also enjoyed together, sharing a whole range of feelings and experiences.

The stories that were told were not fables, didn’t end up with a little moral. There was no finger-wagging moral – no moralising – or any of that sort of stuff. The stories were just told and left to lie there.

If, later on during the two days, there would be some discussions – someone would be talking about name calling; I could perhaps refer back to the stories and say, “Remember how the Rough Faced girl felt, when she was called that name? Can you all remember how she felt?”

And of course they could all remember how she felt, because at that moment in the story, they were all empathising with her – the Rough Faced girl – so they all knew what that felt like.

So in a way, we weren’t dealing with a particular bullying incident in that classroom; not unless they emerged right in front of our faces. Things were always removed – removed into storytelling, and that was very effective, because children who had not experienced bullying could also understand.

You see, children don’t think about each other’s feelings very much. In the stories they did. So we always started each session with an hour and ten minutes of storytelling and songs. That laid the basis of the whole two days.

The other thing that it did – that hour and ten minutes – it built up a very strong relationship between the children and me. They really got to know me and trust me.

Helen: Yes, because children really connect with the storyteller during the telling of a story.

Graham: That’s right. The other thing it did, of course, was to enable me to get to know the children. I got to know what their responses were like. I began to recognise very quickly, who were the difficult children. Who don’t like participating – the reluctant speakers.

I gained a lot of knowledge about the children, even during my first story sessions. So that started and developed. I brought in other elements of storytelling as well.

For instance: I use lots of different exercises and ploys, such as: “I’d like you to talk to each other about bullying. I’d like you to tell each other about bullying incidents that you’ve seen, or have been involved in”.

They would do that just in pairs – but I taught them how to do that in the third person, so they don’t say, “This happened to me,” but instead, “there was this girl at our school.”

Graham: In this type of story, therefore, regardless of whether you were the victim, the bully, or just a bystander, they were allowed to be more objective, and draw themselves back from it. That worked extremely well.

Helen: It’s a good way, isn’t it? Now, were you targeted for any particular classes or did you just work through the school?

Graham: We were targeted to particular schools. We weren’t targeted to those schools without reason. They were very difficult schools that were under-achieving – quite considerably. As I said to begin with, some of the teachers were very sceptical about it, but then ‘The Times Educational Supplement’ came in to do an article about it.

The journalist, who came, was called Clare, (I can’t remember her last name). She came – I’ve put a copy of this article on my web site – I’ve got their permission – so you can find it there. What happened was, she came and this aroused a great deal of interest.

The funding for this project was very short-term, so it had to be delivered quickly. So we were really piling it in, sometimes two sessions a day, within a week – very concentrated efforts and very wearing work.

My colleague, Sue, was managing the project. She was analysing it through two questionnaires; one went in beforehand and another at the end of the project, and the results were compared. But we hadn’t actually done a lot of revisiting the classes. There was no time in the program put up for that.

But in the future, I would want revisiting to be part of the program, but it wasn’t tied into this. So, the interviewer came, and she went around the classes that I’d been to and she started asking the children: “Do you remember Graham being in?”

“Oh yeah, great fun!”

“And has he changed you in any way?”

And these children started saying the most remarkable things, such as: “Oh, we used to bully such a lot here, but now things are very different.”

“I used not to let Jamie join in, but now we realise it’s much nicer if Jamie joins in.”

Sue, who had accompanied this reporter, could hardly believe what she was hearing – in fact – she checked out with the teachers to make sure they hadn’t prepared these children.

A few days later, when we had a little bit of time – when the children we should be working with, all had to go off to assembly – we said “Come on, let’s go and talk to some of the kids.” And we went back into one of the classes we’d been to previously. We were quite amazed at the immediate response, and how the children were saying things had changed.

One Head Teacher was quoted in the article as saying, she believed bullying had been reduced in her school about 80%.

Helen: That’s an amazing result!

Graham: Well, I think it’s a wonderful thing for her to say about our work, but I think she may have been putting rather too much of a gloss on it. But – even if it were only half true – that would still be a wonderful result.

Helen: It is, for sure. Graham, what made you start doing this work?

Graham: I started doing the work because of my conviction about the power of storytelling – and because of the way that it deals with so many areas of human life. As we use stories, and peel away the layers, you explore all the different things that are happening to people in the folk tales, the myths and the legends. You really examine all that; so much of human life is there.

Helen: Exactly! Actually I came across a wonderful quote in the (US) National Storytelling magazine that’s just out.

Graham: The American one?

Helen: Yes, and it said: `if you want your children to be brilliant, tell them Fairy Tales. If you want them to be even more brilliant, tell them more Fairy Tales.’

Actually that was one of Joseph Campbell’s beliefs – that myths and stories educate people for all of life’s experiences

Graham: Well, what happens is that people have stopped telling stories direct -one to one – families don’t make time to talk together, or with classes at school. In the UK, teachers aren’t telling stories to children, to the extent that they used to; nothing like it, in fact.

Part of what my program in schools is about, is not just me going into the schools to tell stories, but also, to encourage teachers to tell more stories. We are setting up some strategies to help make that easier for them within their schools and programs.

Helen: Do you feel that the teachers themselves perceive storytelling as not being a practical application to their work generally?

Graham: That’s one thing, but in the UK, the curriculum has become very, very crowded. The demands of the national curriculum and the demands of government strategies for education: means that the curriculum is now massively overcrowded. Teachers feel that storytelling is a little nicety that we haven’t got time for any more.

Now, my argument with them is quite the opposite, a wide range of the curriculum can be delivered via storytelling. Far from taking away from the curriculum time, I think that storytelling is such a powerful tool; it can be used right across the curriculum.

Helen: As a former teacher I heartily agree.

Graham: Not only that, several areas of the curriculum can be developed at once, within a single storytelling session. I had quite a lot of workshops and discussions with teachers in the UK about using storytelling as part of the curriculum.

Not only that – all of that social stuff that we were talking about earlier on – the fact that children are sitting together, enjoying the story together, sharing these feelings and empathising together – that’s a very important social time for children and that social time is not being given to them in the same way, anywhere else.

Two of the things I noticed were: during the storytelling session, the children were very, very attentive. It’s only very rarely children cannot settle at a storytelling session. Most children settle very well.

I often go into classrooms and explain that I’ll be starting off with an hour or so of storytelling, and the teacher will throw her hands up and say, “They can’t handle that, it’s far too long!”

Well, after I’ve told them stories for well over an hour, the children are still sitting there, eyes glued, absolutely solid concentration.

Teachers are amazed by that, you see – during storytelling sessions, children are at their most attentive.

The other thing I know is that I can meet children, who I’ve told stories with, months or even years later and they can tell me stories back. So – not only are they at their most attentive – but also they’re also at their most retentive, and that is a wonderful combination. I think that is the strongest argument for using more storytelling, if you achieve so much in that time.

Graham: I was invited back into these same schools to do some language development work, using similar sorts of activities — there’s just so much language development potential in storytelling.

You can use all sorts of devices for bringing out that language development – even if you focus on a particular vocabulary within your storytelling with this group.

You focus on the words and area of language. It just goes on and on across the curriculum – science, religious education, geography, history.

Another thing is – it has to do with children’s perception of themselves. You see – most of the curriculum in the UK is delivered through written language. Many children are failing with their reading and writing – failing with their literacy – yet when the curriculum is delivered through literacy, their levels of failure are constantly being reinforced.

When you are working orally, which, of course, we do with storytelling; they stay with you much more. If they are responding orally, if they are becoming the storyteller, then suddenly the whole thing becomes open to them.

You ask a child (who’s not a good writer) to write a story; they may write six or seven lines and you say “It’s wonderful, that’s really great work.”

It might have been great work, for that child hasn’t had much opportunity for narrative development. You release the child from writing and allow them to speak instead, in a well-organised, secure environment, then they start to tell a story, and they can develop a whole narrative.

If they are working co-operatively, (harking back to the anti-bullying work), co-operative work is the key point of the whole thing. All the work we did was geared to co-operative work, in order to demonstrate to the teachers.

But we didn’t look deliberately for co-operative work. We looked for activities and then said, “How can we do this co-operatively, in order to demonstrate to the teacher?” In a way – the two days were a demonstration to the teachers. We showed that we could go in and we could deliver that result.

Helen: So you worked with someone else?

Graham: Quite often I was working on my own. Sometimes I was working with a support worker. I must stress this – with difficult classes, a support worker is essential!

Of course this makes it a very expensive program to deliver in schools – the fact that you’ve got me, plus a support worker. Now with `Talking SENSS’, which was the name of the project, the co-ordinator was already paid by the authority and that effectively made the costs appear cheaper.

Helen: That’s a very clever way of arranging it.

Graham: Yes, it was. To work with a local authority support worker, is actually a more economical way of doing it, rather than taking my own support worker along with me. Some activities we did together, proved remarkably successful.

I had a class come in from lunch one day, absolutely as wild as wind, bouncing off the walls. I knew I was going to have to do something to settle them down.

Fortunately, we were working in a big space and I happened to have a cassette of relaxation music with me. So I got them to lie down on the floor, close their eyes, listen to the music and I talked them down into a state of relaxation. I talked them down, down, down….

Once I’d got them there, I then took them through a visualisation. Of course, visualisation is storytelling. It was remarkably successful. After that, it became a prominent part of the program.

With some classes, some students just couldn’t settle. It was essential for me to have a support worker to help settle them down. It’s quite a lot to ask of kids – lie down, close your eyes – nothing’s going to happen to you.

Helen: Especially if they’ve never done anything like that!

Graham: When we bought some of those children back out of that relaxation, some were genuinely reluctant to come out of it. Some of them were more relaxed than they’d ever been, because they live such tense, screwed-up lives, with so much happening, that the five to fifteen minutes of relaxation was such a release for them.

To go into visualisation and take them through the story… and later through the experience – deep within themselves – and to let them know they could recapture that experience for themselves. Wow!

That’s another area of storytelling visualisation, which I use. But I need a support worker to help me do that with the very difficult classes.

Helen: Is this a part of a whole school programme?

Graham: I didn’t quite answer this question before. I always prefer a whole school program, rather than working with an individual class. I have occasionally gone in and worked in individual classes with a particular problem, but bullying is a whole school problem. Actually, it has a lot to do with the teachers and their approaches.

What I do is to help the teachers understand that there is a different approach they can take – in the way the children are disciplined, for instance. Disciplining reinforces bad behaviour. I try to introduce ways whereby any discipline that we use, reinforces good behaviour. It works extremely well.

Helen: What age groups were these children?

Graham: Concerning age groups; we started with what in the UK is called year six, which is, roughly, ten to eleven years. Afterwards, we worked throughout the school and finally, specifically with eight year-olds (Junior schools). All these classes were extremely successful.

In talking to the teachers about developing the program, we realised there was great value in working with the youngest children in the school, so we began work with those of five years and upwards. Now the programs have changed a lot.

Obviously, we didn’t have a full two-day program; the program was split up into four sections. They got to know us at a much lot slower rate, so we repeated more stuff and the program changed. That was very interesting – especially within that age bracket.

The potential for language development and a whole range of curricular activity, using this same approach emerged, when we worked with the infants.

Then we were asked to go into secondary schools, with children aged eleven plus, and we worked with year seven, which is the first year of secondary school. Following this, we worked right through all the classes in one ‘year’ group, which, in the case of one school, were eight or nine classes.

The atmosphere in secondary schools is quite different from primary as, having worked in them, I am sure you are aware. The attitude of the teachers is also quite different. The particular teacher we worked with was the class tutor – who saw the students for a short period everyday and who was mainly responsible for that class.

Talking about this sort of approach and its value, I feel that there is an awful lot of work to be done with secondary school teachers.

Some were wonderful, came straight in and were sitting there in the circle, involved with us all the time, sensitive to when they should pull back, or join in. But other teachers, even after two days, couldn’t see the point. I think it s true to say that they just hadn’t allowed themselves into it.

Helen: You felt they’d been resistant from the start?

Graham: Oh yes! A number of different teachers showed quite considerable resistance and cynicism.

Helen: It’s a great shame, isn’t it? I had that experience in a pilot programme I was in – it also was very successful – and later they were so impressed by the results we achieved.

Graham: I’m not without understanding of that – because not only is it my responsibility to set up the work, but also to deliver it. Although I did try and have some discussion with the people setting up, I feel – and I’ve now said – I won’t do any future work of this sort, without first having sessions with the teachers.

The teachers have to know where we are going, exactly what is expected of them, and exactly what the outcome and achievements will be. They need some understanding and acceptance of that, because it’s quite a positive program.

But it is only going to work if the teachers take this up after I’ve finished and moved on. Although the impact of two days has been shown to be quite remarkable that impact will fade over time. Unless it continues to be sustained – by the teachers – then it won’t really have the permanent impact that we hope for.

With that particular school I mentioned, it was funded in a number of different ways – partly by parents groups. In the UK, we are not allowed to charge children for the work of visiting artists, for instance, so we would not be allowed to charge the children for that performance.

Helen: That’s a major difference between UK and Australia.

Graham: It has to be funded out of the school or parents’ funding, or arts budgets or educational arts budgets. I’m getting quite good at reeling in funding from arts budgets for this program.

Helen: So with a very costly program like this, obviously there has to be a very big commitment from the fund holders in the school to make this work.

Graham: I’m quite thrilled that the second school we’ve just talked about – where the teachers were so resistant – they are now working very enthusiastically to raise money, because they want me to do this project every year for at least the next three years.

Helen: So now there’ll be continuity?

Graham: Yes, it’s important to keep the continuity within the school, so the whole attitude and the process, moves on through. Now I find myself in a bit of a dilemma, because there’s only a certain amount of this work I can do – it is so wearing – and there’s other areas of educational storytelling that I want to move on to.

Helen: Have you thought of training people to follow on?

Graham: I’ve already done this once. She is an actress and had already been doing conflict resolution work in London. I trained her into the storytelling elements of the work, and some of the other processes that I use. She worked alongside me, and in other classes, on the `Talking SENSS’ project. Together we’ve published a book called `Improving Children’s Relationships’.

Helen: How can one get hold of this book?

Graham: It’s published by a London Company called Headstart and at the moment the book’s only available through them.

Helen: Do you know if it will come out to Australia?

Graham: It probably wouldn’t come out to Australia, unless there is someone interested in publishing it. It’s a book for teachers and it’s packed full of all the ideas I use.

Helen: How much does it cost?

Graham: In the UK? About ten British Pounds.

Helen: Would I be able to get from you the publisher’s address?

Graham: Yes, all the information is on my web site, but I’ll make sure to send all the relevant information to you.

Helen: I’m sure the application of that is needed as much here in Australia as it is in Britain.

Graham: The only difference in Britain is that you have a much greater concentration of kids in schools. Of course the bullying problem exists in both countries. If you told me it doesn’t, I wouldn’t believe you.

Helen: Do you actually get children to make up a storyboard, as part of their language development?

Graham: I use story boards – but I prefer to use story maps, which don’t have to be as visual as the story board and therefore the feeling of flow and the potential to address it more, occurs. So I use story maps when I am teaching storytelling and I use that as a process of developing the visual aspects of story.

What I do with children is oral story making in groups and that’s been remarkably successful. I used it a lot in Murrumba, in Queensland, and I think the teachers were quite amazed with the results. Again, it just opens up a release – to speak the story. Sitting with a group of other people released the creative abilities. Well that’s how adults work and communicate, so why should we think children work best on their own, in front of a piece of paper?

Helen: In our workshops we (Berice and I), use a process called one-on-one-on-one and we work with groups of four.

Graham: Yes, I did that up in a Newcastle workshop and it’s a beautifully convincing exercise, because people say “I’m not a storyteller,” and you do that game with them. Well, there they are – fully-fledged storytellers!

Helen: Yes, and having told the story three times, they’ve only got to tell it a couple more times, when it’s in their short-term memory, to get to their long term memory.

Graham: Remembering stories – that’s one of the important things about getting people involved in storytelling.

Helen: I think it s a very important thing to do with children. Also story mapping or story boarding is another way you can teach them story structure, and that’s teaching them a little bit about the structure of language.

Graham: Yes – when I do story mapping, it also becomes a structure, whereby I can add in and discuss all sorts of other elements, such as emotions. So I get them to write that particular point in that story, and then ask what part did emotions play in it?

Now, again, just from a learning and a teaching point of view, it’s a great strategy to discuss their feelings vocabulary – emotional vocabulary. In fact, once they’ve completed the story map, whatever elements you then want to focus on, you can use the story map to bring it in.

I use lots of different approaches in my work, because it suits the visual approach to fire the imagination. I’ve done lots of work on language, so, often when the work is going well and the children are really excited and ask, “Can we write it down?” I say “No.”

They feel secure in the written form, but they don’t have faith in their oral skills, so they are desperate to write it down. But I say keep it in the oral mode, the creative mode. Once it’s written down, it becomes set and fixed and they are used to drafting and redrafting in the written form. It’s not so fast – so immediate – as working in the oral form. It just works so well within the group.

You’ve got this child who’s not a great writer and therefore hasn’t been involved in much other development, but works in the group – even if their contribution has been tiny – even if he’s a reluctant speaker – one of the very quiet, timorous people, he still has been part of the group that’s done this thing.

Helen: Exactly, and it builds their self-esteem and confidence, doesn’t it?

Graham: I want to talk about self-esteem in a minute, so I’ll bring you back to that. Another thing that happens with this quiet reluctant speaker – again and again – I have teachers say to me “Well Graham – litle Sally – I’ve never heard her speak so much.”

Helen: I’ve actually had similar experiences.

Graham: Yes, I think it is a universal response with the storytelling approach.

Teachers cannot believe how children can be inspired to speak so much, because stories are so alive, vital and fresh, children are engaged so powerfully, that they can’t then resist, and their language becomes opened up.

Another reason why the language is opened up is because they suddenly feel that what are saying is valued. I think this is again a `key’ thing with storytelling, that people know what they have to say is valued.

I always set up structures (firstly) to make sure that they are speaking in secure circumstances and (secondly) I make sure that what they have to say is valued – they are not having to fight against a whole babble of stuff.

Helen: That’s very important.

Graham: Unfortunately not everyone has thought of doing this, and that’s why the whole approach is good. These approaches I’m using have come from several different sources.

Years ago, I used to sing folk songs and run folk clubs and perform in that sort of thing. I’m very much entrenched in the whole business of folk culture and especially oral folk culture, so I know the power that is there, and I know the way the things are retained. That’s one area.

Then twenty years as a drama teacher developed a whole range of other skills, creative approaches and oral activities. I have a great appreciation of the creative capacity of all people – not just children.

Helen: That’s true – all people have their own personal creative drive.

Graham: But many people are not able to express it, or get to it. Don’t even bother to explore it.

Helen: No, sadly, that’s true.

Graham: To come back to self-esteem – when it comes to creative work, many people don’t trust their own capacities. With children and anti- bullying work, much bullying stems from low esteem. That’s the low esteem both of the bully and the victim and sometimes, it could be the same. Some are the bully and the victim at the same time.

Much of my `Talking SENSS’, has been about raising the self-esteem of children. Working orally is one of the ways to do that. I mentioned earlier about the capacity of children to speak a whole story, where previously they’ve failed in writing a story. Well, the oral method works and it’s great for that kid to be involved with a group of other kids who are able to share their stories.

One thing I never do is to oblige children to stand up in front of anything but a small group to tell their story. Occasionally, if I’ve got the time and it develops, I may allow some children to work with a bigger group. Children’s oracy is a very delicate flower and it’s very easily damaged.

That’s why so many people today are so unwilling to speak in public. They say “Oh no, no, no! I can’t possibly tell a story. Sitting here chatting is wonderful but, no, no! I can’t possibly do that!” It’s sad, because most people’s understanding of the values of what they have to say is so reduced – they don’t think they can do it.

Helen: Well – we’re almost at Circular Quay. I think we’ve got a very good interview. What I hope we can do is tickle the imagination of a lot of people. You might get asked back to do these things here.

Graham: Well, I will emphasise that I usually only do it as a whole school or a whole year project and that I need a support worker to work alongside me, also I would want to work with the staff. Yes, I would love to come and work in Australia, and, especially, link in with some Australian organisations that are already doing this sort of work.

Helen: I think sharing your knowledge here would be really wonderful.

Graham: It’s just one of the ways in which I use storytelling because I think storytelling is such a powerful tool.

Helen: Storytelling can be used right across the board in life, a wonderful instrument to promote change – people are unaware of this. When they hear the word storytelling the majority only see a little grey-haired lady telling bedtime stories.

Graham: Or they think that storytelling is only for children. You must know as well as I do, when you are telling stories to children in libraries – for example – people gather around.

I was telling in Cessnock Library recently. Afterwards, the librarians were so impressed. As the adults were coming out, they were saying how much they enjoyed listening to all the stories, and what a nice time they’d had. Well, I’ve got a pretty strong voice and in some libraries it reaches all over, so they couldn’t help hearing me.

Helen: Well, we’re here at Circular Quay. Many thanks Graham Langley for a great interview. Look forward to seeing you in Sydney again.

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