“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” (Wittgenstein)
We have always told stories. People from all cultures, all around the world, tell and listen to stories. They are passed down from one generation to another through legends, sometimes spoken, sometimes sung, sometimes acted out through plays or dance. We have a natural compulsion to tell stories; our own, our family’s, our friends’. I remember the stories told over the years around campfires at camps, at sleepovers, in the pub, at dinner parties. We share our experiences and we are avidly curious about those of others. We have learned from the stories we listened to. They spark our imagination, they bridge cultures, help us to understand concepts we may not have direct access to, they support us in making sense of the past to inform our actions in the future. They help us work out who we are, form our opinions, make connections and build relationships.
For a while stories were always transmitted orally, but then came the printing press, and the written word started to be more accessible to more people. We learnt to read and write, and stories started to be written down. We could access stories even when there was nobody there physically to tell us. Our world grew. We weren’t limited to the stories that our immediate family and friends or travellers could tell us. We weren’t limited to single stories but had access to stories about things from multiple perspectives.
I remember Saturday mornings as a child. My sisters and I would all creep into Mum and Dad’s bedroom and snuggle into bed with them for Dad’s stories. They were stories of fairies and goblins, of wooden horses, of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, good overcoming evil, of derring-do. I later read Greek and Roman myths and realised where Dad got his stories from and for a while the magic was spoilt. But then I realised he was just doing what so many more had done before. He told the stories, embellished and adapted for three wee girls who just wanted to hear about magical things.
“Those who tell the stories rule the world.” Hopi American Indian proverb
The books and stories we have access to influence the way that we think, the perceptions we have of the world, how we can limit our own understanding and what we, in turn, include in our own stories. Listen to Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie talk about The Danger of a Single Story. As well as having multiple stories, she also talks of the importance of having stories in which we recognise ourselves and our culture, of us being able to be characters in our own stories.
Being able to tell our own stories gives us the power and to raise our aspirations and open our minds to possibilities. But, “stories are defined by the principle of nkali (an Igbo noun that loosely translates as ‘to be greater than another’) How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.”
There is a great emphasis put on literacy in schools. It is the measurement by which all children and teachers and schools are judged. Over the last hundred years or so, we have been taught that if we can’t read and write, we can’t get on in the world. Those who are illiterate, have no future. No power.
But let’s consider how we learn again. We learn our language from the day we are born by listening to those around us. We develop vocabulary, we learn how to pronounce words by listening and speaking. Through repetition, through getting it wrong, being corrected and trying again. We learn language through a context that is meaningful to us. I always remember my son, aged 6, coming home and telling me that that he had to collect the toucans from the crisp packets to get sports gear for school. He searched the crisp packets in the supermarket for toucans and was disappointed when there were none. Of course, the teacher meant tokens, but his wee brain knew what a toucan was because it appeared in one of his story books and so in making the connection between the sound he heard and a thing he knew about, he came up with toucans. I won’t even start with his story about cheeses curing diseases in the cinema….
The point is that we make sense of what we hear by relating it to a context that is familiar to us. If we don’t have exposure to a wide range of contexts, we are limited to narrow interpretations that don’t make sense to us. So, we need to ensure that all our children have access to lots of stories. I think what has happened over the last hundred years or so, and this is just a hunch, no research here (please let me know if there is some), the oral storytelling tradition has diminished. We have focussed on reading and writing, not listening or speaking, and that has deprived a significant number of people from the opportunity to hear stories and tell their stories in a meaningful way. Storybooks in schools tell ‘single stories’ that kids can’t relate to. Those kids that aren’t ready to read alone or write, at the age specified by the powers that be, are targeted and more time is spent focussing on reading and writing than developing oral language. They don’t necessarily have access to spoken stories at home either. This is a situation that may be (I hesitate to generalise) compounded if they come from lower socio-economic backgrounds where family members either don’t have the time to read to their children, or in families that are isolated from a community that support them, or they themselves don’t have the ability.
If we don’t have a wide vocabulary, we won’t be able to make sense of new words or express ourselves effectively. As a teenager learning French, my teacher once told me that what was holding me back from progressing in French, wasn’t my ability in language learning, but by my lack of a broad vocabulary in English. Now, I had a pretty good vocabulary, I read avidly, but the problem wasn’t my general vocabulary, it was my specialist vocabulary. I didn’t read or listen to the news or documentaries. I read novels and watched Coronation Street and Z-Cars and Dixon of Dock Green (sorry, showing my age now!) I needed to widen my range of input to improve my output.
However, in the rush to give kids access to wide range of contexts, are we in danger of not recognising that to start off with they have to develop language in a context that is culturally and socially familiar? And do we also need to give them a voice so they can tell their own stories? And do they need to tell those stories in their own way?
I hark back to the last hundred years in schools. What opportunities did you have to tell stories? What medium did you have to tell those stories? When I was at school and for most of the years I was teaching, despite there being other ways to tell stories, writing has been king. That wasn’t too much of a problem for me. I was a good writer – well physically at least. My handwriting was neat and tidy, I liked writing in exercise books and I was quite fast too. I wasn’t particularly creative, I don’t think, but I never had too much trouble churning out what was required to get by. Fast forward to my sons. Both full of ideas, they had broad vocabularies and their stories were creative. But they both struggled with writing. As soon as those stories had to be put on paper, they were condensed into as few words as possible and they didn’t achieve success as measured by the system.
I wonder if they had had the opportunity to tell their stories in other ways, if that would have helped?
“…new technologies give creative people new ideas. Art is affected by the technology of art, because artists love to experiment, and every new development is a new tool.”
I am a firm believer that the technology we have available to us today provides opportunities for all our children to have a voice, to tell their stories. Learners can record their own voice, create a video or an animation, they can write by hand, they can type. They can speak to the computer and it will type for them, they can tell their story through song or dance. They can use a variety of media to enrich their stories. If we let them.
But equally, we can use digital technologies to provide access to the stories in the first place. When we provide a stimulus for kids to tell their stories we can offer videos, podcasts, picture books, cartoon strips, songs, sound files of different contexts, artwork – the options are varied and limited only by our imagination.
There are blogposts that list the ‘top ten digital storytelling tools’ and there are any number of them out there. This one, this one, this one, this one, and this one (which is probably the most up to date one) to post just the top links on a google search.
There are a few that I have tried and found that students enjoyed using them too, not just because they were fun but because they gave them more options for expression.
- Storybird – choose a theme, or an artist and be inspired by the artwork or read a story and respond, or co-create a story with a friend or even a complete stranger! Example here
- Book Creator – tell your story using text, sound, images and video Example here
- Thinglink – interactive images, plot your own story linking sound, video, images and text. Example here
- Puppetpals – chrome and iPad app, animate stories, choose your characters, upload sound or use the inbuilt voices
- WeVideo – create videos from video clips, images and annotate with text and sound
- Animoto – create animations, upload your own sound, add text
- Piktochart – visual infographic type format. Upload images, text, sound and video to tell your story.
- Google Cardboard – VR and AR – explore different worlds, connect stories, unleash the imagination
- My Maps – create maps that tell a story, link images, history, video, sound files and text. Examples of how My Maps can be used can be found here.
- Adobe Spark Video – easy to create videos
- Scratch – code a story – see a very simple one here
Each of these needs researching before you try them out with a class and they all meet different needs. Allow time for exploration, but the starting point is always going to be your learning intention. How can they express their ideas in a way that works for them and also achieves the learning outcomes you have set or co-constructed with them?
And…. telling stories through a multimedia approach provides opportunities for learners to solve problems, be creative, innovative, and develop soft and hard skills that are sought after in the workplace. This post suggests that there is a huge shift in the way that traditional text based businesses like advertising are now developing stories.