Day two of the Derby gifted and talented storytelling workshop begins with a fast round of BillyBong, a delightfully silly game with lots of shouting and jumping up and down. It is designed to wake everyone up, get rid of inhibitions and make people listen carefully to what others say. A second game involves miming. We start with realistic things such as skipping and painting, moving on to eating a frog or painting an alien. I look forward to the children’s stories; they are obviously an imaginative bunch.

One of the workshop leaders, Roisin Murray, is an accomplished storyteller and holds her audience spellbound as she starts, ‘Long ago in a country which was sandy and dry, in a village where lights twinkled behind the shutters, there was an old woman who looked as though she had been alive forever.’ Her tales are full of humorous details and encourage participation, acting as a model for some of the stories the children will produce by the end of the day.

Meeting other G&T children
The workshop, held at the city’s QUAD arts centre over the summer break, had been organised by Christine Askew, the G&T strand coordinator for Derby. She had contacted AGT coordinators in primary schools who then talked with staff, parents and pupils to match children to various enrichment courses on offer. This particular workshop is attended by seven girls and five boys from Years 5 and 6. It’s quite intense: five hours a day for three days. Children have an opportunity to explore themes in depth and produce an extended piece of work. Some of the children are talented at art, others excel at writing. Zac, however, is really interested in history and geography. How did he end up in story telling? ‘I was given a choice,’ he said. ‘It was either this or archaeology and I did that last year.’ Workshops like this provide opportunities for children to develop talents other than those already identified; to step outside their comfort zone, and to meet and talk with children of similar abilities – something which can be missing from everyday life at school.

The time has come to commit their stories to paper. Roisin reminds the children that many traditional stories have a similar structure, perhaps with a repeated motif as in the Three Little Pigs: the first time it is new, the second time we recognise it and the third time we anticipate what will happen.

A quest follows this structure:

  • There once was a…
  • Character: what are they like/what do they look like?
  • When and where did they live?
  • Call to action – a loss, a problem.
  • Start of journey where they may meet a helper.
  • Block or obstacle.
  • Finding the solution.
  • Journey home.
  • Celebration/wedding/coronation.

The children are asked to produce a clear outline of a complete story – including how it ends. Next, the children make a story stick. This was an aide mémoire in pre-literate societies but also provides a different way of working with narrative. Each child is given a piece of cherry wood which can be held comfortably in the hand but is solid enough to bear the weight of beads, wire, buttons and feathers which represent the different elements of the tale. The boys seem to take to this quite well; Joe’s story stick to illustrate a football story is a work of art, complete with goalposts. Some of the girls who are much more comfortable with the familiar medium of writing find this hard. Two girls have chosen to create ballet stories and their sticks are really pretty; predictably pink with ribbons, pompoms and feathers.

Angela Terris, the other workshop leader, shows samples of her illustration work from the Tickle Misses series of books. She explains that the children will be making ‘dummy books’ similar to those used by publishers: these have some text in place so she can see which pages need illustrating and how big the pictures need to be. At this point, some of the good writers panic because they ‘can’t draw’, so we have a quick round of the ‘five-second drawing game’. We sketch some 20 items: a teapot, a robot, a something beginning with ‘r’, a shoe, something tiny. This helps break down barriers as pupils realise that everyone can convey an image in some form or another. Angela talks about using text effects and colour to convey atmosphere and emotions. She gives each pupil a storyboard and an ‘accordion’ book, apparently a Chinese invention, which is ideally suited to our purpose: if the story is short they can tear off the excess pages but if they are creating a longer piece of work, they can use the reverse sides as well.

Multi-facet appeal
Everyone has liked different parts of the project best. Callum creates a story about three brothers who set out to cheat death. He is in the G&T group for art and has enjoyed making and illustrating the book. Other participants enjoy using their imagination, crafting the story, and developing their ideas. Importantly, the children have had time to develop their ideas in a mutually supportive environment with a shared feeling of ‘we are all in it together’.

Sal McKeown is an educational consultant and freelance writer