Case Study 5: The Story Lady

Story Lady

Marianna worked in Larwood, an inner city primary school in the West Midlands, on a project basis. Her theatre company had tendered for a contract about working with local narratives, part of a series of linked activities designed to build connections with the parent community and to disrupt deficit discourses about the neighbourhood. Marianna’s company specialises in scripts and performances that are developed from interviews with people whose stories are often not heard and valued.

The project at Larwood was designed for one Year 5 class to work with four volunteer members of the non-teaching staff. The class was divided into four groups of seven or eight children; each group interviewed one staff member and then worked with Marianna to develop the interview into a narrative which was then performed to the class, parents and the staff member and their invited guests. Larwood had deliberately sought to increase the number of local people it employed, so there were many people to choose from. The school cook, a higher level teaching assistant, a teaching assistant and a clerical assistant became the subjects of the project, which was designed to run over a two-month period:

  1. Introductory session in which Story Lady was introduced and the project outlined
  2. Introductory session for volunteer staff
  3. Teaching about interviews (whole class)
  4. Four groups of children interview one adult each
  5. Groups of children work with Marianna to turn the interview into stories
  6. One day workshop to develop the story into a performance piece which is then shown to classmates, the subject of the story and their invited guests, parents and other school staff. In total there were four days of workshops and four performances.
  7. Texts printed and turned into ‘Larwood Readers’.

The project began when the children arrived at school to find leaves and foot prints scattered along the central corridor. Marianna’s arrival as Story Lady was heralded by singing outside the classroom door.  When the door was opened, they saw Story Lady, dressed in bright green and holding a bulging bag. She was larger than life and eccentrically dressed. The children were then invited to follow her and her trail of green footsteps and leaves to the library where they sat in a circle and. Story Lady read them the story of Gelert, a brave dog who fights off a marauding wolf attempting to steal his master’s baby. Despite risks to his own life, Gelert prevails and keeps the baby safe. Tragically, when the master returns, he leaps to the wrong conclusion and kills the faithful hound. He then realises his mistake and his debt to his courageous dog.

The talk that followed focused on re-imagining the legend and discussing the courage of ordinary people and animals. The next stage was to prepare the children to interview staff about their own stories of courage. Marianna worked through how to deal respectfully and sensitively with information that could be distressing or hurtful if presented in the wrong way. The discussion about truth, representation, ethics and emotions was not dissimilar in content to those held by researchers although it was couched in terms that children understood and was based in children’s experiences of playground and neighbourhood gossip. Children were asked continually to consider how they would feel if this was their story that was being recounted by someone else.

Each performance was shared by Story Lady and the group of children who had conducted the particular interview and written and edited the story. Children acted out some parts of the story – for example, Michael’s birth (see below) consisted of two children acting as mother and father, a doctor, nurse and a doll-baby. These scenes were cooperatively developed and rehearsed during the day of the afternoon performance. During these performances various aspects of stage-craft were learnt – how to project the voice, how to stand and move so that the audience gets the best view, how to represent an event simply and economically in a few words and gestures, how to present emotions in ways that ring true.

The stories that were produced all focused on parents and children – a child with a heart defect who ultimately died as a very young adult, a child with learning difficulties, a child who went to university in another city, and the reunion of one child with an illegitimate sibling. One of these stories is reproduced in full below.

Once upon a time .......twenty eight years ago to a couple named Shirley and Peter a son was born, who they named Michael.  Followed two years and three months later, by a beautiful daughter called Kylie. Both had fair hair and blue eyes. Neither of them was very tall. They settled down happily to a family life living in a semi-detached house in a suburb of Birmingham. It had a garden at the front and a garden at the back.  They lived in a friendly area - their next door neighbour had become a very good friend. It was a good environment to bring up children as it was clean and felt safe.

Shirley felt happy and content. She had a family who she says were ‘funny friendly and kind’.  Shirley chose not to go to work while her children were growing up and instead she stayed at home to look after them.  Her husband, Gary, went to work every day.

It was hard sometimes. (You know how it is running a family)

Shirley often went to the playground or a playgroup with the children. Sometimes they visited relatives.  Her mother came to see them every Tuesday and Thursday which was a huge help to Shirley- it meant she could get on with her chores.

Everything was going smoothly and calmly before Michael reached the age of two and a half… And this is where our story really begins…….

When Michael was about two and half years old Shirley and Peter both started to notice things. Something was going wrong with Michael. Something wasn’t quite right with how he was developing. They felt that Michael was ‘different’. He had been quite slow to start walking and had only really begun to do it at the age of sixteen months.  And he still wasn’t saying any words at all. They were getting a bit worried. Prior to this, Michael had often suffered from ear infections. These made him very poorly and he would sometimes wake up screaming in the night. Had these infections been anything to do with what was to follow?

They were concerned about Michael so they took him to see the doctor. They wanted someone to reassure them. It was spring time, and the doctor saw Michael and tested his ears.  Then he told Shirley to take him to what they called a ‘development centre’ for tests. They had to go every day for two weeks. They did lots of different tests on him - to find out what was wrong. After that, a Psychologist visited them at home and told Shirley and Peter that Michael was two years behind his learning and that’s why he wasn’t even trying to talk or walk. They were very upset, nobody could tell them why or how it happened. And it was all so unknown. The doctor suggested that Michael should go to a ‘Special School’ where children go if they have different needs to other children their age.

Shirley wasn’t sure he needed to do that.

They looked round the school and it was a lovely place, so they decided to send Michael there after all. Shirley worried at first he would not fit in - because you couldn’t tell just by looking at him, that anything was wrong. But he settled down at the school. He went everyday in a taxi. And there were no problems, apart from his learning.

But sometimes Michael used to come home and get into tempers. Sometimes he got so angry that he would throw his shoes at Shirley. Sometimes he hit her and made her cry.  Shirley’s husband Peter was at work, so she was on her own with the children and it was hard. Sometimes when they were at the supermarket Michael would lose his temper.

Everyone would look and stare. (you know how people do)

Shirley could tell they were thinking ‘What a naughty child’ or ‘Keep your child under control’. She got upset and - though she didn’t mean to - she sometimes took it out on her husband Peter when he came home from work.

Over the years Michael had even more tests and when he was fifteen he was diagnosed with a type of Autism.

Now Michael is twenty eight and grown up and his mum Shirley says   ‘‘he has a lovely nature and a good sense of humour.’’ This has helped ease Shirley and Peter’s fears and worries.  They have learned that there is light at the end of every tunnel and they believe things have happened for a reason.

Michael continues to live at home with his family. He has a number of interests, including going to watch Aston Villa with his Dad and seeing shows with Shirley.  The whole family share days out and celebrations. They often laugh together and have many stories.

Shirley feels that she is more positive now.  A positive has come out of a negative.  She has learned patience and acceptance from this experience. Shirley proudly says, “I’m glad I’ve had him”.

The Larwood story-making project developed both strands of UNESCO’s two pronged approach, encouraging ‘discovery’ about people in the immediate community through engagement in a collaborative creative project. A number of important literacy processes were explicitly covered: devising interview questions, conducting an interview, transcribing key pieces of text, composing and editing a narrative that was not only to be performed but also had to stand alone as a printed text after the event. Writing the stories required attention to the narratives at the level of syntax, rhythm, word selection, plot development, setting, character development and dialogue. Children also had to work together in small groups for protracted periods of time, far longer than the usual lesson length. They also had to meet a timeline and produce a real text for a real audience, many of whom were not dispassionate observers but were intimately involved in the events being narrated.

The notion of ‘texts of our lives’ is a very helpful description of this kind of literacy practice. Bob Fecho (2011) in his explication of the dialogical writing classroom, begins from the claim that in school many students are given assignments and exercises which have no connection with their own lives. They do these dutifully, reluctantly or not at all, and the learning that results is valuable only in terms of test results. Fecho argues for classrooms which not only allow students to gain the skills and scores which count but which also ‘create opportunities for students to use writing to explore who they are becoming and how they relate to the larger culture around them’ through the provision of ‘systematic and intentional means for reflection and action’ which offer ‘a means for making sense of their lives’ (pp4-5). Such a classroom sees the lives of students and their families and communities as valued, key classroom multimodal texts from which to build and extend learning. This is not the same as an experiential curriculum but is rather, as Fecho puts it, an extended ongoing conversation which brings together the intersections of the personal and academic in ways that help children and young people – and their teachers - build understandings of themselves and their worlds (pp. 7-9).

This was what was on offer to children in the story-making project. They were confronted with the responsibilities of representation by being provided with an opportunity where they could allow people to represent themselves, rather than simply being spoken about. However, these were not any people, but people about who were like them, and who they saw everyday in particular kinds of roles. They were presented as people with lives, and lives in which they acted courageously. Shirley’s story is not simply one in which a parent lives with and through a child who is ‘different’. It is also about the interactions that Shirley had with the medical and school system. The narrative hints at her persistence in pursuing a diagnosis but shies away from a romantic portrayal of heroic struggle. We also see the ways in which these kinds of tensions are played out in families, something with which children are very familiar.