The principles and suggestions outlined in the blog post are also part of a CPD session that can be viewed here

Stories are powerful things.  They take you into new worlds, full of new sights and sounds and smells and feelings.  In these new worlds, things may be done quite differently from the way they are done at home or at school.  People in story worlds may value and believe in different things from you.  But you can live in that different world as long as the story lasts.  You learn a lot, and enjoy yourself too (Prabhu Guptara The Slaying of the Dragon).

An integral part of life is the use of story and the skill of storytelling. Dyson has argued that storytelling “is an essential part of what it means to be human.” All of our lives are made sense of through the telling of a narrative. If I consider my life, it is punctuated by a narrative telling of events- this could be the immediate in the sense of ‘what did you do last night?’ or the historical in my use of childhood stories. Stories and the sharing of stories also defines the nature of the relationships that I have. It is rare that I see my brother very often, but when I do we often slip into the retelling of stories from our childhood- I think our families are fed up of hearing about the time we nearly set the house on fire, or the time I got in trouble for ducking when he threw a mug at me which smashed a window. Why do we default to these stories? These are the stories that frame our relationship and establish a shared history. If we stop and think about all of our tellings of story we will do it many times during a day. The stories we tell say something about who we are and the values that we hold.

As I reflect over my life there are various stories that have articulated some of my most deeply held beliefs, or they have actually helped formulated my worldview. Phillip Pullman suggests that:

Stories are vital… There is more wisdom in a story than in volumes of philosophy, and there is a hunger for stories in all of us. Children know they need them, and go for them with a passion, but all of us adults need them too. All of us, that is, except those limp and jaded people who think they are too grown up to need them.

This is not to say that all stories serve this purpose, some stories are just for enjoyment; others touch us not in the slightest. There are also different levels at which story can be understood and enjoyed. There are many reasons why the use of story is important. It

is central to learning… It helps children to understand themselves and their world, giving shape and meaning to their experiences, organising their ideas, and structuring their thinking and, ultimately, their writing. Different cultures and communities make different use of stories, but storytelling and thinking through story remain universal human competences (Storytelling aspects of narrative, 2001).

Engaging with story in all its forms is potentially transformative. In genuine encounter with story people can develop understandings not previously considered as they are open to learn from what they experience: “When our hearts and minds are properly focussed, our dialogues with one another, however impassioned they may be, become the means by which we lovingly help each other appreciate aspects of God’s work we might otherwise overlook or fail to understand” (Boyd, 2000: 20). A person cannot help be changed by engagement with story. The benefits of engagement with narrative are not just a greater understanding of others, and their literature, but also a greater understanding of what it means for them.

Engagement with story thus becomes a “dialogic transaction” whereby people may begin to change some of their understandings and behaviours. The “dialogic transaction” of engagement with story enables a a greater development of one’s own belief and practice can be more deeply understood.

In reading stories in this way the intention of the author is secondary to the experience of the reader; Philip Pullman has suggested:

As a passionate believer in the democracy of reading, I don’t think it’s the task of the author of a book to tell the reader what it means. The meaning of a story emerges in the meeting between the words on the page and the thoughts in the reader’s mind. So when people ask me what I meant by this story, or what was the message I was trying to convey in that one, I have to explain that I’m not going to explain. Anyway, I’m not in the message business; I’m in the “Once upon a time” business.[1]

Essentially this could be seen to be a prism- where the reader/listener is the prism with all of their life experiences which make sense of the story they are hearing. Orson Scott Card (a science fiction writer) has called this an “epick” approach to criticism where a person or group finds relevance for themselves in a particular story.[2] This approach involves author and reader engagement with the text. Card continues

Because make no mistake — storytelling is what shapes our moral responses to the world around us. Of course, that includes all kinds of storytelling — which ranges from gossip to science, history and scripture.

Fictional storytelling is particularly powerful, however, because the author invites the audience to live inside the world of the story and add the events of the story to their own memories as if they had lived them.

Of course, audience members filter and edit the stories they receive. Things that to the author or other readers might be unnoticed will make a much deeper impression on a particular reader, because of his own concerns or experiences.

Readers bring their own attitudes to the stories they are given; what seems obvious and important to one might seem trivial or nonexistent to another.[3]

Storytelling is an activity that is used abundantly within the primary classroom but perhaps disappears from view in the Secondary classroom. Storytelling in Religious Education/Studies can be effective if it is utilised correctly and enthusiastically by the teacher. It goes beyond expecting pupils to be able to recall what they know about religious stories, but it encourages creativity, deep level thinking and high order questions through engagement and imagination. Baumfield suggests “storytelling is an oral activity that enables pupils at all levels of ability in reading to participate. It promotes listening skills and builds confidence in speaking as well as developing thinking skills” (2002, p. 86). This highlights the potential story telling has to be an inclusive tool to challenge all students and help them make progress.

To an extent, stories lie at the heart of religion. The stories that are accepted by religions often are used to frame morality, teachings and also the boundaries of religion. While some stories are shared by different religions, there may be nuanced differences, but also the who library of stories establishes the framework within which the stories lie.

Trevor Cooling suggests that stories are “big ideas sometimes referred to as a meta-narrative, which express our whole understanding of the whole world and help people to make sense of their lives” (2002, p. 45), while could be seen to suggest their use for personal development, they also form the meta-narrative of the religions. Consider, for example, the story of the prodigal son which essentially frames the Christian worldview within a parable.

Stories can also be used to explore difficult issues; Dyson (2009) suggests that stories provide a safe place to discuss topics that are upsetting or controversial, thoughts and feelings are explored in the context of characters rather than in a personal way.

Robin Mello highlights the deepening of learning that can take place through the use of story. She her research by suggesting that stories provide “the link that connect[s] the learner with both interpersonal and intrapersonal realms. Therefore, narratives are found to be seminally important to the learning and development of children.” (2001). Stories also have many levels and depths that need to be analysed and studied for academic understanding in addition to exposing the audience to the culture of the story, its language and heritage. Miller Mair echoes this in suggesting that “All our stories are expressions of ourselves even when they purport to be accounts of aspects of the world. We are deeply implicated in the very grounds of our story telling” (Mair, 1989, p. 257). Religions can therefore be experienced through their stories

John Hammond suggests that the use of storytelling in Religious Education can link closely to personal enquiry: “like ritual, the disciplined use of silence, the encounter with symbol, the telling and hearing of narrative are within and outside of religion and can act as bridges between the world of religion and the experience of the student” (2002, p. 197). The use of stories within Religious Education can break down the illusory barriers of ‘them and us’ and allow students to be able to build bridges with religions outside of their own. This is enabled because storytelling allows pupils to personally connect with an unfamiliar concept on a direct level utilising a familiar framework.

Through stories and storytelling, children were exposed to long-standing archetypal models that engaged their imaginations. Storytelling stimulated sympathetic responses as well and caused students to think more deeply about their social world (Mello, 2001).

Storytelling thus has huge value as an inclusive tool throughout the Key Stages as pupils are able to engage with the themes.

Storytelling is, however, a skill that requires practice and preparation. In using a story teachers should be aware of what they are trying to achieve, and how their telling can help pupils make progress. The story of the Good Samaritan is an incredibly evocative story but can come across as bland and uninspiring. It could be told in this way:

  • A Jewish man is walking from Jerusalem to Jericho
  • He is robbed, beaten and left for dead
  • A priest comes along, crosses the road and carries on his way
  • A Levite comes along, and does the same
  • A Samaritan comes along, he stops and helps the man and takes him to an inn and pays for his care.

Even with enthusiasm this has little to engage the pupil, and changing it to reflect football teams might not enhance a depth of learning. Consider now the same story but told using enthusiasm and questions, perhaps pitched using specific steeping stone progress:

  • A Jewish man is walking from Jerusalem to Jericho
  • He is robbed, beaten and left for dead
  • A priest comes along [question: what would you expect the priest to do?], crosses the road and carries on his way [question: why do you think the priest crossed over the road and carried on? Are these good reasons?]
  • A Levite [question: What is a Levite?] comes along [question: what would you expect him to do? Surely two priests in row would not walk past] , and does the same
  • A Samaritan comes along {question: What is a Samaritan? Discussion of the relationship between Jews and Samaritans. Question: What would you expect him to do?], he stops and helps the man and takes him to an inn and pays for his care [Question: Why did he do this?].
  • Questions: What was Jesus teaching in this parable? How does this link with others of Jesus’ teachings? In what situations do we see people who are battered and bruised (physically or emotionally)? What are some reasons we do not stop and help? What can we do to be like the Samaritan?

The understanding of the story and Christian belief is deepened, and the level of empathy and informed response is enhanced.

Each year with my primary and secondary teacher education students I have a storytelling workshop. In this we explore what makes a good telling of a story. The list that we come up with usually includes the following (in no particular order):

  • Keep the theme coherent/ understanding what you’re trying to get out of it: why are we telling the story? What are we hoping to get out of it? What does it teach about the religion we are exploring? Within religious stories there are often many themes and concepts explored. We need to be clear when we tell a story what we are trying to do with it. This will enable us to help listeners maintain focus and engagement and not get lost in the myriad of cul-de-sacs we might take them down.
  • Ask them to relate to own experiences– in my book about the teaching of RE I explore some bridges that can be used to help pupils understand- providing them with a link to the story either before/during or after is crucial to helping them identify with the themes and why others may find the story sacred or inspiring.
  • Check language and ways to understand/ Simplify appropriate to age: some stories contain words or concepts that detract from the children’s understanding. Before we tell//read the story is there anything that needs adapting or clarifying? It is important to note that any editing should not change the meaning of the story. I heard a retelling of the feeding of the 5000 once that reduced it to everyone sharing their sandwiches- because the miraculous nature could have been problematic. The problem with that is that it changes the whole message of the story for Christians.
  • Know the story in depth/ Know the context of the story When my children were younger I would often pick a story off the shelf and begin reading with voices, etc. I would often say something loudly, only to read ‘he whispered’ as the next part of the book. I needed to be prepared. In some ways, the ideal is to not use a text but to be able to tell it enthusiastically from our memory- I know I have often felt more animated and engaged when not tied to a book. But until we reach that point with a story, we need to be familiar with the book so that we can engage with listeners through eye contact, etc.
  • Be prepared to address questions/concepts/ ideas/barriers: these may be concepts and ideas outside of the purpose for which you are telling the story. But these are questions that listeners might ask- we should be prepared for them. For example, if we are telling the story of Noah’s Ark in the context of caring for animals, etc we should be prepared for the question about the genocide of humanity. If it might be too much of a distraction to the theme we are exploring we might consider another story.
  • Use props/ visual aids: when we tell a story we can use puppets, pictures and other things to provide context and help pupils visualise things that we are talking about. These should not replace children’s imaginations but support them. They are additional means with which to engage listeners.
  • Be sensitive to individuals in class: sometimes there are themes within religious stories that are sensitive. We need to be aware of implications that the stories we choose may have on the listeners. This doesn’t mean we don’t engage with them, as noted before they can provide a safe space to discuss sensitive issues- where we can use the characters, rather than the personal, to explore thoughts and feelings. It may, however, mean that some stories are not appropriate or at least we are prepared for the emotional impact of a story. Maybe the story of Shiva chopping the head off Ganesh is engaging but could it have an impact on a child who suffers from domestic abuse/violence?
  • Use third person/ Don’t present beliefs as facts: We may be telling a story that is sacred to us, or story from another religious tradition. When we tell it we tell it in a way that is sensitive to people who believe the story but also retains a positive neutrality. We have to be very conscious that we are not telling the story of the Gruffalo- there needs to be a way for listeners to understand that this story is important to people of faith. The approach of spirited Play suggests that we welcome children into the story, or perhaps light a candle to signify the beginning and importance of the story. I prefer to explain it’s importance and sacredness- whatever works. We don’t scoff at the ‘fantastic’ or make seemingly objective comments about the validity. My son was once told by a teacher that women have one more rib than men because of the story of Adam and Eve. This is a statement of religious belief that undermined his confidence in his teacher. If we are asked if the story is true, we should be prepared to address the (see next bullet):
  • Legitimacy of story- is it true/ parable/ etc: we answer from within the context of the faith community. For Hindus… For Muslims… There are sometimes a diversity of views within the religious traditions. Is the story of Rama and Sita true? Some Hindus may understand it as historical, but many will see it as teaching truth; for example the ten heads of Ravana represent qualities such as kama (lust), krodha (anger) and mada (pride) that need to be overcome within oneself on the path to nirvana. Above all, the piece of advice I give to my students is to imagine we are telling the story with faith adherents in the classroom- would they recognise the story we tell?
  • Ask questions: questions can be used to check understanding to provoke curiosity. Stories are invariably longer than a paragraph and questions should be used to engage pupils, check understanding, move the story along and ask questions of the listeners. Speculative questions such as ‘I wonder…’ keeps listeners engaged and suspense is built as they are used appropriately. These questions can also be differentiated to show progress in RE as well.
  • Good timing/ use of pace: This is so important- just as comedy is about timing, so is storytelling. When should we pause for suspense/effect? When should we rush to suggest urgency? Knowing the story enables the teller to be able use the pace of the story to add to the effect of the story.
  • Be enthusiastic: This is key in any telling of the story. I am often accused of being too animated when I speak with hand gestures and the use of body language. But non-verbal as well as verbal emphasis helps the tension build, or allows an emphasis to be made. Whether it is the swinging of the blade in the story of Vaisakhi, or the asking of a quiet question to elicit what listeners think will be there when the tent doors are held back after the five sacrifices. Enthusiasm holds attention and emphasises the themes and events of the story.
  • Similarities and differences to other stories/religions: Maybe some of the questions we ask can be around other stories from the same religion that listeners have encountered. Or maybe the same, or a similar, story from other religions. What do the commonalities and differences teach us? My favourite story to compare is the story of Abraham and his two sons from a Muslim and a Jewish/Christian perspective. The implications for Middle East politics is crucial.
  • Ensure children are engaged: this involves the modulation of voice/expression, enthusiasm, the use of questions, eye contact- everything that we have discussed so far really. Can we involve the listeners as characters? Can we have them speculate ‘what happens next?’. There are a myriad of ways to keep listeners engaged.
  • Time for discussion/ reflection: we need to allow listeners to digest what they’ve heard and to reflect on it in the context of themselves and also the learning about religion. This can be during or after the story. Too often we use stories as illustrations rather than a central to the learning and teaching process. They are so rich and can teach us so much.
  • Use of drama: This perhaps, too big a question for now, and maybe in another blog post I will explore the use of process drama within RE which I have found to be most effective.

This has turned into a far longer post than I intended- lots of the suggestions are not RE focussed- but in case you haven’t gathered I love using story in the teaching of RE.