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‘Storytelling, it’s the oldest art form’

Storytelling has taken off over the past decade, and nowhere more so than in adult education, writes England’s National Storytelling Week co-ordinator DEREK REID

stimulating residents. Often, in a residential home there isn’t a lot to stimulate people and people love to talk about the past and storytelling is a great way of doing this. If you’re in a group situation, some of the people may be a wee bit shy, but to be able to hold one of these sessions you need to be able to tell your own stories and to encourage others to talk. We don’t read from a book. It’s about your own story.’ ‘It’s like starting to talk to a stranger,’ Lea Taylor says. ‘It’s as if you are trying to find similarities you can share and express, and things come up from there. That’s what storytelling does. And it’s a great medium for passing on traditions, passing on cultural and social mores. We all tell stories naturally, but it’s a matter of how you perceive storytelling. People think they don’t have the ability to tell stories but by the time they’ve finished telling you about it they’ve already told you a story. One of the subjects I studied at university was Scottish ethnology. I had a slight immersion in people like Stanley Robertson and Duncan Williamson. I found it interesting, but I didn’t see the connections until I became a family learning worker and saw storytelling at various workshops. I thought it was really exciting; I realised that


this was what I wanted to do. Because I could see how it was connected with communities, with people, it was like an invisible arm that reaches out and grabs you by the jugular.’

Fantastic thing Smith welcomes the recognition students at Newbattle get for their storytelling but, for him, what really matters is the use to which they put their skills, at home, where they work and where they volunteer. ‘The really fantastic thing was what people did when they went away from the college and worked out, to a large extent for themselves, how they were going to experiment with this in their own work. The results were fantastic. People did so many different things, working with every group, from youngsters with severe learning disabilities through to young adults in prison, to training play workers, which is one of the things Lea does. It was quite amazing to hear it all and to see that people absolutely had got the idea: here is something that is people-centred, that affirms people, that encourages and that motivates. That’s a common factor across all the projects, with adults, with children, with front-line workers, in a lot of different

settings. And that, of course, shouldn’t come as a surprise because that is what the tradition is about. That’s what storytelling has always been about. Everyone has got a place in storytelling. You’re trying to recognise each person, each community, each tradition’s place and contribution. A good storyteller recognises their audience, connects with everybody in the audience, and brings them a sense of their part of this experience. You are always telling in order to invite the listener to become a teller. If I tell you a story that’s meaningful to me, whether it’s a myth or it’s personal to me, and I get you really involved in it, the implication is that I’d like to have a story back from you. Not everyone is going to be a teller, of course. Some people want to participate by listening, by socialising, but what you see is that more and more people contribute. You see people who maybe come for several months and then suddenly they decide to go for it and they’ve got a story.’ For Smith, storytelling has a close connection with adult education and real relevance to the work adult educators do today. He cites the work students did with people with ‘communication and learning challenges’ as an example of how, in

Jeff Morgan Hay on Wye/Alamy

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