Bradford’s school for storytelling

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What do NASA and tech giant Microsoft have in common? Well, they’ve both employed professional storytellers, and a leading Bradford primary school has now followed suit. Their storyteller in residence is Richard O’Neill.

Bowling Park in Bradford likes to do things a little differently, and that involves taking something as old as storytelling and giving it a new twist. The head of school, Kate Rhodes, explains why they have adopted this approach:

“Lots of schools have authors in residence. We have a storyteller in residence, but not just any storyteller. Ours is a National Literacy Hero and a multi award-winning author and playwright who has written for stage and screen and has a huge experience, having worked with some of the leading cultural organisations in the country including the Imperial War museum, the Royal festival hall and our very own Media museum. We know that the benefits of storytelling for learning are huge and very well documented around the world, and we wanted to tap into that”.

It seems that the school is definitely ahead of the curve as both the science, education and business worlds are talking about the benefits and potential of storytelling, many more are putting it into practice.

Richard explains why that is.

“We are made of stories. It’s the first literacy any of us learn. Everything we read and watch from the news to the latest blockbuster film and advert is a story. Job interviews are a story about you.

“Good stories create a sense of connection and they also build familiarity and trust allowing the listener to enter the story where they are, making them more open to learning. Good stories can contain multiple meanings so they’re surprisingly economical in conveying complex ideas in graspable ways.

“Whether in the past or the present, storytelling remains the most used and important form of communication. All of us tell stories, the story of your day, the story of your life, workplace gossip, the latest news bulletin. Our brains are hard-wired to think and express in terms of a beginning, middle and end, stories are how we understand the world.

“Stories allow us to identify with characters and thinking about how we would have acted in similar circumstances, they allow us to work through situations in a way that’s risk free.”

The science appears to back it up. Psychologists like Peg Neuhauser have found that learning which stems from a well-told story is remembered more accurately, and for far longer, than learning derived from facts and figures.

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Kate says:

“From a teacher’s perspective we are trying to inspire children to be intrinsically motivated to learn. By sharing, performing and telling stories we are enabling children to build connections with emotions and experiences.

Performing a story is a risk-free opportunity for all children to express themselves being as flamboyant and allowing children to explore their own creativity and their cultural roots and our shared as well as our diverse life experiences. That’s why we created our oracy platforms where children can tell their stories and share their story ideas with teachers and other children”.

The school doesn’t intend to keep all of the skills to themselves, as it aims to be a beacon of storytelling and a place where other schools can go to for training and advice on storytelling for their staff and children. Richard explains what makes this work:

“If anyone wonders why more people don’t use storytelling it’s probably because it takes time to learn the skills from an experienced practitioner. That’s why I’m so pleased to be the storyteller in residence, because I have that time to not only tell stories but also train staff in storytelling skills”.

The storyteller has even more ambitious plans for his art and for the city, as he says, “I’d like to see Bradford become the UK’s first City for Storytelling, but that, as they say, is another story”.

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