Storytelling Project at Queensbridge School, Birmingham

Queensbridge is a six form entry, ethnically diverse, outstandsing school in Birmingham. It is a specialist college in visual and performing arts.
Each term, Queensbridge School has an iweek – an intensive week where all pupils are off timetable for the week. In Year 7, they concentrate on the arts. During the iweek in the autumn term, the Year 7s work for their bronze Arts Award. During the Spring Term, the iweek is used to create a whole year performance.
In 2013/2014, Queensbridge worked with EFDSS to introduce folk arts as part of the Year 7s Bronze Arts Awards and as the main focus for their whole year performance.
The school chose canals as the theme for the project and performance. Amazingly, Birmingham is said to have more miles of canal than Venice. The canals are an immensely important part of Birmingham’s heritage and have been an integral part of Birmingham’s development as the canals took Birmingham’s products to the world, and in return, brought the world to Birmingham. They link the past to the present, and inner-city to the sea.
The archive provided the perfect ballad for the backbone of the performance – the Cruel Ship’s Carpenter, published in Birmingham. In meetings between folk artists and teaching staff we established a rough outline of how the performance would work, telling the story of the ballad; linking in ideas of white ladies, water spirits protecting the canals; modern day students exploring the canals; the history of the making of the canals; traditional navvie songs; folk dance to bring the main characters together – and sword dance for the dramatic murder.
Year 7 was divided into 6 groups – drama, publicity, two art groups, music and storytelling.
Although storytelling can lead into and inform many activities, it is primarily a solo activity. We wanted all members of the storytelling group to tell a story as part of the performance. We decided the best way to incorporate these stories would be to have the storytelling as a prologue; to have students in role as groups of navvies sitting around campfires swapping stories while the audience came through and listened before taking their seats for the central performance. The stories would be based on ballads from the EFDSS digital archive, using ballads from Birmingham wherever possible.

Storytelling Iweek Project Summary

To introduce the concept of traditional artforms, EFDSS and the Digital Archive
To take ballads from the archive, decipher their language and use them for the basis of stories to tell
For students to be exposed to a different artistic way of working
To lead students through the process of choosing, interpreting and telling a story
To enable students to gain self confidence in presenting and performing a story
To evaluate the process

The week was structured with 3 days artist time. The group had a design technology teacher, Miss Fletchman, as their tutor for the week and they worked with her on costumes, making campfires, iweek diaries and evaluation in non-artist time. For some of the sessions we also had Beth Gifford, EFDSS mentee, present to help deliver the sessions.

The Group
We had 26 students in our group: 21 boys and 5 girls. The class was ethnically diverse.

Session 1 Monday Morning
Story and riddles

The week began gathering the group together to tell some riddles and a story. I told the story of the Suffolk Miracle and Beth sang the ballad of the same story. I felt it was crucial to establish the atmosphere and mood of the week, to model what storytelling actually is.

Name games
Amazing Amy: Each child introduced the child next to them alliteratively – this is Amazing Amy, this is Beautiful Beth, Calm Catherine etc. I wrote name labels as we went around, complete with the alliteration as approved by student. We then moved into a ball-throwing name game.

Introduction to the week:
We talked about the project and the archive. We discussed the Suffolk Miracle as a song and a story – which was easier to understand? How did they make you feel? We talked about it being a very old story, but related it to the urban legend of The Hitchhiker and how stories move on with people and changing times.
We compared digging in the canal and finding interesting objects with digging in the EFDSS archive. Using the archive is a bit like being a detective, and the stories are written in code.
I had brought a selection of ballads from the archive, more than we would need, so that all groups would have a choice of story. I read through one of the ballads and as a group we worked out what it meant.
Then we broke it down into the main bones, ie, the main plotpoints of the story

Student comment: ‘it’s like a pop song from the olden days’

I asked the teacher to put the group into groups of threes. While I like to let children choose their groups when possible, there is a wide variance in literacy ability at Queensbridge, particularly in Y7. Many of the children have English as a second language. Also there are a substantial number of pupils who struggle with the change in routine and lack of definite structure during Iweek. So groups were chosen in advance to try and avoid groups which would be unable to read and decipher the ballads and to minimise disruptive behaviour. They stayed in these groups for the rest of the week.

I gave a plot summary of each ballad orally to the whole class and groups shouted out when they heard a story they wanted to tell.
In their groups the students read the ballads and agreed the outline of the story. They identified the main plot points of the story and wrote down 5-7 bones.

The students were asked to create a tableaux for each storybone. This tableaux were to be still, like a photograph or a book illustration. All students should be involved. They were not playing characters, but depicting a scene and encouraged to be houses/doors/horses/cannon balls etc as required.
Physically embodying the bones of the story helps to really set the arc of the story within memory as well as being fun!

Narrate the tableaux
At this point we all came back together as a group to see the tableaux. Each tableaux was narrated by its storybone.

We talked about storytelling and what I do – what you expect from a storyteller – this is not a play. We talked about keeping the best bits of the tableaux, but starting to develop the stories and flesh them out.

Macbeth’s Witches
The whole class sat in their groups of threes in one big circle and we played Macbeth’s witches – using the power of three to inspire creative description. After playing in a group I left them with the teacher and asked them to play with the idea of Macbeth’s witches with their own stories the next day while I was not there. They would try telling their stories within their groups, building up the description and playing with the images.

Session 2 – Wednesday Morning
Establishing expectations

We moved into the drama room downstairs which was the room where they would eventually be performing. In my absence the group had worked on building fires and designing costumes. This really helped increase the focus towards where we were heading and make it seem real.

Warm up
Beth led the warm up. Warm ups should be fun, active, but also set the mood and expectation for the session. Beth split the class in two – we each took a group and arranged them into a boat – a merchant ship and a pirate boat. We built up rhythmical actions from suggestions from the class. Beth led a stylised battle between the two boats leading up to a canon shot to blow both boats up. The warm up was physical and got the students working as a team; into an historical mindset; coming up with descriptions, sounds and actions which would feed into their stories and most importantly, was fun!

Individual work with groups
We had the luxury of being able to work with the groups one at a time while the rest of the class continued with their costumes and fires. We heard each story and were able to respond to each group’s needs: use of voice; working as a team to tell; building description etc. Beth worked alongside me for the first three groups and then worked with some groups on her own.
Some of the groups really began to come up with fantastic descriptions:
‘They fought their way through the smell of cannon smoke, slipping on pools of blood, to the Pirate Captain’

Session 3 – Wednesday afternoon
Game – wink murder
After two days of wet play and a week outside normal routine, some of the Year 7s were becoming volatile! After behaviour warnings over the lunch hour, this was a perfect game to refocus the group. It is fun, has lots of opportunity for over-the-top deaths, but needs quiet and concentration. It is also an excellent introduction to making eye contact and how to establish a connection with your listeners.

The groups practised their stories and then told them to another group.
We gathered together as a whole group to discuss how the stories were going – how they felt about their own stories and comments on the stories that they had heard.

Game – Blah, blah, blah

After a demonstration, a volunteer group tried telling their story to the class with no words except blah – using gestures, eye contact and tone of voice while saying blah, blah, blah. The initial reaction was ‘How can we tell a story without the words, Miss?!’ But it rapidly became one of their favourite games and really moved their stories on. Half of the groups had a go in front of the class. We then split back into story groups and they swapped their story (with words) with a different group. They then came back and the remaining groups told their stories as blah, blah, blah to the class.

Session 4 – Thursday Morning
Warm up
A rhythmic re-enaction of some navvie life with suggestions from the group – included digging, puddling the clay, eating and gathering round the fire for a story.

Set up the space

With the aid of lots of tables, blocks and a huge set of blackout curtains we set out the room. The idea was to create two canal banks, with the canal running down the centre of the room. The audience would flow along the canal. The students were up on the banks, dressed as navvies, sitting in groups, swapping stories around their campfires. We had the luxury of a decent lighting rig and were able to set the lighting, going for a low level night-time feel, that enabled us to appreciate the flickering fires, but was also light enough for the audience to be able to see where they were going and for the storytellers to be able to see and connect with their audience.

Practising in the space
All the groups ran through their stories in costume in the space. All the students were excited to be doing it ‘for real’ and the atmosphere was fantastic.
In group feedback the main considerations were:
Working out how to sit comfortably while not sitting too close to the edge so that a spontaneous gesture could unbalance you or one of your team!
Being able to sit so that you would be able to see the audience gathering around
How to lead the audience in – we decided on one person from each group physically going to gather an audience, ask them to hear a story and bring them back to the fire.

First performance

With the dress rehearsal looming and the visit of the mayor imminent, we wanted an audience to practise on, and also wanted the rest of the year to know what we had been up to. So we invited one of the art groups to come and listen to our stories. All the students really stepped up for their first real performance. The arts group students listened really well and gave very encouraging feedback – picking out particular storytellers that ‘spoke really clearly’, ‘had really good description’, ‘their story was sick’, ‘he did this face that was really funny and made us laugh’.
‘I felt good and this time I was not nervous like always’
‘I found it slightly scary but the feedback gave me a bit more confident to perform’

Session 5 – Thursday Afternoon
The dress rehearsal
The Lord Mayor and his entourage came to the school for the dress rehearsal. The students were excited at getting to tell their stories to the Mayor and they did a great job. The Mayor was fantastic. He really listened to the stories and talked to the students about the canals, the navvies and how they had found their stories. The Lord Mayor’s wife was interested in folk music and a folk singer so both of them talked about ballads and traditional music. Although all the groups told their stories to some adults, we did not have time for the Mayor himself to listen to all the groups before the dress rehearsal of the main performance. However, in the end there was a little time after the performance and we were delighted he agreed to come back to hear the remaining stories.
‘I was scared because of how important the Mayor and Mayoress were but it was fun after they both gave us feedback and we had a chat’

Session 6 – Friday afternoon
(Friday morning the students had told stories again to other Y7 classes)
There was a short time after lunch before the main performance where we had chance to be fairly relaxed.
The Macarena!
Great silly warm up – they had been taught the dance by their teacher in my absence, so they taught me and even the head of year joined in when she put her head around the door.
Throughout the week there has been constant evaluation. The students have kept diaries throughout the week and after exercises and groupwork we have always come back as a whole groups to swap comments of how the students have found activities – what is difficult, what is fun, how they think they are doing etc. This was chance for a quick ten minute written reflection.
‘I enjoyed the week and I found it fun though there were some ups and downs. My downs were the distractions made by other people. My ups were performing and creating the fires.’

‘I really enjoyed this I-week’

‘It was a laugh. It was really fun.’

Final performance
The students did fantastically well, as expected, though I had to leave them to it to tell a story in the main hall. Parents came through the canal and listened to the stories, then through the door into the main hall to take their seats for the play.

End comments
This really was an intensive challenging week. The students were introduced to songs, material and history that was completely new to them. They entered into a completely different routine with teachers they did not know. Of course there were highs and lows, but all the students stretched their language skills; worked in teams and performed confidently in front of peers, parents and VIPS.