This weeks post is by teacher, teacher trainer, ELT author and storyteller, David Heathfield. David is the latest person to join our pool of volunteers around the world doing a weekly session for the Hands Up Project.
I’m learning to do live online storytelling
I’ve been writing about and advocating live storytelling face to face in the classroom for years. When I agreed to do my first volunteer storytelling session online with a group of teenage girls in Gaza I needed to convince myself that I could make live online storytelling work. As I prepared, I watched video clips from the Hands Up Project and noticed how engaged and enthused the students are, so the evidence was clear. But, apart from a couple of storytelling webinars I’d done for teachers, this would be my first experience of live online storytelling.
Face to face storytelling
Storytelling is by its very nature an interpersonal, co-creative activity. An unscripted story is never told the same way twice. When doing face to face storytelling I can pick up on the subtle signals that students give off and make spontaneous alterations to my storytelling in response. I suddenly notice a look of open-mouthed wonder on one student’s face, so I might nod at that student and ask ‘Haven’t you ever made a wish, Lama?’ Or I see two students at the back of the room exchanging a knowing, conspiratorial look, so I gesture towards them and say ‘You two know what’s going to happen next, don’t you?’ In response to a student’s yawn, I might stretch and yawn myself and say, with a wink and an empathetic smile at the student, ‘Is this story ever going to end?’ When the listeners are language learners, their facial expressions will also tell me whether they are following the meaning of the story. If they aren’t, I might repeat what I just said or paraphrase it or use questions to check they have understood eg ‘So how did the rich man feel?’
Challenges of live online storytelling
But how can I do these things in front of a webcam when the image I’m looking at on the screen shows only ten of the fifty students in the class and is too unclear for me to read such subtle signals? The students are looking at my head and shoulders on a screen on another wall of the classroom so they are not even facing me. One solution is to get the teacher who is in the classroom with the students to help with the telling of the story, but as a storyteller I really want to be able to communicate with the students directly myself.
So my answer is ‘Believe!’ As long as I’m well prepared and have rehearsed the story with these students in mind, I can just tell the story clearly and with conviction to my webcam (so to students it seems I’m giving them eye contact on their screen). I just need to believe that they are as engaged as I am in this shared storytelling. I start by teaching them a call and response: I call ‘Story, story!’ and they respond ‘Tell us a story!’ We practise doing this call and response three times with increasing energy and then I begin telling the story. I pause a couple of minutes into the story and call again ‘Story, story!’ If they respond ‘Tell us a story!’ I know that they are still with me. I include in the story a reference to something we did or talked about together before the story began. For example, if the students have told me that it’s raining heavily, I might say ‘The sun was shining brightly as the rich man walked through the forest, not like the weather in Gaza today’. Or if one of the students has sung me a song, I say ‘The bird sang so beautifully for the rich man – just like Tasnim sang for us.’
The key is to be present in the room with the students and to use my imagination and all my teaching experience. This is not a video recording for an audience to be watched at another time in another place. This is live ‘you and me together’ storytelling. Even if there’s a time lag, I just need to go on with the story, believing that the students are with me. And if I find afterwards in their responses to the story that the story they have understood is different in some details from the one I told, that is evidence that they are using their imaginations, that they are creatively engaged in spontaneous storytelling across cyberspace.
So far so good
I’m still new to online storytelling – I’ve done just four online storytelling sessions with teenage girls learning English in Gaza. Thanks to their enthusiasm, I’m getting more confident as an online storyteller. Of course the teacher in the classroom with the students has played an absolutely vital role, particularly in clarifying the tasks I ask the students to do. But I have managed to tell stories directly with the students and it’s a real joy.
The video shows an extract from the second of my Gaza storytelling sessions – notice the students’ extraordinarily intuitive and creative responses.
And here are more of the wishes these students made:
- I wish to visit Al Aqsa Mosque and pray in it.
- I wish to be a famous scientist to make my family proud of me.
- I wish to travel to Russia because it is very beautiful.
- I wish to lift the siege of Gaza
- I wish to be the king of this big world to show them who the Palestinians are and that they are great and not terrorists.
- I wish to travel to Jordan because my mom’s family is there and I wish to become to the first student in my class.
- I wish to memorize the Holy Quran and I wish to be a doctor.
- I wish all people think about others and not just about themeslves.
- I wish a free and happy life for every country under siege.
- I wish to travel to Britain one day.
- I wish to have peace in our world because we miss that especially in our Palestinian society and all people know that siege has the great force.
- I wish to travel to Paris one day.
- I wish to learn more languages like Spanish and French.
- I wish to visit Jerusalem
- I wish to be a businesswoman
- I wish to live a happy life.
- I wish to be a teacher in the future.