Learning to do live online storytelling

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.



14 thoughts on “Learning to do live online storytelling

  1. Great advice, please keep it coming 🙂
    Thank you David, and Nick.
    Look forward to picking this up with another / the same class after a trip away.
    One Q David / Nick please – if you see this – and anyone else reading this: what experiences do you have of creating stories live with a class? Perhaps using limited choices at regular junctures?
    Eg: “Jack (name previously decided by class) goes to the window and he sees … What does Jack see outside in the garden? An elephant / a giant / an old lady ? – Hands up for elephant etc”
    I tried sthg like this as an experiment, using pics, and think it’s got real legs for Hands Up style classes: kids enjoyed deciding, and every few steps different kids retold everything from the pics – consolidating language. But it needed so much prep time to sort; maybe just practice will reduce that – has anyone got other experiences of creating stories live that could work in this setting?
    Perhaps we could share enthralling graded ‘create a story’ ideas in docs, with alluring pics, and which practise specific language?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment Mark. That sounds like a very effective way of engaging students and involving them in the storytelling process. I think there are lots of ways to create stories in cooperation with students, and like you, I’d like to experiment more with working like this online with groups in Palestine. One way I sometimes use is to show the students a picture, or create one with them, and to see what can come out of that, and another is to give students roles in the story you are telling – like this..https://handsupproject.org/2016/04/16/storified-drilling/

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The procedure used in the video above is from my book Storytelling with our Students http://www.deltapublishing.co.uk/titles/methodology/storytelling-with-our-students (see extract below)
        I’d like to try it out online too.It’s one of many drama-based spontaneous storymaking activities I do – and the most fruitful…

        The Find
        A collaborative storymaking procedure
        You will need to prepare an attractive box containing small shiny objects (including a crystal, a lump of fake gold, a coin, a ring, a star and a shell) and atmospheric instrumental music. For example, if you’d like to set the story in China, you could play traditional Chinese instrumental music – such as at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7IsLCqMml8I. Of course, the music you select is going to affect the kind of story that emerges.
        Invite the students to sit in a circle, then put on the background music and you all listen together for 30 seconds.
        Speaking in the first person, begin: I was lost and alone, and I was walking … What could I see around me?
        Once several students have raised a hand to show that they have an answer, invite one of them to say their answer, and accept it.
        Continue establishing the story by asking open questions – such as: What time of day was it? and How did I feel? – and incorporating the answers.
        Your role is to provide the framework, while allowing the students creative freedom. After about a minute, say: Suddenly I noticed something small and shining on the ground in front of me … a small shining object … What was it?
        Wait for a student’s answer, take out the corresponding shiny object from the box you have prepared, and hold it out on the palm of your hand for the students to admire. Ask: How did I feel when I saw it? … What did I do? … What magical thing happened?
        Continue the story, incorporating student input and asking further open and sensory questions in response to their contributions, such as: How did I feel? What did I hear? Where was the voice coming from? Can you describe the old man?
        Invite input from the whole class – to ensure that they will all feel part of the creative process.
        Accept and respond to every contribution – this is fundamental to improvised storymaking.
        The storyline can go in any direction. However:
        Bear in mind that a good story involves the main protagonist facing a problem, and that the problem needs resolving.
        Guide the students towards the conclusion of the story by asking: We are nearly at the end of the story – what did I need to do?
        When they have finished, the students retell the story they have created in pairs. They tell it in the third person, as a folk tale, beginning: Once there was a young man/woman who was lost and alone, …
        Remember that, because the story is theirs, the students are free to alter the story and make it their own as they retell it.
        Note that, when you incorporate students’ answers into the story, you will naturally reformulate and extend the language they use. This provides scaffolding, for when it comes to their retelling the story.
        Finally, ask pairs of students to act out a scene from the story they have created – a suitable scene would be one where the protagonist interacts with another character.

        Once the story is well-established and it is clear that the shining object is integral to the whole narrative, hold it out solemnly.
        A volunteer student can take it and continue in the role of ‘first person storyteller’.
        Make sure they solicit and incorporate other students’ ideas.
        Another volunteer can take on the storytelling role, and you might prompt the class to reincorporate some characters and events from earlier in the story, in order to guide this storyteller to the ending.
        Slowly turn down the volume of the music to silence. See the example on YouTube –
        ‘David Heathfield: Storymaking with Chinese Learners of English’:
        The students, in groups of three or four, can create their own stories in the same way.
        Put on the music again, so that each group can create their tale.
        Once they have finished, students from different groups can form pairs.
        They retell and compare their stories.
        There is a great sense of achievement resulting from creative storytelling of this kind.
        This procedure is adapted from an activity published in Speaking Spontaneously (English Teaching Professional 38, 2005).

        from Heathfield, D. Storytelling with our Students (DELTA Publishing 2014)


  2. So? You could brilliantly get the students’ brains in gear 🙂 It’s very interesting to find ways to keep students engaged and hold their attention. I’m sure none of your listeners would start texting under the desk or pick up a pen to write random things 🙂

    I loved the ‘you and me together’ part. That’s very personal and so sweet. Of course, you didn’t say that directly to students but you made them feel so. Using words like ‘ ..not like the weather in Gaza today’or ‘..just like Tasnim sang for us’ is a beautiful way to help students feel personally connected to someone talking behind a screen. Gradually, such a friendly atmosphere motivated students to talk about their future life (wishes).

    Thank you very much for the post. This is certainly worth a good read, very interesting, useful and has a lot of ideas. It’s like reading a rainbow rather than merely a few lines 🙂 Wonderful, new member! However, I’m still a big fan of Nick!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment Amal. I too love what David says about the way live storytelling makes learners feel like they are part of what is being listened to in a way that listening to a recording doesn’t. As David says, eye contact is a big part of this process and, though it’s hard to do online, I think looking straight at the green light of the webcam can achieve this to a certain extent. When I’m telling stories online I often make the mistake of looking at the students (or rather the video that I can see of them) and this doesn’t have the same effect at all of course.

      Liked by 1 person

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