Case Study 2: Tunde the Storyteller

Tunde was observed leading three single sessions in two inner city primary schools in the Midlands. Two of the sessions were linked to World Book Day celebrations in a suburban school, with children from years 3 and 4, then 5 and 6; the other was with a year 2/3 class in an inner city school.  Tunde was well known locally, having worked for many years in the city as a storyteller but also as a teacher and teacher trainer. On his publicity and follow-up materials, Tunde describes himself as an author, storyteller and illustrator who works with ‘education, business and individuals’ to ‘reveal inner resources to exceed expectations’.

The three sessions differed somewhat in their focus, in part related to the age of the children and in part related to the brief from the school. The session in the second school was what Tunde called a ‘seeing success workshop’ which was intended to equip participants with some strategies for combating anxieties, stress and lack of confidence. The telling of an Anansi story was central to the first two sessions, but it also featured in the third session, and the strategies taught in the third sessions were also part of the first two sessions.  So despite the differences of emphasis, the three sessions were similar in both content and the style of teaching.

The sessions were framed as performances, with props visibly in place, music and hints of what was to come. They moved very quickly to the personal: who the artist was, and what he had produced.

T: My Dad said Anansi should have a hat and an earring. Here’s a picture of Anansi.
Takes a laminated sheet – the illustration of Anansi from his book.
T: You’re going to find out a little about me. Who do you think this is?
It’s an old photo of T’s father, enlarged. Child guesses immediately.
T : My father’s name was Nunde. 
Children smile. They see the connection.
T makes it: Nunde, Tunde, they’re nearly the same. My father was a carver storyteller. There have been carver storytellers for hundreds of years. He was from Jamaica.
 [Doesn’t explain what a carver storyteller is].    
(Observer’s fieldnotes)

Tunde’s body language, as well as his words, made it clear that he was pleased to be there; he had got something serious to say and something to be proud of.  The children immediately recognised and responded to the form, listening carefully and joining in occasionally. A notable feature of his talk was the self-conscious use of story language (‘the man who was a spider, the spider who was a man’), verse and rhyme, which combined with his sense of timing and control of the rhythms of the occasion to create a well orchestrated performance. Repetition was a feature of the storytelling, but the emphasis on ‘doing your best’ and ‘practising’ became refrains regularly echoed within and across all three sessions. This contributed a stylized element to the pedagogic performance and created a context in which the didactic theme of the lesson – believing in yourself and not giving up - could be revisited and rehearsed.  The children in the audience received the repetition in the spirit of a refrain or a theme; they took pleasure in recognising the words and felt free to join in, often mouthing the words under their breath to themselves. This marked out the artist’s use of repetition from the more everyday uses of repetition which were routinely observable in the teachers’ talk: the repetition of instructions, of warnings, of phrases to convey approval or mild concern. Later in the sessions, repetitions were used in mantra-like ways, during the modelling of self help exercises:

T shows children how to breathe in deeply through the nose
T: Down to your tummy, up and out through your nose.  [Repeats six times]. Hand on tummy to feel the movement.
Children do this conscientiously.

At the heart of all three of Tunde’s sessions was the weaving together of cultural artefacts, artistic performance and therapeutic messages mediated through the person of the artist. The balance was different, depending on whether the school had commissioned a storytelling session or a ‘seeing success’ workshop, but the autobiographical information the artist shared with the children was the thread that linked apparently disparate elements.  The narrative of the artist’s life was interwoven with traditional Anansi folk stories, examples of carvings by his father and by anonymous mask makers, recorded music and puppetry. Tunde also showed his own carving, and the book he had written and illustrated; he sang songs he had composed, accompanying himself on the guitar.  He dropped in particular personal details, and explicitly articulated ideas and events that were important in his own life. Some of the objects he showed had the feel of treasured family heirlooms.

He talked about difficulties he had overcome, for example, feeling fearful and anxious.  His deep seriousness and manifest pride were accompanied by a strong articulation of enjoyment and a playfulness that was reflected in the subject matter and the performance of the story and songs, but also in the therapeutic practices that were being suggested.  Tunde’s ‘personal power’ technique involved the children in closing their eyes and imagining a star inside their bodies, making it shine and glow and listening to it sparkle; others involved visualizing a worry and shrinking it into non-existence, or using a wrecking ball to demolish a wall of anxiety. The movement between the story and the technique being taught was seamless:

Shows picture of Anansi looking up in fear.
T: He could be using ‘Personal Power’. ..Close your eyes. Imagine there’s a star in the middle of your tummy. Give it a colour. It’s tiny. It’s getting bigger. And bigger. Brighter. And brighter. Making a loud sparkling sound. It makes you feel really confident.
I’ll be able to tell if you feel confident. You’ll be sitting up really straight.
You’re on a 5. Turn it up to a 7. Up to a 9.
I shouldn’t do this, but at [B R] Junior School, let’s go up to a 10!
Talk about confident! (marvelling)
Children sit very straight, eyes closed, smiling.
T: Use that to feel confident. Try doing that. I call it Personal Power. Anansi does that. It’s giving yourself power right inside.

The children’s reception of this intersection of the imaginative into the everyday was most evident when Cuthbert the puppet was introduced. Tunde explained, as he extricated Cuthbert from the suitcase,

He’s younger than you. He feels nervous. He’s 4. He came to my nursery.
(To puppet) Are you sure you’re ready to see them?
(To class) He might feel nervous.

One boy asked anxiously, as this was happening: ‘Is it real?’ to which Tunde replied, ‘Yes, it’s a real puppet.’  As the puppet started to speak, his friend whispered ‘He’s talking!’ The boy was intrigued, animated and clearly puzzling about the distinctions between fact and fiction. At the end of the lesson he checked again: ‘You said it was a real puppet…?’

The intensity of this engagement in an imaginative space created by the folk story, the family artefacts, Tunde’s performance and carefully honed pedagogic style, allowed the children to link their knowledge of their own everyday lives with events and ideas that were very distant from them.  With the older children, Tunde extended the knowledge content, using a variety of resources to move on from the Anansi story to a narrative from the history of the Maroons, communities of runaway slaves who lived in the mountains of Jamaica.

The coherence of the sessions was drawn from two important factors, namely that the content was focalized through the person of the artist/teacher and the fact that the theme of the sessions remained constant – they were all fundamentally about overcoming fear, quietly building self-confidence, respecting and retelling the stories from your personal and collective past. In this context, connections could be developed analogically or intuitively, questions could remain unanswered, symbolic resources could be valued and emotions were validated. The performance aspects of the lessons might, superficially, have appeared to render the children relatively passive but, in fact, there was abundant evidence that the children were actively listening and making their own sense of the information that was being conveyed. Through the layering of autobiographical information, folk and family tales, as well as through the direct teaching of visualization and breathing techniques, the artist offered the children resources to use in managing their own imaginative and emotional lives in the present and in the future.