Telling a story
What should the good story do?
Using stories is one of the most basic and fundamental techniques in history teaching, involving as it does the recounting of past events and human actions. Good storytelling can foster historical development by
- commanding attention and promoting listening and recall skills
- stimulating discussion and questioning
- extending children’s vocabulary and knowledge
- having a strong sense of sequence – a clear beginning, development, and resolution or ending – which will encourage children’s sense of chronology
- appealing to children’s sense of curiosity, their emotions and imaginations; allowing them to return to the past and empathise with the feelings and circumstances of the characters portrayed.
Stories can play a number of roles in the history programme:
- stories can be used as independent units of work. Biographical accounts of people from a variety of backgrounds will be an important component in the history programme at all levels. The curriculum lays considerable stress on the need to include local, national and international figures and people whose lives are illustrative of a broad range of human experience.
Too often in the past political and military leaders, almost exclusively male, dominated in collections of ‘lives of famous people’. Stories should also be drawn from the lives of women and men who have made, and are making, contributions to other aspects of human endeavour, such as social, technological, scientific, cultural and artistic development
- a story can act as a stimulus for the introduction of a unit of work; for example, the story of Colm Cille’s copying of a religious manuscript and the disputes which ensued could provide an ideal introduction to the life and work of the Early Christian monasteries
- stories may be used as part of a wider piece of work on a historical theme. In the middle and senior classes particularly, the study of a period can be greatly enriched by the simultaneous telling or readingof a story or stories set in the period. Eye-witness accounts and fictional stories woven around historical events and characters (real or imagined) can help children to make the imaginative jump from the present to the context of the historical period in question
- stories can foster the development of important values and attitudes. Including stories from a range of perspectives, including those of various religious and ethnic groups, travelling and settled communities and people of diverse social backgrounds, can encourage the child’s appreciation of difference and foster attitudes of tolerance and mutal respect
- stories are an important vehicle for the transmission of cultural heritage. Myths and legends can appear to sit rather uncomfortably with accounts of historical episodes, yet they have come to us from the oral histories of ancient societies. While obviously fictional and allegorical, many express truths about the values and beliefs of these peoples. Moreover, these stories form part of our cultural inheritance and shared ideas. Legends and myths therefore will have their role in the history programme and not just during the early years: the study of myths and legends will be an aspect of the work completed on civilisations and societies in the middle and senior classes.
EXEMPLAR 8 - Telling a story (first to fourth classes)
Reading stories and historical fiction
A well-read story may not have the dramatic effect of a story-telling but it can be a very effective tool in the teaching of history. Many of the techniques and points described above in Exemplar 8, Telling a story, under storytelling are equally applicable to the read narrative: the need to be completely familiar with the story and its historical background, the need to identify and explain language and terms to the children, the value of using artefacts and evidence when reading the story, the use of voice and gesture and the importance of wide-ranging follow-up discussions.
Stories, even those lacking an obviously historical content, can help younger children to understand sequence, cause and effect and can help the child to empathise with others. When choosing stories, teachers should also include some which are more directly linked to the content of the history curriculum: for example, Mary Beckett’s A Family Tree (Poolbeg, 1992), which explores the impact of the arrival of twins in a family, and Something Old by Ruth Craft and Nicola Smee (Young Lions, 1993) are not accounts of known historical events but will complement the explorations of family history recommended for infants and first and second classes. Similarly, a book such as John Burningham’s Seasons (Red Fox, 1993) can provide excellent opportunities for discussion of the changes to be observed during the year.
Incidents from the lives of historical characters are ideal for this age group and are retold in several collections of stories, while other books weave fact and fiction, such as in Michael Freeman’s The Boy who Sailed with Columbus (Pavilion Books, 1991), the story of an orphan who acts as ship’s boy on the explorer’s voyage. When assessing a story’s suitability many of the criteria mentioned for the storyteller also apply. The best story lines are simple, the number of characters is limited, and the story falls into a number of clear, distinct episodes. The historical accuracy of the details and particularly the illustrations should also be examined.
Good historical fiction, either read by the children themselves or read to them by the teacher, can play a very important role in the development of historical understanding. The best writing of this genre allows children to become familiar with the detail of the characters’ lives and to understand the attitudes, perspectives and concerns of the people of the time in a way which would be almost impossible to gain from the examination of primary evidence.
A wide range of this material exists for almost all historical periods. Some authors choose to retell the story of events in the past using real historical characters and events: for example, Morgan Llywelyn’s Strongbow and Aoife (O’Brien Press, 1994), which tells the story of the Norman invasion of Ireland from the personal perspectives of these two central characters, introduces children to the subtleties and complexities of this period more effectively than another format might allow.
Other authors invent fictional characters but place them in accurately drawn historical contexts, for example Michael Mullen’s The Viking Princess (Poolbeg), Marita Conlon-McKenna’s novels set at the time of the Great Famine, and Rosemary Sutcliff’s stories from the Roman and Viking periods.
Most of these books provide ideal material for serial reading, and as the narrative proceeds opportunities should be taken to explore how the author knows about the period in question. For example, children engaged in a study of the Stone and Bronze Ages will find Kathleen Fidler’s The Boy with the Bronze Axe (Puffin, 1972) full of the detail of Stone Age life, work and culture and can be introduced to the historical evidence on which the book is based: the Stone Age village of Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands, which was preserved for centuries under advancing sand dunes until exposed following a storm in the nineteenth century.
Perhaps one of the most useful roles which the novel can play is to allow the child to explore complex events and questions through the experiences of fictional yet believable characters. For children many issues are often seen in ‘black and white’ terms. History helps them to appreciate that life is rarely that simple. The effects of the growing influence of anti-Semitism may be seen as it impinges on the friendship of a Jewish boy and his non-Jewish friend in Hans Peter Richter’s Friedrich (Puffin, 1987). Children’s literature which has arisen from the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland provides further examples. Joan Lingard’s The Twelfth Day of July (Puffin, 1979), especially if read as children study the Williamite period of the 1690s, is an excellent way of exploring the consequences of an historical event. The novel explores the differing ways in which historical episodes can be interpreted by people today and the influence this may have on their actions and their opinions of others.