Anna weaves her storytelling magic for the last time….

The adventure is over, the final stories have been told and performed and the Federation of Children’s Book Groups waved goodbye to our Jean Russell Storyteller, Anna Conomos, last Friday at Oxford.

Earlier in November, Anna and I went to Ipswich to spend a fun-filled day working with young carers at three secondary schools in Suffolk.  Using Mound 17 at Sutton Hoo as inspiration, with its gruesome skeletons and beautiful horse bridles, Anna told the European-wide story of Bayard and Rinaldo and encouraged the teenagers to develop their own stories with an ending that could bring the horse and his rider back to Sutton Hoo.

The pupils had great fun, learning how to freeze-frame their stories and then performing them in front of the other students, Saxon dancing with the teachers and using mediaeval images and modern sculptures of Bayard and Rinaldo as inspiration. They learned how to create stories together, perform them as supportive teams and watch and encourage the other performers in their turn.

It was fun!!!’ said many of the students, all of whom wanted to tell more stories and do it all over again. Bearing in mind the challenging lives some of these pupils have at home, to enjoy the stories and share fun together was a wonderful way to spend a day.

And then across from east to west to finish the project…

Despite the last-minute hitch of a bout of laryngitis, the Jean Russell Storyteller Project culminated in a wonderful performance of ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ by more than 160 children from 3 primary schools in Oxford at the Oxford Children’s Book Group StoryFest.  Anna spent just three hours at each school rehearsing segments of the story with the children, using her trademark energy and passion and her own songs, actions and props to embed the stories with the pupils and the adults. Anna’s genius lies, not just in her own performing abilities, but also in her charismatic approach to the children, encouraging them, engaging with them, allowing them to co-create their own images of the Argo, of King Peleus, of the many-headed monster and of the rocks of Charybdis and Scylla (or Rocky and Craggy…).

On Friday afternoon, the children came together for the first time to briefly rehearse and then perform the story to an audience of more children from St Ebbe’s Primary School, plus guests from the Story Museum, the Lord Mayor of Oxford, members of the national Federation of Children’s Book Groups and the Chair of the Ragdoll Foundation which has generously funded the Jean Russell Storytelling project.

Individual children played specific roles, from Jason to Hercules to Athena, but they also acted together, becoming in turn a whole galley crew, a deep, dark forest or the many-headed, fire-breathing monster that guarded the Golden Fleece.

Teacher Simone Wilson said that “the children had loved working with Anna because she used their ideas so creatively and made them feel confident.” She felt they had gained a great deal from the experience and the Lord Mayor of Oxford, Atlaf Khan, remarked how well Anna engaged the children in the story. He was most impressed by the children’s enthusiasm and how they remembered all the actions and songs and rhymes.

Jackie Holderness, current Chair of Oxford CBG, said they were delighted that Anna Conomos had been chosen as the Jean Russell Storyteller, because she used her many talents to bring into reality their vision to unite children from different schools in the shared experience of storytelling. Storytelling highlights the close relationship between talking, thinking and writing and Jackie explained that hearing and retelling stories is very important in developing literacy skills. She said, “Listening to, reading and acting out stories can help to widen children’s vocabulary and support their writing and social skills.”

In total, 19 schools, nearly 2,000 children, 80 teachers and parents and 19 education students have all benefited from the project. They had all enjoyed working with – and learning from – Anna’s lively approach to storytelling.

There have been many highlights for me in this project: images of Shiva, Lord of the Dance, racing around at Weston-super-Mare with a huge grin on her face, of the faces of the ill children at the Great Western Hospital in Swindon lighting up when they heard Anna’s thunder-stick, of the father at Birmingham who said he now had confidence to share stories with his own children, of the children performing at the Whitfest in Reading, who had never performed in public before, taking ownership and directing others, of the young carers dancing and giggling at Ipswich and, of course, of the children at Oxford, who came together to perform as an entire cast with less than 3 hours rehearsal time each.

So – what now? Each group can be proud of their contributions to the project. We are already thinking about how we can ensure that all the creativity, enjoyment and confidence shown by the children and young people during the six months can be sustained and embedded within the schools and communities.

Watch this space – we haven’t done yet!

Julia Miller, National Co-ordinator, Jean Russell Storytelling Project


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