Thursday, January 20, 2011

Stories in a Box: Stimulating language, writing & imagination

Echoes of the past in the objects of our lives

Have you ever tried to clear out your shed or attic and found that a job that was to be a 2-3 hour exercise in shedding your life of junk, becomes a nostalgic walk through long forgotten objects and artefacts that were once part of your life. I fight my way into the shed to find an electric fan and I pull out a box of cameras to get at it.  In the box I find my mother's Box Brownie camera, the source of all my baby photos. The first camera given to me as a child; no more than a plastic pinhole camera. A tool to catch my Mum in awkward poses, my first two dogs in the back yard, my first pedal car. Out of focus shots to be hidden away in other boxes. Out comes the first serious camera I bought. I remember its untimely 'death' in Amsterdam; the victim of just one drop of syrup from a wonderful Dutch Waffle. Objects that 'spoke' of my past, whispering and prodding forgotten memories.

Mem Fox tapped this sentiment in her wonderful book 'Wildfred, Gordon McDonald Partridge'. When Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge visits an old people's home next to his house he makes lots of friends. One of them is Miss Nancy Alison Delacourt Cooper. "He called her Miss Nancy and told her all his secrets."  When his parents tell him that Miss Nancy has "...lost her memory" he sets out to discover what a memory is. His friends at the home all give different definitions - "something that makes you cry", "..something that makes you laugh", "something as precious as gold". He goes looking for Miss Nancy's memory, and along the way he collects objects that he thinks match the definition of a memory and takes them to her in a box.  When he hands them to her she begins to remember things from her past. "She put a shell to her ear and remembered going to the beach by tram long ago..", "She touched the medal and talked sadly of the brother she had loved who had gone to war and never returned". "And the two of them smiled and smiled because Miss Nancy's memory had been found again by a small boy, who wasn't very old either".

Above: Hear Mem Fox read 'Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge'
Stories in a box

Using an object or group of objects to stimulate language is not new, but some enterprising teachers from Ainslie School have used the idea to good effect. They describe the practice in 'Practically Primary' (Vol. 15, No.1, February 2010). The concept is simple and was adapted from a strategy Daniel Meadows uses to stimulate digital storytelling. As part of an annual writing festival the teachers developed 21 different boxes with carefully chosen objects. They placed 5-6 objects in a box that had some relationship to one another. The only exception was the inclusion sometimes of a single object that was unrelated, to allow additional creativity to be used.

The objects in one box consisted of:
A set of WWII medals
Photo of an Australian soldier
Photo of a family standing around an old man
A WWII photo of a soldier in Egypt
Epaulets showing the rank of lieutenant
A small decorated hand fan from the 1940s
The boxes were used in varied ways by different groups of children but many poems, stories, books and digital stories were produced that had their 'seeds' in the items from the class story box. 

How might the Story in a Box strategy be used?

Obviously the idea has many applications at all ages. The teacher or parent would need to model the process of story creation before asking children to do it.  They might also jointly construct a story or two with children before letting them do it independently. With that proviso, here are just some of the ways I'd suggest you might use the strategy:

1. A group of 5 year-olds might explore the objects in a box and try to tell a joint story or simply take turns creating individual stories. You could allow them to supplement the box with a dress-up box if there is a need for children to become specific characters or take on roles.

2. A group of 6-12 year old children might discuss the objects and then prepare a joint monologue to be presented to others (with the objects used as artefacts or aids). Alternatively, a group story or picture book could be produced based on the objects.

3. The box of objects might simply be used to create a digital story (individually or in groups). Have a look at Daniel Meadows' 'Scissors' video to see what might be produced, as wells as my previous post on digital storytelling (here). This approach could also be used with high school children.

What is the value of this simple strategy?

There are many potential benefits of the strategy:
  • It encourages creative storytelling.
  • It offers a way for a group of children to create something together, allowing collaboration skills to develop, leading to joint learning, stretching each other, firing their collective imaginations.
  • It offers an authentic and powerful way to generate stories in digital, print or oral form.
  • This is a strategy that can encourage divergent thinking as the learner is required to generate ideas, connections and storytelling solutions.
  • It works well with children of varied abilities including learners who lack fluency in language and others who are gifted speakers and writers. You can even mix children of varied abilities. 
Related Posts

All my posts on creativity (HERE)
'Digital Storytelling' (HERE)


Jenny said...

Great idea! My girl is always curious about things and last weekend while we were spring-cleaning I took way longer than I should have explaining all sorts of "junk" I've kept. It really helps develop curiosity in kids.

Trevor Cairney said...

It's impossible to sift 'junk' in a hurry. Thanks for your comment Jenny.