a universe of learning

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Sara Stanley with the wild things

Here we were in Norwich, two grandmothers sitting on the floor opening match boxes holding miniatures – small stimuli that expand into big questions, discussions and ‘a universe of learning’. That quote came from Charlie (4) when he was describing his ‘school for dragons’.

And what a universe of learning is happening at this nursery school in Norwich. Sara Stanley pioneered the Storytelling Curriculum for the Early Years which evolved into Philosophical Play.  Her work is based on 25 years of listening to children. She has scribed hundreds of conversations overheard when children play and noted the philosophic world that children live in.

Children use abstract concepts naturally  – good/bad, right/wrong, sharing/ownership, rights, proof, possibilities, revenge/love/hate, gender, rights/rules/justice/fairness/power,  friendship, trickery and possibilities from the time they have language. And from this Sara developed Concept Cards where children identity the philosophic concepts within their (and other) stories. It’s my turn (fairness) You’re not friend any more (friendship) Not now (time) No that toy is mine (ownership) You’re the baddy and I’ll be the goodie (good/bad). You’re not sharing (sharing).  Don’t scream at me. That’s not what friend do friendship). The fairy is here but she’s invisible (proof). That’s going to be impossible (possibilities). The dragon is going to get you back (revenge). Only girls can play this game (gender).  Sara then connects the children’s imagination and love of storytelling with philosophical inquiry. Her practice is continually evolving and I not only observed Sara in action but had time to theorise with her about her practice and ways to effectively train early childhood teachers. Her method, detailed in her two publications, is replicable.

Sara reading a story written by two year olds
Sara reading a story written by two year olds

On the day of my visit, Sara was giving a two hour session at a disadvantaged Nursery school in Norwich. She started by reading The Fire Monster written and illustrated by a group of two year olds from Reflections Nursery School in Worthing. The children spontaneously started discussing the book until a child suggested he’d seen a monster in the outdoor playground. Here Sara understood this was a philosophic move. She suggested we might go outside to see if we could find clues or proof that a monster was in the garden.

finding evidence of dragons
finding evidence of monsters

The high level of energy, engagement, collaboration and imaginative play went on for more than than an hour. Sara and her assistant scribed what they heard and what stories the children were telling them.  She always acknowledged the author of the story and some children double checked that she did this.

Sara recording Tegan's story
Sara recording Tegan’s story

The children returned inside and Sarah read the children’s stories back to the children.  New discussions started from these children’s texts. Would a monster rather be a monster or a human? Could you be a monster? Are all monsters bad monsters?

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… we were fire monsters  too

I followed Tegan (4) who was highly active when it came to finding clues that a monster did live in the garden.  After a while she took chalk and drew her story and then later retold it to Sara who scribed it.   This is transcript of that story by Tegan (4) Tegan:  The monster had a lot of fire. I’m in the story. Ellie May and me. The fire monster killed us because we touched him  and we died. And when we woke up we were fire monsters too. But we blew out blue smoke.  Judy you can be in our story. Judy: No I’m making up my own story. I could go on and on about her methods but they are well described in her two books which I would highly recommend. Stanley, Sara, But Why – Teacher’s manual  – developing philosophical thinking in the classroom. Stanley, Sara, Why Think – Philosophical Play from 3-11  

the storytelling curriculum in action

Four years ago when Anna Bolt was appointed Principal of Glyncollen Primary School in  Swansea, she asked her staff to abandon the formal literacy program and adopt the Story Telling Curriculum (STC) instead. As a pilot she focused on the Foundation Stage, which includes the Nursery School (3 to 4 years) Reception, Year One and Year Two.

With Anna Bolt
with  Principal Anna Bolt

This was radical thinking and planning. It challenged officially sanctioned ways of promoting literacy. It questioned the assumptions made about how children learn to be literate. It disrupted the views of ‘good practice’ and ‘what works’. The approach is led by the theory that narrative understanding is the primary meaning-making tool. It reinforces that children from 3-7 are highly imaginative. As an example of the theory into practice, young children tell their stories to an adult who scribes them. These stories are then read back to the children then become part of the class reading, drama and philosophy stimuli for discussion. In all classrooms, teachers leave motivational triggers for children to explore.

Reception open classrooms with child directed activities
Reception open classrooms with child directed activities

The morning I visited the Reception class, the children had found a letter from the Queen asking for help to find her crown. In the captured moment below, some children were writing letters to the Queen on Ipads, others were creating possible scenarios on how the heist happened and others were redesigning another crown. In this Reception class the class were using The BFG by Roald Dahl as the year long novel.

using the BFG as the year long motivational text
using the BFG as the year long motivational text

I observed how all aspects of the learning curriculum stemmed from the novel like ‘Who is the class giant?’ (measurement), tallying the giant’s tasting table (numeracy), ‘describe the BFG’ (literacy), writing letters on Ipads, creating menus for the BFG,  writing stories, drama and of philosophic discussions the emerged from the story.  This week the discussion question was ‘are Queens and Princesses always good?’ Children are responsible for their own progress which has led to a change in classroom structure. Children work on tasks and the teacher and two aides (yes a teacher and 2 aides for 30 children) move between groups to support the the learning. Teachers programs in Foundations Stage are written after the event demonstrating what and how the teacher has covered rather than the traditional way of planning what will be taught and directing the learning to prescribed outcomes. I talked at length with Sian, the Year Two teacher who had based her year program around James and the Giant Peach and I was able to retrospectively read through her program. Sian had built not only her Literacy program on the novel but also her entire program including Science, Mathematics, and Personal Development. Dr. Sue Lyle had undertaken action research with Sian and in brief they noted that standards had risen dramatically and the biggest impact had been on reading and writing.

My initial thinking is that Story Telling Curriculum could be an effective planning tool in Preschool and Kindergarten classes in Australia. However, I am still trying to get my head around how the dictated outcomes of the curriculum are achieved without any explicit teaching.

Reference: The Impact of the Storytelling Curriculum on Literacy Development for Children Aged Six to Seven and their Teachers, Sue Lyle & Anna Bolt, University of Wales.