Storytelling provides opportunities to develop understanding and drive change on serious matters for children, says Indigenous Australian author and performer Boori Monty Prior.
Boori joined literacy leaders Sharon and Phil Callen on Episode 37 of The Teacher’s Tool Kit for Literacy to talk about the power of storytelling.
The award-winning author celebrates his new children’s picture book Story Doctors, an empowering story that unites all Australians and readers through ‘acknowledging our true history, embracing inclusivity and celebrating the healing powers of nature and culture’.
The book provides a key example of how to provide young children with entry points into more complex discussions, without assuming their capability to understand.
“We don’t realise that the little ones are starving for more things (books, stories, knowledge) about their country,” Boori said.
Boori said storytelling and language is most powerful when it is inclusive and doesn’t become too political.
“When I worked in the detention centre up in Townsville, I read it (Story Doctors) in the prison and I said ‘tell me, what’s not in there?’ and then they said ‘there’s no anger, there’s no malice, there’s no Black Lives Matter, there’s no reconciliation, there’s no close the gap, there’s no land rights’ etc.,” Boori said.
“And then I read it again, and I said ‘now tell me what’s in there’, and they said ‘inclusiveness’. So I think that’s what the work was all about.”
From a teacher’s perspective, Sharon said asking students these two key questions, what’s in the story and what’s not, can open insightful discussions and promote great learning.
“I think these are the two great questions that teachers can really use, because if we’re working with younger students, they’re going to come at it from their understanding about things, and I often think that younger students actually have a better understanding of many of these things because they actually don’t have some of the other layers. So, I think they’ll come through quite truthfully and genuinely and authentically about those things,” she said.
“So I think they are two really powerful questions to open the conversation about these things and to start being united by this story because this is a story of healing. This isn’t a story of blame or pointing fingers. This is a ‘what can we do from here? What kinds of thinking do we need to take forward? What kind relationship with the land do we need?'”
For young students looking to write their own story or literacy text, Boori talked about the importance of not restricting yourself, whether it be to a genre, the content itself or to one perspective.
“[Story Doctors] is not “real poetry” in a sense, it’s just verse shifting … most times I write whatever I want to write. If verse comes to my head I’ll do verse. If just telling a story through voices is there, well I’ll do that. So I’m never restricted,” he said.
“And it’s not from my black perspective, it’s from my perspective. There’s no colour or race really. It’s just making the words breathe so there’s space for you to breathe when you’re reading it.
“You’ve got to step outside and leave your ego at the first line and just write from inside yourself and for yourself, and if anybody else wants to be part of that they can …We want to know about you how you feel, not what you think other people want you to feel. It’s easy to say sometimes and not do, because one person brings out a vampire book and it does really well and then everyone does five million vampire books after.”
Sharon added: “It’s about voice and trusting what you have to say and not to be afraid to go into your head to work out what it is that you’re trying to say. To let it flow, not be constrained, by a particular genre or form”.
Part of achieving this is helping students to draw from all life experiences, not just the good ones.
“The way you [Boori] bring your life experiences into the story, that connects with the kids and that’s what teachers can do to get a really strong relationship going with them. You’re being upfront and honest about all the scary, funny things that have happened to you as a kid, and you’re just bringing that into their lives,” Phil said.
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