Review: History Through Stories

This review originally appeared in Facts & Fiction Magazine, issue 99, and has been reproduced with permission. For more information about Facts & Fiction, visit the website here. 

History Through Stories - Teaching Primary History Through Stories; Chris Smith, Adam Guillain & Nanette Noonan; 9781907359774
History Through Stories: Teaching Primary History with Storytelling by Chris Smith, Adam Guillain and Nanette Noonan – Reviewed by Alastair K Daniels, storyteller, lecturer and author

History Through Stories: Teaching Primary History with Storytelling is the latest in the Storytelling Schools’ Series. These books are based on Pie Corbett’s approach to storytelling, which will be familiar to many teachers through the ‘Talk for Writing’ materials promoted by the Primary National Strategies (archived by the government in 2010, but available online).

As a storyteller, lecturer in teacher education (and former teacher), and an author myself on the role of storytelling in teaching, I was very much looking forward to reviewing this volume. I hope that I can give a reasonable account of the range of the content, and offer some critique of the potential usefulness of this book for teaching history.

The book is A4 format and spiral bound for ease of navigation, and it is illustrated throughout with simple line drawings. There is an introductory section that explains the Storytelling Schools Approach, and how the authors see the book being used in the classroom. The stories themselves are arranged in a series of (generally) chronologically ordered topics which are related to the history of England as laid out in the requirements of the English National Curriculum.

The topics range from ‘Britain since the Ice Age’ through (amongst others) ‘Romans c. 50-100 AD’, ‘Islamic Empire, Non-European Civilisations c. 900 AD’, ‘Women’s Right to Vote c. 1900’ and ‘World War two 1939-45’ to ‘Global Events: The Moon Landing 1969’. Each topic has between one and four related stories told in what the authors refer to as ‘the storytelling voice’. This means that details such as specific dates and statistics that one would normally find in a history textbook are not included in the tales, but each one concentrates, rather, on the narratives of characters through whose eyes events can be understood. Most of the time this means kings and queens, politicians and inventors, but there are also accounts of a girl working in a cotton mill, and a boy who is a victim of slave trading in the eighteenth century.

These last examples lead naturally to a critique of the book as a useful history text. There are thirty-seven stories in this book, but it is a surprise that there is not a single source cited, which perhaps explains the occasionally loose understanding of chronology (such as implying that the slave trade was a Hanoverian phenomenon). The authors make the point that they are working within the genre of historical fiction, but there is an essential difference between a fiction based on a specific historical character (such as the father of Anne Frank) and one built around a character created to illustrate a particular period (such as ‘a British boy who joins the Roman army’). The use of storytelling in teaching history is not without its critics: any retelling of history is necessarily partial, both in its pointof view and the range of historical information that it can include. I think it is a pity, therefore, that the authors didn’t make space for a short discussion, either at the beginning or the end of the book, about the difference between conventional historical accounts and historical fictions/stories told in the ‘storyteller’s voice’, and the ways in which such stories should be used alongside more formal sources.

Of broader concern is a question about the Storytelling Schools Approach in relation to teaching history. I am an enthusiastic teacher of storytelling, and advocate of storytelling being used across the curriculum, but I have to question the limited rationale for the application of ‘imitation, innovation and invention’ as a specific approach applied to history (it has recently been critiqued as an approach to developing children’s writing in Dockrell, J., Marshall, C. and Wyse, D. [2015] Talk for Writing: Evaluation report and executive summary [available online]). Whilst encouragement for children to ‘create innovated stories with new settings, characters or activities based around the original story’ is standard classroom practice (e.g. ‘imagine you are a child in a textile factory, and write a letter home to your parents’), it does need to be understood within a broader approach to history, and an understanding (on the teacher’s part) of those elements of historical accounts that are open to interpretation and fictionalising, and facts that are not negotiable.

In summary, I think that this book would provide a useful resource for teachers who are familiar with storytelling as a teaching technique, providing a range of stories that could be used to support curriculum history across Key Stages 1 and 2. I would hope, however, that teachers who are not used to embedding storytelling in their practice would seek advice about how to make the most of stories in their teaching.

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