Storytelling Around the world


Harrogate Online & more

“The shortest distance between a human being and the truth is a story.”

-Anthony de Mello



Image credits:Joe Ormonde

Perhaps, also,  the story serves as a bridge to understanding.

David Heathfield’s story at Harrogate features a bridge.  As one of the key words in a four-word story prompt, the bridge serves to impart a beautiful concept in the unfolding tale narrated by David.  The stories below all help us to connect as human beings and teachers and they inspire us to play with our imaginations.

Featuring David Heathfield (live streaming Harrogate) with  Rakesh Bhanot, (Harrogate) and Nick Michelioudakis (Tesol  Athens)

If I were to sum up my eclectic interests under one fundamental truth for life, living, teaching and learning, I would choose the art of storytelling as our ultimate tool for self-expression and creative living as human beings from all walks of life.

As an online teacher, I spend most of my time engaged with digital media, and therefore digital storytelling. As such, when I first browsed through the presentation topics for Harrogate Online, I was immediately attracted to storytelling  and digital media topics.

The topics that struck me first were:
1) Student Storytelling: retelling a tale using mental imagery by David Heathfield

2)The open Mike Evening by Rakesh Bhanot and David Heathfield

3) What do you say,after Hello’? by Barry Tomalin

4) Gamified language educational e-tivities by Karenne Sylvester

5) Teaching with mobile devices by Nicky Hockly.

It’s funny how our diverse interests tend to merge together in one place on certain occasions. The ‘Hello’ topic reminded me of a book I have of the same name by Dr. Eric Berne, a psychology book about games people play and the scripts of our lives. The fascinating part of this was that Tomalin presents this topic in the light of social networking. In that sense I have my psychology fix, social networking, online teaching and storytelling all rolled into one presentation.  I’m watching specific  live streamed events in an attempt to merge newly gained insights from my chosen presenters into newly devised, crafted or revised online classes, courses and lesson plans.

I was fascinated to see some ideas & dynamics resonate with my own storytelling experiments online, and I was engaged on many levels with David Heathfield’s presentation called “Student Storytelling: retelling a tale using mental imagery”.

Today I’m featuring David Heathfield (livestreamed) and Rakesh Bhanot ( on Harrogate campus) as my storytelling & poetry guides.  I’m also featuring Nick Michelioudakis as an example of a teaching  professional who imparts surprising psychological truths  through stories and inspired showmanship . I may be stretching my ‘online blogger’ rights here, as I couldn’t experience the open mike poetry readings in person, or Nick’s case study stories, but being the intrepid reporter that I am, I can’t let that stop me;)

Firstly David’s presentation.

Well, the wisest thing I have to say about this is that you’ve just GOT to watch it. It’s not just about the ideas or teaching principles involved, it’s the experience of seeing the craft of a timeless storyteller in action; beyond ELT, before, above and beyond the digital age…….simplicity, pure simplicity without tools, tricks or special effects.

The Art Of Storytelling:

Here, I want to cover the way David connected with the audience naturally through perfect timing, expression, body language, gestures,  mood and so on.  Speed of delivery, tone of voice and use of emphasis also strike me as essentials in getting the story across to students.  David spoke slowly and clearly but completely naturally. I love the part where he acted the ‘stranger’ with such a solemn voice ,”I MUST go on…there are always new bridges to build”…

In the artistic sense it was a wonderful performance. As  teachers who may spend most of our time in mental states of top-down cognition in the classroom, it may seem that this skill belongs to the realm of actors. How do we relax and connect like this?

I believe that the more we learn about storytelling and the more we practice it, the better we can become when we lose some our deeply ingrained inhibitions. As children we played, imagined, acted and ‘became’ our stories. As adults, there are many ways we can revisit this. In some ways from watching others, in other ways from reading more, writing more, and practising more. One of the best ways may be from writing our own stories and ‘becoming the story’.

Firstly I recommend just watching David’s performance a few times to glean the nuances and timing at crucial parts in his simple and wonderful story. Secondly, remind yourself that you owe it to your students to let your hair down and have some creative fun with language. My strongest belief about children and students is that it’s very easy to transmit a love of storytelling to them. It builds up their confidence and appreciation of language and life. It also shapes their future experiences and who they become in later life.


How does David do it?

For me, the crucial aspect of David’s presentation lies in his focus on mental imagery. By demonstrating how stories are crafted through multi-sensory awareness, he is, in effect, telling us how he gets inside the story and how that becomes the authentic performance. An important thing to tremember also is that David uses just three or four key words to create the story and no tools or props except for pen and paper. This would be so easy to adopt to online classes also, where we have many choices – we can go with David’s natural approach or mix and match his ideas with multi-media technology.

His book is a must-have and I’m going to buy it before our next MOOC on WiziQ where I’ll show  you how to use different online environments for story telling.

Check out Storytelling with our students by David Heathfield, Delta publishing.


Inspiration For storytelling Online


digital story




Watching David’s performance also made me wonder how we can get the same effect online. My conclusion is that we can maximise camera windows in the virtual classrooms, so as to be  more animated for our learners. In this age of video and you Tube, virtual classrooms have got to start looking like TV environments for maximum engagement. We can record ourselves telling stories on You Tube and then play the You Tube videos in the virtual classroom,  or embed them onto blogs and learning management systems. Google hangouts are good places for group story telling and then theses can also be replayed in the virtual classroom. We can also create livestream accounts and broadcast videos  through facebook pages. I’m looking forward to implementing these strategies and more through the new page I’m creating called ‘Brain-friendly English Communities Online”.


More ways to implement these ideas online?


I have already implemented some similar ideas, many from my Edupunk days, with collaborative storytelling and poetry writing online. Back then I had large groups of students in the WiziQ classroom where I presented storytelling challenges. One way or another, the onus was always on them to build upon the story, which they did through the chatbox. What I would like to do is stretch it further.

WiziQ is unrolling new user-friendly features for course creation. I’m currently testing the environment in preview so as to give feedback before it goes into beta next week. Along with this, Jason R. Levine is launching a MOOC where we will share out ideas for teaching online. I will use the opportunity to show some ideas I’m outlining here. I may do some online storytelling lesson demonstrations inspired by David’s live streamed presentation.

If all goes well, I’ll show you how we can create  groups for storytelling and poetry through the break out rooms. Alternatively one can create google hangout or skype groups for group storytelling before joining the main classroom online . We can also flip the classroom by having students collaborate via learning management systems or online playgrounds and then present their stories on camera. Later they can create multi-media presentations of their stories and share online through blogs, facebook and you Tube. The point is that when you feel the basics of storytelling, then the multi-media environment will help you to create many different group dynamics online and many different projects.
From art to pedogagy, the pedogagy of art and the art of pedogagy.


Moving from the performance side of things, I’ll put my teaching hat back on and look at the fundamentals in what was shared and imparted during this lovely presentation. David expertly co-ordinated collaborative storytelling activities with the audience, showing just how we can do it with our students. I’ve done this many times myself and it’s amazing what stories students can come up with.


The Art of listening

‘Without the listener there can be no story’


I gave a presentation on ‘listening through storytelling‘ at the ELT techniques MOOC just before Christmas, and I’m also very much fascinated by the psychology of listening for learning and relationships. Obviously, our goal is to build up linguistic competence through listening for passing exams, but the best way to succeed in getting students to pass listening tests is to show them ‘how’ to listen as people,  how to connect,  empathise with the story and story teller etc. Intrapersonal/interpersonal skills enhance cognitive skills and vice versa.
After the audience tells stories in groups, David reminds them of the ways in which they may have used visualisation by prompting and asking them what they ‘saw’, ‘thought about’, and the associations they made throughout the activities. He elicits feedback from the collective audience imagination, and then goes on to talk about mapping – another approach I use for storytelling, memory work, and anything else I can think of. I recently wrote about mapping stories from movie clips for St. Patrick’s Day and presented on the idea at the RSCON Mini-con. It’s nice some have some ideas validated and it’s encouraging for future courses and lesson planning inspiration. In fact, my upcoming Reform Symposium presentation will develop more mindmapping ideas.


The open mike evening with David Heathfield and Rakesh Bhanot.

David also joined Rakesh at Harrogate in a collaboration of storytelling with poetry and singing. As this was an event I couldn’t attend, I asked Rakesh to describe it for us.



Rakesh with David and international colleagues at the open mike evening. Rakesh says that the main feature of the evening was how truly international English has become.

“David had wanted to have a story telling session. Something he has done in the past. I wanted to do an open mike evening so we combined the two thinking people would come and tell stories recite poems read key texts etc.  Most people, in fact,  recited poems or sang songs.  Most people are willing to read or  recite their favourite  poems or even their own poems.

We had a very international audience and many of them contributed from Panjabi ( my mother tongue and in incidentally the second most spoken language in the UK). We had individual performers as well as choral performance by the Brazilians.

The highlight for me was a Pakistani colleague who sang a ghazal unaccompanied in Urdu. Very professional.

I managed to find and recite the shortest English poem and it’s not in Google which claims a different longer poem called Fleas and goes ” Adam / had’em!!!!! The one I know is called An ode to a cigarette lighter and goes ” it/lit”!!! Anon

We had about 50 /60 participants and some die-hards stayed on in the bar telling stories and sharing poems after the event.

I think it would be great for schools to have open mike evenings for parents and the community. This could happen if students had poetry as part of their language learning experience. By that I mean writing their own poems. Here’s a previous article I wrote about poetry in ELT. Online we can also have poetry webinars, blogs and multi-media poetry projects.


Tales of classroom management and motivation


As I was on the presenting and storytelling theme I was reminded of the TESOL convention in Athens. One storytelling presentation I couldn’t attend and which wasn’t live streamed was storytelling by Nick Michelioudakis. Nick’s approach is deeply influenced by psychology, so I always find his work interesting. By all accounts of the event, it was a very dynamic, powerful presentation, and unique in its approach to professional development and teacher training through story telling and sharing authentic experiences.




His topic was ‘Tales of Classroom management and motivation‘. By sharing case studies and personal stories he engaged the audience to reflect upon their own experiences and tell their own stories.

After each story, colleagues were invited to reflect on what they’d heard and discussed what this story meant for them as teachers – what they could learn from it. Then he  highlighted some key points in the story and said a few things about what Psychologists had discovered about each of them – these were the ‘take home’ ideas.

The stories were called CS Jones, CS Bobby, CS the journal, and 11 case studies. You can find these amongst other articles at his website here.


Inspiring stories:

Motivation – CS Jones

Dealing with difficult learning situations – CS Bobby

SMART principles – CS The Journal

11 Case Studies

This is what Nick says about storytelling:

“I love theory, but it can be too abstract. Theory is like writing; it is something you have to be taught and not everybody will develop a liking for it – it is an acquired taste.  Stories on the other hand are like speaking. They are our ‘native language’. We are wired for story. You hear a well-chosen story and you experience an ‘A-ha!’ moment. ‘Yes!’ you tell yourself ‘Now I know…’”


Finally, I’ll just add that I think it’s very important to tap into the influences around us. That’s why I believe that professional development conventions and live streamed events are very important. They allow us to pick and choose what kinds of subjects and interests we wish to develop further or, on the other hand, to explore new terrain. The choices from the many conventions and online events recently has been amazing. It takes time to watch them but we should think of these  videos as part of our online professional development library. They’re not going anywhere in a hurry.

Related links: Digital storytelling, technology & gamification.

Review of Karenne Sylvester’s presentation, Gamified language educational e-tivitie,
which I also want to cover.

Review of Nicky Hockly’s presentationTeaching with mobile devices

Some of my story-telling webinars:

My collection on Pinterest.

Psychology of Storytelling, ESLbrain

Listening and Storytelling, ESLbrain

Social and emotional approaches to teaching (stories and comics) Sylvia Guinan

Interactive storytelling for exams ESLbrain

Example of livestream for facebook

Sylvia Guinan

is an online English teacher, writer and blogger who facilitates professional development online. She uses brain-friendly techniques to help students and teachers around the world. She designs educational materials, develops courses, writes resource papers and publishes ebooks. Her work is the result of much research into the psychology of learning, as well as hands-on experience with multi-media technology.

3 thoughts on “Storytelling Around the world

  1. Hi Sylvia
    I have only just come across this blog after more than a year! I feel very honoured that the session at IATEFL Harrogate affirmed your storytelling practice. I’m also interested in the idea of group storytelling online – keep me posted about this.
    By the way, even though the workshop is no longer available at the iatefl website, it’s still there on youtube so maybe you can put it back on this blog post:

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