Jan Blake was born in Manchester, UK, of Jamaican parentage. She is one of the leading storytellers, having performed worldwide for over twenty-five years.
Specialising in stories from Africa, the Caribbean, and Arabia she has a reputation for dynamic and generous storytelling.
Jan performs and teaches across the board - from children’s productions at the Royal Shakespeare Company, to master classes on the educational use of story with the British Council, to storytelling about sustainability for business leaders with the World Wildlife Fund - engaging both children and adults in an unforgettable experience.
A growing area of Jan’s work has been in the field of English Language Teaching. Over the years, English language teachers have come to understand how stories and the telling of stories can transform language learning in their classrooms.
For thousands of years societies have taught key principles through storytelling. In some cultures without a written language storytelling was the only way to convey a society’s culture, values, and history.
Instructional tools have been used by great teachers and leaders in the forms of parables, legends, myths, fables, and real-life examples to convey important instruction. Fictional and non-fictional examples have always been powerful teaching tools.
Stories are a wonderful vehicle for introducing language and key characteristics, such as refrains repetitive structures, are all highly useful for contextualising language. Listening to stories expends vocabulary and living language, spoken with passion and from the heart, has the power to transcend language barriers and engage a listener. Since beginning work in this field in 2005, Jan has gone on to demonstrate the value and uses of storytelling within the context of ELT, by performing and running workshops at conferences.
Jan was at the TESOL Greece Convention, last March, and captivated her audience by telling stories from around the world. ELT NEWS did not miss the opportunity to talk to her.
∙How did you into storytelling? “By accident. Back in the 80s, in England, there was a group of storytellers and musicians from India, Africa, England and the Caribbean, who toured the country and told stories to children. I joined the group and that was it.”
∙What was your audience at that time?
“Primary school children, mostly immigrant. We would regularly go to schools to tell stories to children, to play music from other cultures…and I suppose because it was eighties and it was London, it was really about promoting diversity and multiculturalism through stories.”
∙Was it successful?
“Yes. Very successful. But then the money ran out, because the project was state funded, and that was the end of it.”
∙What was the scope? To develop children’s oral skills?
“Yes, that was part of the project. We told and re-told stories…children would go home and collect stories from the elders and would tell these stories in class.
We encouraged the selection of intergenerational stuff. We also taught teachers how to become storytellers. Storytelling is such an individual impulse.
I think getting children to listen to stories is more important than getting them to tell a story; because if they listen to a story, they will eventually tell one.
When children are emotionally engaged with a story or with a character within a story, they will likely want to repeat it to somebody else. It’s a challenge…and children will likely be more willing to meet that challenge.”
∙When I was a little girl my mother and my grandmother used to tell me stories. Don’t mothers and grandmothers tell stories any longer?
“I don’t know. I used to tell stories to my son when he was little. I think mothers and grandmothers always pass on knowledge, family history etc to their children even if it is what my mother used to do –telling my son what I did what I was a little girl. Generally speaking, on a domestic level at least, mothers and grandmothers are the ones who tell family stories.”
∙In your storytelling session, we saw you performing a story…
“I am a performer. I perform stories. I think what improves, what transforms with the years is the choice of stories, because when I began, I used to tell very small frivolling stories, insignificant stories, enjoyable to learn and enjoyable for the audience to listen to.
When I started, I was young…I was twenty two…and no one at 22, unless they have had a hard life, can tell stories with weight, gravitas, with powerful meaning.
Because to tell stories, you need to experience life or develop a mature understanding of life. Life has an impact on you. As you grow older, the stories you choose to tell take on more weight.”
∙Has life given you what you need to tell stories with weight and gravitas?
“I think so. All story tellers are performers. There is action in story telling. It’s not just the movement of the mouth. Stories from India, from West Africa, from Caribbean entail physical movement.
Somebody told me this morning that I am an actress. I took it as an offence because before acting came into existence there was storytelling.”
∙Is it in the human nature to listen to and tell stories?
“I think human beings have been programmed, from ancient times, to hear life’s lessons in the form of stories.”
∙How were you involved in ELT?
“It’s interesting. The British Council invited me to conduct storytelling workshops with teachers of English. In the beginning I couldn’t connect all the dots as to what my function really was.
That is I couldn’t realize that story telling was so important in English language learning. I couldn’t figure it out what was happening. Little by little I realized that the work I do is applicable to the ELT environment.
What I do…commitment, eye contact, tone of voice, repetition, emotional engagement, body language, enthusiasm, confidence, passion… is all teachers do or should do in order their pupils to be open to what they learn.”
∙How do you select your stories?
“If I really love them, I’ll tell them. If I feel lukewarm about a story, I won’t tell it.”
∙What is your source of inspiration?
“West Africa, the Caribbean and the Middle East. I find magical stories in the literature of these areas: stories of women who want to change things in their lives, women who don’t bow.
I am not a raging feminist but as a woman you have to have confidence in yourself in order to survive this world. And a lot of women are trained to have confidence. So the women in my stories confidently make their choices –wrong or right, live or die.”