Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Interviews with our Plenary Speakers: Alec Williams

Please tell us a few things about yourself and your involvement in education.

I suppose you could say that my first ‘involvement in education’ came with my parents telling me stories! I remember my father making up stories for my sister and me, and my mother reading from books. My later career was in library services, not teaching, and early on I started to specialise in library services to children, education and schools. I told stories (usually reading picture books) to classes of children who visited the public library. As so often happens in life, my reward for being good at something was to be ‘promoted out of it’, and I ended up managing children’s library services, behind a desk! In 1999, though, I left libraries and now I work for myself, going back to that storytelling that I enjoyed in the past – but also training, presenting, and speaking about children’s books, reading, libraries, and stories. Maybe the storytelling I also did as a parent has contributed to my son now teaching English at the University of York!

I live in the North of England, in an old farmhouse on top of the Yorkshire Pennines, between Manchester and Leeds. Physically, I’m tall, dark, amazingly attractive, and good at making up stories…

What attracted you to the field of education?

In my library career, I always say there were two main things that attracted me into working with children and young people. One was the sheer quality of children’s books being written in the UK at that time. It was a real eye-opener to read stories by Peter Dickinson, Helen Cresswell, Leon Garfield, Philippa Pearce, Joan Aiken and many others (try some yourself!). The other thing was the energy and enthusiasm evident in specialist librarians who worked with children; they had ‘a light behind the eyes’, and a mission to bring books and children together. I remember one librarian, a big guy with a beard, getting down on his hands and knees during a training course, to show how important it was to be at children’s level when you talked to them. That threw a mental switch!

I’m sure enthusiastic colleagues have been role models for young teachers, too, and I also hope many were drawn to the job by the great pleasure of working with children; it’s the latter that has attracted me to my present career in storytelling, because children’s reactions to stories are different, every day, in every school…

Which are some of the most memorable highlights of your career in education?

In my first job (and subsequently), meeting many famous children’s authors. In my second job, a storytelling session after which primary children wrote: “Thank you for all those stories; none could have done better!”, and “All our class thought you were just like Mr Bean…”. In my third job, creating some brilliant new school libraries, and finding a gift for public speaking (“I only heard him talk for ten minutes”, wrote one parent, “but I’ve never forgotten him…”). In my fourth job, leading a team of thirteen great children’s librarians, and realising my vocation as a trainer (“The most enjoyable course I’ve been on for ages,” wrote one teacher, “He was a breath of fresh air!”). In my present job, occasions such as speaking at the International Conference on Storytelling two years ago, plus experiencing the many countries to which my work has taken me. And, of course, my visit to Thessaloniki…!

Which aspects of your work do you enjoy the most?

Speaking! Although I do write, I find it hard, and I don’t like being tied to a computer. My work involves speaking as a presenter, a trainer, and a storyteller, so – to borrow some English slang – I’m a gob-on-a-stick! I also enjoy working with children, either telling stories or simply talking to them. One four-year-old girl came up very close to me and asked: “Are you a real man?”, a question quite difficult to answer!

Every storyteller likes an audience, but with storytelling the audience is especially important. Unlike in a play, where the lights are out and the same thing happens on stage every night, with storytelling the lights are up, and the audience is involved – either without knowing it, by influencing what the teller chooses to tell next, or directly, in the case of children joining in with choruses, animal noises, or actions.

What are you working on now?

I’m still adding pages to my new website (www.alecwilliams.co.uk); so keep checking it for new things in future! I’m preparing to be the ‘entertainment’ at the leaving party of my former boss. I’m bracing myself for being out at a school every day during World Book Day week (beginning Monday 2nd March). I’m working on two one-day training courses, that I’ll be delivering in May – one (in Scotland) on reading for pleasure, and the other (in the south of England) on how school libraries can help children with special needs. In between all this, I’m trying to learn some new stories…!

What are your professional plans for the future?

I’m happy if people like what I do, and I’d be delighted if my present level of work is maintained. I’m not making big plans to expand into other areas, or be twice as busy, because I need time in between engagements. This is partly to keep up with the admin involved, but also to read, research, and even write some poetry for children.

What should your audience expect to learn during the plenary session at the 22nd TESOL Macedonia-Thrace Northern Greece Annual International Convention?

I hope they’ll learn a lot about ‘bringing stories alive’, and how useful this is in teaching English. There’ll be a little about why stories are valuable, a look at different types of story, and some points on how stories help language learning. I’ll suggest how to choose stories, how to prepare them, and how they could form part of a story session. In particular, I’ll be talking about making stories interactive, giving some practical tips for telling that will boost people’s confidence – including how to hold children’s interest, and how to deal with interruptions! There are some suggestions for follow-up, too.

What are the three words that sum up your session?

Entertaining, humorous, and participative. And, I hope, ‘useful’!

Storytelling is an art. Is it possible for everyone to master or does it take a special kind of character?

If it IS an art, it’s an art that many of us already have. I’d prefer to call it a craft, because we all tell stories (about why we were late for work, about funny things that happened to us, and so on); all you need is to gain confidence about doing the same thing in front of an audience, and using that same excitement, to bring the words alive. With storytelling, everyone’s eyes are on you the whole time – so it helps if you don’t mind (or rather like!) being the centre of attention. With children especially, you also have to be prepared for the unexpected! Character can come into it, too, because storytellers are all different. Some are quiet and still, some more noisy and physical; men and women’s voices have different registers, so that will create difference; the storyteller’s character comes out in the way they tell; and my choice of stories may differ from yours. That’s why it’s so important that children experience a range of different people telling stories, to show that there are many ways of doing it!

Thank you very much,

Natasha Loukeri

For TESOL Macedonia-Thrace, Northern Greece

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