The Story of Transition Tales
This is the story of Transition Tales, a small group within Transition Town Totnes. One of the aims of this project is to raise awareness within Primary and Secondary School children of the transition solution of community led response to the twin challenges of Peak Oil and Climate Change by creating positive stories. This is done in partnership with local schools in the Totnes area, either as part of class time, or in after-school clubs. In writing up their story, I hope to highlight many successes, challenges and issues that will be of interest to those who wish to set up a Transition Tales initiative within their own Transition Town or Transition Network project.
Who Are Transition Tales?
In 2009, Transition Tales was organized by Steph Bradley, Mara Green, and Jeff van Zyl. Their workshops with schools were supported by a larger number of volunteers. I spent time with both Steph and Mara, interviewing both of them on the progress that had been made over the last few years, where Transition Tales had come from, what they had achieved, and what their visions and ambitions were for taking this project forward.
The Formation of Transition Tales
Transition Town Totnes began informally in late 2005, when Rob Hopkins and Naresh Giangrande initiated a series of talks and film screenings to raise awareness about the issue of peak oil. This rapidly began to build momentum for some kind of a community response, and this was launched as Transition Town Totnes in September 2006, at an event called “The Official Unleashing” of TTT.
Steph: “Rob did a Transition Course in 2006/2007 called “Skilling Up for Power Down” which was an 8 week course. One of things people on the course said was “What about young people?” This is a question that keeps coming up. The profile of Transition Town is still white middle class middle aged people, doing all these things. Where are the kids and where are the young people. So it came up right at the very beginning. Transition Tales was Rob and half a dozen other people’s response to that.”
“They got together a little group which included Hannah Mulder, who had a background in theatre. They had a meeting with Alan Dyer from Plymouth University from the Centre for Sustainable Education, who was involved in the initial consultation, and Steven Jones, then Head of KEVICC (King Edward VI Community College, Totnes). They talked about the feasibility of running a pilot at KEVICC and what it should look like and what include and they came up with three sessions that they were going to run at KEVICC.”
Hannah took over the facilitation of these sessions, and looked for volunteers, which is when Steph first got involved. At the same time Rob was ran some story-related sessions for adults with Matt Harvey a local poet. Matt would tell some of his own stories through poetry and in these sessions the participants were coming up with their own stories of Transition.
The First Sessions with KEVICC, Year 7
I asked Steph to tell me more about what happened in these early sessions:
Steph: “We ran a pilot with a year 9 group, just one session with 14 year olds, and then we had 3 sessions with the whole of the year 7, which was 250 children, over a period of 2 months so it was quite full on.”
“Session 1 was all about awareness raising and we did Rob’s oil bottle t game. [This will be described in more detail in the section below]. We showed them the film “The Story of Stuff” which is quite a good awareness raising film. So an element of the session was very much about telling them what was going on and then the ideal was that they would come up with stories, told as if they were in 2030. These were news stories and were going to be filmed and put onto youtube.”
“In the second session they had the opportunity to develop the stories, and in the third session we had the film studio and Hannah filmed all of them doing their little news casts. Alex in Transition Lewes got these videos into shape and put them on to youtube.”
At the end of this year Hannah left the project and handed over to Steph.
The Second Series of Sessions at KEVICC
The first pilot sessions had been invaluable in terms of the richness of feedback from both the children and teachers involved. The group had run an outdoor session with local storyteller Chris Salisbury, a session which had proven to be the most popular. It also became clear that three sessions was not enough. This was not just in terms of amount of information to impart. By talking about the emotive issues of Peak Oil and Climate Change, children needed time to take this information in, and have time to really process it. This shaped how Steph approached introducing the subject to children in the first session, by limiting the awareness raising and moving into the transition solution, which is about community building and having a positive community-led response:
Steph: “What we did then was limit the awareness raising to the very first session, by showing a short cartoon1, just 5 – 10 minutes long, about the earth being polluted. We didn’t want to come in with this big heavy weight. I often think you can’t do this, come in and drop a big heavy lead weight on to people, especially young people. So we moved away from filling them in about this big horrible picture.”
“We did play the oil bottle game as it is a very good game. In this we have a bottle of water and tell the children that that is all the oil there is in the world. They all take on a role; a car, airplane, toothbrush, washing machine, car, they decide, and they each have an empty glass. We ask them as a class “How much oil do you think you need?” When the bottle gets to half full we then ask them “Now what?” It’s just wonderful to watch them. The ones who have chosen to be airplanes are desperate to give it away. They’re horrified. “I’ve got a whole glass and you’ve only got this much!” They’re sharing it out. That’s their natural impulse to do that. Then we discuss what shall we do with the rest.”
Between the first and second year Steph also introduced an element of Economics. The economic climate had changed within the UK, and the emotional impact this was beginning to have on the children was noticeable
Steph: “We did a piece on Gross National Product and Gross National Happiness and so we introduced Economics. In the first year it wasn’t so evident but in the second year it was much more evident. Woolworth had just closed down and it really mattered to the children and they were worried, so we brought that in and looked at what makes people happy”
“We had a happiness wall and children wrote on yellow post-its on the walls. My pet, my mummy, friends. All of the things that made them happy. We kept these up for the sessions so whatever went on they could look at that and if there isn’t going to be a lot of money or oil, these things are always going to be there for them. So we had something there to hold any difficult emotions. We could say “well remember the things that make you happy. It’s stroking your pet, talking to your friends. These things don’t cost you any money.”
“We had this there ready to catch them as it were. This was something we added that wasn’t there initially. That felt really important.”
The emotional wellbeing of the children is of paramount importance to the Transition Tales team, and one double session which had been split up over lunchtime proved to offer a major insight for Steph. A long-running argument between a boy and a girl had threatened to blow up into a fight, and some older boys had entered their classroom and had been bullying some of the younger boys and all of the children were extremely agitated at the start of the second part of the session. Steph decided that she could not simply ignore this and carry on as planned:
Steph: “So I just scrapped my plan and said “shall we sort this out?” I had never done anything like this before. They tried to not speak at once but it was quite heated. We then reached a stage where I could pick pieces of the session to do. I thought I had ruined the project. I spoke to the head of year 7. I told her what had happened who recommended that I should have ignored it. She said “we do have systems and procedures in school to deal with this kind of thing.”
“What this brought up was that you can not raise awareness about peak oil and climate change with children if there is something right there and then that is impacting on their lives, you just can’t. It was a huge lesson for me and about how you work with children with what is going on in their life right now. You work through that first and then you build a sense of community and then you present “well actually this is going on in the world”. That then felt like the right way around.”
The Outdoor Sessions
Included in the second year of sessions was more time outside. This was done with Year 7 pupils who at that age are not following the national curriculum, but who still have a project-based curriculum. KEVICC has a piece of woodland that is only open to sixth formers. After helping clear up the woodland due to it being littered with every kind of waste material possible, the children were asked to build “structures of resilience” with whatever materials they could find.
Steph: “We had them building structures that showed resilience or non-resilience. They could choose, from a fairy house that would fall over in the wind, or a big strong structure built of corrugated iron. They had to use whatever they found in the woods. They loved doing this. The feedback was that this is what they really loved. Contact with nature and building things. We asked them to create structures of resilience but they were building dens. No doubt at all to them they were dens.”
It was in the planning and facilitation of these sessions that Jeff became involved, and as large numbers of volunteers were needed to ensure that each child had adequate supervision more people got involved, including Mara who became a key player. None of the volunteers, including Steph, had training in outdoor education, and in particular on restricting the children to what were to be considered “safe” activities. Steph’s response is extremely revealing, and depressing at the same time:
Steph: “We found that the outdoor sessions became a massive thing. The feedback we got was overwhelming. “We learnt, we discovered, we found out you can eat plants!” The outdoor sessions were all about connection to nature and the shocking feedback for us was that they didn’t know anything about nature. They climbed trees, they hurt themselves, we did risk assessments but we let them climb trees anyway. There was joy in the children who hurt themselves. It was if they were actually pleased. Some were quite delighted, they were quite proud; they were war wounds. They had never been allowed to do this before, it was a big thing. It felt really important to give them this experience. When I was a child you climbed trees and fell out and that was normal.”
“The joy the children had, they came to life, were enthusiastic, worked hard, and that was the highlight. When they came back inside they wanted to go out again. It was heartbreaking to know they were not allowed in the woods even though they are in the school grounds. I am so happy that we did it in the way we did it as we learnt from the children. ”
Working with Younger Children
As well as working with Year 7 pupils, Transition Tales have also been running sessions in Primary Schools, with 9 – 11 year olds. The objective was to explore what the differences would be working with a younger age group, and to discover what activities would work.
Steph: We did find that some things worked, for example the Quest Game, which is a game we developed to use at KEVICC as a way to enable them to develop their stories. Instead of coming up with stories and drama as we did with the year 7s though, we went very much into craft work. We got them to make model villages of their own village, how it is now and how it could be in 2030. It was much more tactile for the children. Mara took them outside and got them to look for things in nature, leaves and twigs, and again this is what they loved, being outside.
It was interesting to find that awareness of environmental issues is becoming more noticeable in this age group, compared with just two or three years ago. And again these issues were having en emotional impact too, which led to Transition Tales developing some methods to help them work through these emotions and reactions:
Steph: “We found that the children did know about Transition Town, about climate change, it is starting to come into the schools anyway. We are changing as they know more. They know more than children their own age two years ago when the project started. In the two years of doing this project we are constantly changing because the kids are far more aware. In the first year we were telling them about climate change and peak oil. In the second year they were already coming in frightened and worried and saying “My mum says we have no money in the bank what are we going to do?” They had stories to tell and were already being impacted.”
“Our approach had to change quite a lot. Now in primary schools they are already being taught a lot. There is a lovely display on the walls in the reception of the Grove which is where we are working right now showing them where vegetables come from. So they have apples and bananas with huge long arrows going right across the world, and then they have Riverford which is our local farm with carrots, potatoes and peas, coming from just down the road. That is already there. They are doing Transition activities already now, just naturally.”
Plans for 2010 and Areas for Development
In the first quarter of 2010 Transition Tales plan to continue running workshops with the Primary School children in the Totnes area. Outdoor sessions will certainly form part of the sessions due to the positive impact they have:
Steph: “Our plan is for the next session to ask “What would you like to do next?” They have shown us their little garden. Maybe we could do some stories around that? We took them outside for some games outside. They have pent up energy from sitting indoors, and you let them run wild and they are then focused again. You really notice the impact that has on children, sitting inside, on chairs, following the agenda of whoever that might be. You give them 10 minutes to do what they want and the difference is noticeable, the motivation, the focus is back. You can them ask them how they would like to work, it’s amazing.”
For the Year 7 pupils at KEVICCs, it was decided that it was important to have continuity between sessions. If sessions ran with a gap of too many weeks in between, the children would often lose the thread of the content. Therefore in June, all 250 children will spend all 8 contact hours on a field trip at Embercombe, an outdoor centre in Devon created to teach children and adults about environmental issues and also to help develop the practical skills that will be needed in the coming years.
What is also becoming clear to the Transition Tales team is the need to support teachers, and development training materials and workshops for them:
Steph: “Another thing was that there was no point us going in for 6 or 9 sessions as that meant we are only there occasionally. What came from that was that we knew we needed a Transition Tales Teacher Training course. We have been slowly developing this. We have run a single day course, and in March we hope to run a 2 day course. We need to work with the teachers and then they can work with the children as they know if there are problems going on with the children. They can follow up too afterwards and this is important.”
“What we hope to develop on the training course is both Outer Transition and Inner Transition. It may not be so explicit, but we do hope to include some reflection on personal transition including quiet time for the teachers. They have so much bureaucracy it is no wonder many don’t have time to look at these other aspects so we hope to give something to them too. It felt like that if you can not support the teachers you can not support the children as we are bringing things up that are so big that they then need their teachers. If the teachers are not being supported in turn, then what?”
At present the Transition Tales Team are looking for more volunteers to get involved. Building on the need to support teachers, Steph sees a need to map out the English curriculum:
Steph: “Because we are working with schools and teachers, we need to map out the curriculum, see what is already there, find the links with what we are doing. I was giving a workshop on Transition Tales in Scotland in Glasgow. After the workshop one of the people got really excited and said “But we’ve got something here within the Scottish curriculum that will fit beautifully”. It’s called “Promoting Health” which is a Scottish Government scheme where they work with personal resilience. It’s perfect as they use all the same keywords as us. We use the keywords Diversity leading into Trust leading into Cooperation leading into Resilience. As soon as he heard that he knew the way in to schools in Scotland so we are going to follow that up.”
“So what is needed here is to look at the English curriculum and see what the ways in are for us. We need to see if we can offer teachers courses that do match the curriculum. It is then not making extra work for them, it is supporting them, use Transition Tales games and activities to help them teach what they already have to do. We need to look at that and other things such as Eco Schools which is something schools can sign up for. They can get badges and awards for ticking boxes. This is not a very Transition thing, ticking boxes, but we do need to map what it is that schools are doing already. “
There is also a need to find a film editor who can edit many hours of video tape produced by the pupils at KEVICC. The funding that Transition Tales had for filming was only for the first year of the project. As Steph says, the content of these films feels extremely precious to her as:
Steph: For the second year of sessions we also did the videoing of stories, but what changed is that we did not want to limit them to news stories. We wanted them to tell us what they wanted to do, and we had a whole range of things. Fairy tales, news stories, dramatizations, filming outside in their dens. In the first year of filming in the scenarios we had a lot of techno-fix solutions represented, for example a giant electric mouse that could produce food. This time we had techno-fix, mad max, power down, denial stories, as well as what I call the fifth scenario of going back completely to how it was in the past. All of those 5 scenarios came out. So when we had no agenda about making news we had the whole range.
In the New Year both Jeff and Mara chose to leave the project to move into new areas, and Steph, while remaining passionate about the schools work, has chosen to take 1 year out to walk around England co-creating and collecting transition tales using some of the techniques developed through working with the project so far, to write up into a transition publication. The Totnes based work in 2010 will be project managed by Inez Aponte, transition trainer and storyteller.
In March the planned 2 day Transition Tales training will go ahead with Steph and Inez facilitating.
Transition Town Totnes: http://totnes.transitionnetwork.org/
One of the videos produced by the pupils of KEVICC can be viewed http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9c6ubbq4Hzo ">here:
Hopkins, Rob Energy Descent Pathways: evaluating potential responses to Peak Oil (self-published MSc manuscript) available here.