Our Stories Now reconnects children with their elders through storytelling. Absolutely Education speaks to its founder, Cosima Shaw

In a mobile society, the links between generations are often fractured, and the problem with family ‘glue’ – those stories and memories that bind families together – is that they are very rarely written down. Enter Our Stories Now, a pioneering initiative that aims to reconnect children with their elders through the simple process of story collecting and recording, while there’s still time. 

Our Stories Now’s founder and project co-ordinator Cosima Shaw says it has been a “labour of love”, running it on a voluntary basis. The idea emerged from her own personal history. Born in Berlin to an American father and a German mother, her family story already spanned continents. She says: “Our family didn’t talk about the past – and with the German side of our history, they didn’t want to talk”. Her grandfathers died before she was born and both grandmothers had passed away by the time she was in her early 20s. It was after the birth of her own daughter that Cosima began to think more about her family’s past.

One thing that put gaps in her own knowledge into sharp relief was the different approach of her husband’s family. “My husband is from Greece, and there the tradition is to tell family stories,” she says.Narratives and yarns were repeated every time family got together, told so often everyone almost knew them by heart – but still her Greek family would rework them to keep them alive. “My daughter’s great grandfather had three or four stock stories he’d tell every time with a glint in his eye. At first it seemed strange to me to have the same stories repeated. But what struck me after a while was how my daughter relished hearing him tell them again, and how they then stuck in her own memory.” 

Our Stories Now

It was in 2014, when her daughter was in Year 2, that Cosima began to consider how family stories could best be preserved. As an actress (credits include Dr Who and Zen), and a mother, now she had some time to carry forward an idea. Behind her initiative was a deep conviction that all children could benefit hugely from tapping into the histories of their grandparents and great grandparents.

The project idea she developed and began taking into schools was deceptively simple. She designed it as something that schools could fit around their schedule and their curriculum. It has been run over weeks, condensed into short sessions and linked to specific school events, such as book or history weeks. Each time the project is run with a school, the feedback just gets better. 

Schools take ownership, not just of the way the storytelling project runs, but of the results that are produced. These are physical and tangible – a book containing a story from each participating pupil is produced by Cosima. But children are in the driving seat as the history recorders, working with their chosen grandparent or great grandparent. Sometimes an uncle or aunt may step in if grandparents are no longer around or a family is divided by location or circumstance.

Cosima says making children the historians is vital to Our Stories Now. Getting them to sit down with an elder from their family and ask the questions, find out a story and record it, opens up the past and becomes a gateway to sharing more. “There is a so much wisdom to draw on, and this gives children the opportunity to engage while their family member is still around.”

Our Stories Now

At present Cosima works mostly with children in Year 4 and Year 5. She has worked with younger age groups and would love to see the project happen in secondary schools. What is important at the outset is gaining the understanding of children and the support of parents or guardians – the latter is usually done via a letter sent with homework to explain the purpose of the project. 

The base children start off with is a simple interview format – where were you born, what languages did you speak and what clothes did you wear? This can move on to toys, schooling and a whole host of other questions. The focus is on gathering one story that can ideally be encapsulated in a side of A4 paper to form one ‘chapter’ of the class book that is the final outcome. 

What happens during the process can be surprising. Cosima says children take their responsibilities very seriously. Some will make an official ‘appointment’ with their grandparent, while for others it becomes a whole-family get together with other members of the family jumping in to listen, maybe provide more background. An important aspect of the project is that children reflect on the differences between their own lives and the lives of family who went before them. Sometimes the differences are stark – the child describing a grandparent who was in charge of donkeys at more or less the same age they are attending full-time school or the retelling of a family’s miraculous survival through the last days of wartime. Cosima says that sometimes you can almost feel the pain and anguish in a story that a child has gathered. 

Our Stories Now

Stories spark debate and, she says, sometimes the teacher may need to help fill gaps in children’s knowledge of history or geography. Stories span the world – there might be classes where different children tell two sides of a story of conflict in Europe, in the Middle East or further afield. She says she has heard amazing stories of seismic times in history that she believes have never been revealed before – one reason she would love there to be a permanent repository for this living-history narrative and a wider pool of volunteers to take the idea forward on a bigger scale.

For now, there are the books that every class produces, each story accompanied by a photo of the child and their elder and often with artworks in the mix. Sometimes videos are added to the class activities. The juxtaposition between the big stories that recall known world events and the little ones – an idyllic and secluded childhood in the countryside perhaps – are of equal value in the book, part of a shared narrative and a permanent memento for the children who have each preserved a moment in time from their family history. 

At the heart of Our Stories Now you have the opportunity for an elder to share –communicate a story of love or loss or place that may have been buried in their own memory for years. But what is most important as far as Cosima is concerned is the coming together of the generations. “There is a double dynamic. The story that mattered enough to be told by the grandparent becomes precious to the child.”  

Find out more about Our Stories Now at ourstoriesnow.com 

Further reading: Things to consider before choosing a secondary school