Telling Tales

One of the opening exercises at the Exeter Humanities Institute is the “Group Fairy Tale.” This gets the group warmed up, everyone must listen carefully, everyone must participate. It generates both nervousness and laughter, both of which are important to consider in the de-brief. Don’t miss the opportunity to debrief the exercise.

Exeter Humanities Institute

Directions for Fairy Tale Exercise

Task: For the table to tell a fairy tale which begins with those well-known words:  “Once upon a time,” and ends with “and they all lived happily ever after.”

Explain to the group at the table ahead of time:

  1. Person with tennis ball starts the tale and adds two to three sentences. When finished, the speaker tosses the tennis ball to another person at the table, thus choosing the next speaker.
  2. Participants may not simply pass the tennis ball, predictably, to the person directly to the right or left.
  3. Each person must receive the ball once while the story is told.
  4. Encourage the story tellers to stay within the forested world of fairytales
  5. Humor is always welcome.
  6. As the last speaker closes the story, having said “and they lived happily ever after,” the speaker tosses the ball one more time to a member of the table who will then summarize the whole story for the group; the group is allowed to help the summarizer.

Once you explain the exercise, the leader sits away from the table and watches – possibly taking notes on the story and who has spoken so that all participants have a chance to speak.


Rejoining the table, the leader asks the group to write about their experiences in the exercise:

  1. What did it feel like to do this exercise?
  2. What helped the story move along?

Ideas for leader to keep in mind and perhaps add to the de-briefing comments:

  • Think of every discussion as a narrative – a collection of comments that fit together in some sort of clearly connected ‘plot ’so if we can re-tell the discussion/story, we must have seen its connections
  • Participants do not need to choose to enter – are invited by the ball toss
  • Participants need to be ready to speak at all times – cannot choose when to enter
  • Need to listen as well as speak
  • Need to be flexible with one’s own contributions in order to stay connected to the group’s narrative
  • Variety of ways people prepare for the chance to receive the ball on the last ‘summary’ toss – note taking, looking at speaker to remember story details, what else?
  • Does anyone take notes? Think of recording it? Not mentioned in the directions on purpose to see if people will use the skills they usually call on for memory … or at least ask so that they drive the learning for their needs.

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