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Springtime, the forgetful old woman and the grapevine.

I returned to work in a kindergarten where I had not been since autumn. When I was there in April I had created, in a tall vase,  a display of vibrant red autumnal leaves from an ornamental grape vine. When I returned  in August, with spring in the air, I was disappointed to find the dried grape vine leaves just where I had left them. I was stewing crabbily and judgmentally on my disappointment when I noticed something green among the dusty leaves. I was stunned to see a burst of new life, a fat green bud with tiny grape-looking flowers in its centre.

 

It seemed such a salutary life lesson in some way for myself that I was moved to create a story about a crabby old woman and the change of seasons. So I did. I started by creating the verses which give a story a structure and a rhythm and repetition. They changed as the days passed but finally stabilised. This is the story…

And these are some of the principles that I took notice of when I was creating it. I wanted to include rhythmical memorable lines that I could repeat each day. This way the children would be able to look forward to the accurately repeated  lines each day, and I would not have to learn the entire story word for word.

I incorporated animals and events that were real and alive for me. I chose a pattern of three for the times in which the old woman intended to cut down the tree, and included three animals all of which are familiar to the children, I referred to seasonal changes with which the children are familiar. I tried to use interesting verbs and adjectives to give the story life, and I also tried to include some words which the children don’t hear often.

What else did I do? I recorded myself telling it to see how long it took to tell. I told it out loud to myself in the bath in the morning in the days leading up to the telling. I attempted to keep the pace slow and old woman-ish and slightly dreamy. During the telling I used my hands and body to demonstrate the physicality of the cat and the dog and the ants… When the cat was purring in the old lady’s lap, I stroked the imaginary circular shape of the sleeping, purring cat. When the dog leapt over the fence, I used my arm to indicate how he leapt. When the ants bit the old lady’s leg, I pretended my hand was scurrying around the back of my shin before the old woman slapped her own leg, etc, etc.

I thought about the temperaments... the phlegmatic sleepy, snug cat, the choleric Digalot the dog digging and chasing and refusing to come when called. I appealed to the empathy of the listeners when Suzy, the old dog, died in  her sleep, and again, as they heard each animal respond  to the threat of the axe chopping down the tree, and the urgency with which they knew they needed to act to save the grapevine. And the sanguines love all the adjectives and descriptive words which are in the verses and in the descriptions of the behaviour of the animals…the cholerics also got a moment of adrenaline when the  captain or grandfather of the ants  called on the swiftest, most agile and most courageous of the ants to go into action and fight for the life of the grapevine.

I included references to the senses... the taste of grape jelly, and the sweet raisins,… the smell of …no I did not include smell…  the feel of Greysmoke’s warm fur, the cold winter chill of a winter’s day, the warm relaxation induced by the sun’s rays,  the sound of purring like a miniature well-oiled  tractor, the sound of the old woman trying to whistle, the scuffing sound of Digalot digging For the sense of sight,… the juicy purple grapes, the green bud unfurling, the daffodil bulb that looked  like an onion,… so I did include the senses but not deliberately. If I had thought of them, I might have consciously included a few more… like the texture and taste and smell of well chewed old slippers!… or the texture, smell and feel of the sun-warmed corrugated iron, and so on….

I like the fact that I spoke openly about the fact that pets die and that it is very sad. It felt good to name it, and also soften it with the acquisition of the puppy. One other detail I liked was to include a compassionate view of the new young puppy who never sat when asked to sit, never came when whistled for, etc etc. We have a new child in the class who is intensely like Digalot in this regard, and it felt good to say that the puppy was young and that he was learning and that he did not mean to be naughty. It was simply that he was indeed a young puppy. And to hold the child in my consciousness and even, occasionally, in my gaze, while I described Digalot’s behaviour.

Whatever I did, it certainly held the attention of the children for four days in a row, and one child  even asked ‘Is this story about you?” ( The cat was once mine, the dog that died belonged to a friend of mine…. and my mother was forgetful but never that bad!) I made a felted house for the children to play with and which I used to introduce the story and occasionally I referred to it, tracing the journey Greysmoke took to get to the roof, and the place where Digalot hid the old woman’s slippers so that he could chew them in peace! and so on and so forth. The hanging was left out for  the children to play with and populated with other puppets who were available..I did not have a dog but the kangaroo looked very doggy like or foxy ( as one child commented) if you ignored the joey in her pouch! so we made do!!

It felt like a very healing thing to do to tell a story that somehow made bigger sense of my smaller, rather petty response to the continued presence of the  grapevine. And it was a pleasure each day to reach the point in the story when the old woman sees the wonder of returning spring. Each day it felt alive and powerful and special. On the very first day, no one else in the room had spotted this little miracle so they were all delighted to run over and see it for themselves when the story ended and also to experience the wonderful miracle of the seasons…. and fancy the old woman forgetting all about the cycle of the seasons, and isn’t it wonderful that indeed the seasonal wheel is turning back towards the warmth of summer and fresh growth.

And then I made another house in a toadstool,  with more windows and space! i have embroidered it a little, and added a  door knocker and ‘apples’. I like this one a lot too! And will happily make something similar for you, and you could give me the specifications that you would  like!

 

 

 

 

 

First jump out of your plane, and then discover your parachute!

 

In storytelling improv theatre workshops, adults attempt to rediscover the skills they once had as children. There are numerous sayings in this art form, such as ‘First jump out of your plane, and then discover your parachute’ ( ie. Don’t pause to consider if it is safe, or funny, or ‘good enough’, just jump!) or ‘Everything you need for a scene is right in front of you” or “The only security is the fact that there is no security”. As an early childhood teacher seeking to document learning dispositions, I  followed  Jules and Georgia  and Cypress with a camera and, to my appreciative surprise, realised that, in their play, they unerringly follow these maxims. Before I knew it, I was drawn into their ‘story’!

I first came across the three of them, conveying small containers of water precariously balanced in a wheelbarrow all the way across to the other side of the playground, and then carefully pouring the contents into a tub, all the while talking about how they were  making ‘ingredients’ (muffin making was afoot indoors with no doubt talk of such stuff!). One of our improv warm up games is to shout out any random idea such as “Let’s all be rabbits” or “Let’s all faint” or “Let’s all make a batch of scones” and each time everyone enthusiastically shouts back, “Yes, let’s!” and then we all proceed to do the actions until  the next callout! You can’t get it wrong, and you all have a wonderful sense of enthusiastic belonging as the actions rapidly and erratically shift and change. This is what the trio did:  “Let’s get more water!” “Yes, let’s!!” and they all hared off to get more! Again and again they enthusiastically ran and gathered and returned and poured.

Then I noticed (and pointed out)  that the tub had a hole in the bottom, like all good garden tubs! Actually filling the tub was clearly a minor detail…the goal was to run, to share, to agree, to have a purpose, to be physical, to feel urgent….to play! So then they tipped out what water was left in it, loaded it up onto the wagon, the girls clambered aboard, and Jules proceeded to drive them away. The trip is underway, the action is happening… and now, a late ‘parachute’ or motive appears! Jules announces that the tub needs to go to the dump! There is another game in improv, called ‘Yes,and…” where you up the intensity in a partnership game and this  is what happened. The wagon is now wet and therefore ALSO has to go to the dump! I pleaded on behalf of the wagon and also pointed out that we have two wagons. They were delighted by a new challenge… how to get the second one out of the shed and master the niceties of three point turns. Jules  worked extremely hard to lift the wagon AND the two girls, past the trucks and back out on to the road to the ‘dump’.

Cypress held onto the wet one as a trailer. At this point, I suddenly appreciated that the long and committed friendship between the three of them is based partly on the fact that Jules loves the physicality of the numerous challenges that arise out of the imaginative story lines… and the girls were never short of ideas, as the three of them continually invented reasons for extending the trip and upping the challenge level.

And here it comes …..Whoops! They realise that they have forgotten their lava guns and have to return to the place where I first met them… and this is part of all good storytelling. A good story returns to previously mentioned people, events and objects and reintegrates them into the story.

All three children decided that their guns were now not good enough.( That the guns needed to provide different powers, in fact). Again I appreciated how the story drives the action, just as much as the action drives the story.  Regardless of what the guns looked like, both the story and the action required them to be ‘not good enough’ and destined for the dump as well!   Off the three of them went, inside to the glue gun table.  While they were gone on this new challenge, I was so completely involved in my  self-appointed role as saviour of the ‘doomed’ wagon that I decided to trick Jules so he would not know which wagon to  discard… I made both wagons wet and wrote ‘Please don’t take me to the dump” in the bottom of each one! And then what happened? Five other children came belting past, leapt in to the empty wagons and drove off!

What a lesson in not being fixed on an outcome! What a perfect opportunity for me to experience how it works when you have to co-operate with 30 other children. You have a carefully calculated plan, you put something down, and then it’s gone! What flexibility, adaptability, generosity, and active social skills one has to develop in this world of early childhood!! (AND in improv!..we adults have to learn to let our ‘plan’ go if another person unexpectedly changes the narrative into a new direction. It requires an enthusiastic generosity and a letting go of one’s ego). One sees younger children who are still learning this, wailing with angst that someone has THEIR toy! But Jules and the girls returned shortly, all wheeling prams! They did not need the wagons. But the girls love to be pulled so they abandoned their prams and leapt into Philip’s wagon.  The story simply takes  another turn and no one tries to drag it back to some  earlier, completely arbitrary, story-line.(Although I admit to being tempted!)  The children just stayed in the present. As long as there was movement, dialogue, action, collaboration, apparent purpose and a forward propulsion of the narrative, then it’s all good. Again and again, I noticed how the girls’ imaginations and Jules’ love of a physical challenge were made for each other, like fingers in a glove. When the girls wanted to be mermaids,  Jules dug furiously to cover their legs with sand. When Jules looked like he might be abandoning play and going inside, Georgia  and Cypress raced after him so that he could save them from a monster, “ A monster, there’s a monster, Jules!” and back he came to help to save the day. And this was only a snippet of their day! The creativity required to be a successful player  is gargantuan! Many adults find that the skills learned in storytelling improvisation stands them in good stead in all the other areas of their lives… it helps to have a sense of humour, flexibility, imagination and a  creative ability to improvise on the spot! So thank you, Cypress, Georgia and Jules  for letting me play too!                        (Recorded by Evelyn. July 2018)

Parallel play teaching

I drew today… well, it was a collage really, (but it could have been drawing if that is what the children had been doing when I arrived at their table) and I wished afterwards that I could have  recorded it , because I think that the value of a teacher creating art alongside children is that one can scaffold their learning dispositions (rather than their learning content) by how one models and shares one’s thinking processes.

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I have watched teachers who can do a quick cartoon of a dog or some such, Disney style… and they are just doing a party trick which they have practised… they are not modelling creativity, playfulness, problem solving, or resourcefulness or self talk or any such stuff. They are just performing, entertaining. I don’t like this style of drawing in front of children. It definitely suggests there is a right way. And apparently this is supposed to be the biggest hazard  of drawing in front of children: should we therefore not sing, dance, garden, write, cook, sew, go on the trampolines, read, etc  in front of children? Should we not do any activity that requires a modicum of creativity and decision making? I don’t agree but I do believe that the WAY you do something in front of a child will powerfully influence the degree to which you empower or disempower children’s learning dispositions.

If you had been a fly on the wall that morning in this kindergarten, you might have heard any number of sentences from me like the following..it began as follows…and of course there were pauses and other conversations and other people’s voices, but hopefully you will get the idea!

“Oooh, I like what you have done with the little squares. I want to try that.. how did you make them curve? (tries it)Oh look, they are a different colour on the other side…I thought I had a pattern but I didn’t…

What could I use for eyes? Hmm, maybe not that..  that doesn’t do what I want, and it’s hard to cut…oh look,. I could cut circles out of this crepe paper.. where are the scissors? You are having trouble with those scissors? Try another pair ! sometimes it’s the scissors, not you , that are the problem…. some scissors are rubbish!

I need a mouth… what did you use? Oh look I can move it and here it looks like she is a bit crazy, and here it makes her look happy… or even upside down!! Now she looks pretty sad about something! I’ll put it so she is smiling! ”

Oh, her head is so big, there’ s not much room for her body. Rats. Maybe I could do a different mouth, higher up… ? or move her neck?

Now something thin for arms? Hmm,  sticks, straws? Maybe straws, maybe I should fix the other sellotape holder so we can both reach it… there we go…

Now fingers.. little bits of pink wool! oh but they don’t stay where I want them… wait! I could use a glue stick.. oh, you don’t have any? Do you know where I can find some? Right, I’m back.that’s better..now they stay in place and THEN I can stick them down properly with sellotape..

Oh lordy, she needs clothes.. what, you think she looks like a witch?  Oh because of her big round scary eyes? You’re going to make a scary witch? (children are coming and going) I’d like to see how you make your witch  look scary… they have warts on their noses? oh, yes, there’s the witch in “Room on the broom”, isn’t there? does she have a wart on her nose? Well, mine is a happy witch.. see, she has a feather in her hat… (sings yankee doodle) I wonder what colour I should  make her hair.. what colour do you call  your hair, Charlotte? Red…maybe this crayon? do you think this crayon looks close to your hair colour? Maybe I should add a little brown? I think I ‘ll make the ends a bit curly so it looks more like hair… yes, you do have curly hair, Martha… maybe I mean ‘wavy’?… yes, that sounds better/ more like what I mean ..wavy.. yes, that looks good… I like that!

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Back to the eyes… see how, if you look in my eyes, there is a big round part? And in the middle is a little black circle? I think my eyes look scary cos they don’t have the middle bit.. the pupil… (cuts two tiny paper pupils and tries them out in different positions.. surprised, eye rolling dismissal, looking left , looking right, looking catatonic.. looking angry) … I think this position makes her look friendly… there we go.. now  a dress.. oh, she could have an orange dress to match her fiery coloured hair.. I’ll scrumple it so that it looks more like cloth.. oh nice.. and I’ll scrumple the waist so it’s a skirt… oh now she needs boots! Dancing boots!! She is getting happier and happier.. how do you make boots… that looks weird… what do boots look like? Maybe I will draw it first and then cut it out… I’ll draw it on the back… oh, that’s better! Nice green dancing boots…

What! Your scary witch is threatening mine? Because I haven’t got a broom stick? You’ve got a red broomstick.. and what’s that yellow part on your picture?…. A wand!! Oh lordy.. a wand..I don’t have one!  What!? You’re turning me into a frog! No, I’m a happy go lucky witch… I don’t want to be a frog.. you’re going to change me back? What, now I’m a kangaroo? (Starts to sing, because the words  have a very bouncy rhythm)

 

I’m a  happy go lucky kangaroo                                                                                                                                             I eat frogs                                                                                                                                                                              Why don’t you?

I used to be a witch,                                                                                                                                                                  I’m not anymore                                                                                                                                                            Someone mean came to the door                                                                                                                                     She waved her wand   (what rhymes with wand? Pond! Oh thank you that’s good)                                                  And threw me in the pond                                                                                                                                                And I’m not a happy go lucky witch any more!

 

So what did I do in fact? I like to think that I succeeded in being non-didactic and that I modeled some of the vast potential of the various materials, that I modeled ways to talk to oneself while being creative, that I indicated that I thoroughly valued and respected their way of working because basically I was being rather child-like and playful and whimsical and sanguine myself. I hope I strongly modeled that there is no ‘right way’.

One of the books which they read to the children at this kindergarten also reinforces and affirms the concept of ‘no right way’ and that book is called ‘If Picasso painted a snowman”. Well worth a look.

This next post is about how children learn and it refers to two very different methods of research, both of which came up with the same answer, which is that “direct instruction really can limit young children’s learning”. Check it out. One of them is the work of Alison Gopnik, whose research is repeatedly stunning, It seems to affirm that what I was doing was probably pedagogically going along the right tracks. “Wow! look at this,  I wonder what this does?” When a teacher acts clueless, full of wonder and curiosity and a bit like a fellow child,  the children are much more likely to respond with intelligent, thoughtful, playful explorations of discovery on their own.

And here to the right, is that clueless playful adult, who had a really good time, and really likes her batty witch!