PictureBook Review: Amazing Grace

In my ongoing search for picture books about plays, I can’t believe I forgot an old favorite, Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman and Caroline Binch.  Grace is a young girl who loves to act out stories.  The illustrations of her pretending to be all sorts of characters are beautiful and inventive, and you can see what play items she has pulled into her pretend stories: teddies as jungle animals, stockings as spider webs, a card board box for a horse.  She turns the world into her own adventure.

When her teacher announces they will perform Peter Pan, Grace wants to play Peter.  Her classmates tell her she can’t.  First of all, she’s not a boy, and second, she’s black and Peter isn’t.  Her Ma and Nana are supportive, though, and tell her she can be anything she wants.  The story includes a trip to see a black ballerina playing Juliet on stage.  In the end, Grace does play Peter, and not just because her teacher casts her, but because her classmates vote for her to play the role.  She’s proven she can play Peter regardless of her skin color and gender.

This is an extremely important concept in PictureBook Plays: children can make their own choices about their own characters.  It is okay

  • For girls to be pirates with scratchy beards
  • For boys to wear tutus and tiaras
  • For girls to be grandpas
  • For boys to be mamas.
  • For dark-skinned children to be white historical figures.
  • For light-skinned children to be dark-skinned historical figures.

Educational Theatre, and especially PictureBook Plays, is about using your imagination to explore what you are not, even something simple, like my three year old daughter telling me the other day that she was pretending to be a Big Girl, and therefore started calling me “Mother” rather than Mama.  In her world, Big Girls say “Mother.”  It was not my place to “correct,” it was my place to respond as Mother and allow her to explore this new world as she saw fit.

Grace has a big imagination, a supportive family, and bravery.  This is a terrific book to have in the classroom not just on Drama days.

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Too Much Car Time

This article I came across this week about the lack of physical activity in preschools reminded me that I’ve been doing some thinking about my daughter’s car time.  She’s an active three year-old and, like all three year olds, is at her best when she’s been running around and playing outside for a better part of the day.  She eats better, sleeps better, and is in a better mood (which says a lot since she’s a happy kid most of the time anyways).

Since she’s so active and both sides of her family are naturally slender I’ve never worried about the obesity epidemic as is pertains to my own child.  I know she needs to play sports, hike, and dance so she’ll grow into a women with a strong body image.  We are a family that eats very healthy so I also don’t worry about that.  But when I look in my rear view mirror as I drive her to school and instead of happily chatting to herself, kicking the chair seat or day dreaming, she is sitting like a listless pile of goo, then I worry.

We all need time to sit and day dream.  We all need to spend some time sitting in cozy corners reading books and coloring.  But to sit listlessly seems, well, boring and counterproductive to a happy life.

She only sits like this in the car.  When she’s been in the car far too much over too many days.  I shouldn’t feel guilty because it can’t be helped: I have to work, she has to go to school, we like to visit relatives and museums.  All this takes time in the car.  But is it too much time in the car?

According to various websites (both reliable and not) it appears that the typical American spend about 30 minutes commuting each way to work.  It’s safe to assume our children spend about the same amount of time.  That’s an hour every day sitting immobilized in the back seat of a car.

When I notice my daughter turn listless, instead of focusing on my guilt, I talk to her.  We talk about life, sing, tell jokes, make up stories.  Ah ha, and here we are at the point I’m trying to make:  We can’t avoid our commutes altogether but we can use them well.  Tell stories together.  Or, if you’re uncomfortable digging up the remnants of Jack and the Bean Stalk out of your childhood memories, find a CD of stories from your local bookstore.  Children love to listen to stories as much as watch them.  My daughter loves to have me tell her a story while she’s lying in bed; her imagination comes to life. And so does mine.

So it comes down to this: if you’re not in a position to get up and act out stories together, it can be just as fun and beneficial to tell them together.  Stories don’t have to be real; they can be very silly.  And you can revisit them the next day and revise them as you go. Besides, talking about a flying polka-dotted baby monster who eats bats is far more fun than fuming about the traffic you’re stuck in.

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Book Review: The Girl with the Brown Crayon

It’s not hard to guide your students through a dramatic process, but it’s also not easy and can be very intimidating.

My colleague and I take this learning process for you, the teacher, very seriously.  PictureBook Plays isn’t just about creating an important opportunity for a child, it’s about helping you gain the confidence and the skills to bring about the opportunity.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I just finished reading The Girl with the Brown Crayon by Vivian Gussin Paley.  Paley is a talented writer and quite clearly a talented teacher (although it looks like she has retired as an in-classroom teacher).  Her talent stems not just from her ability to put into eloquent phrases her detailed observations of the children in her classes, but to look back into herself and actively learn as she teaches.  Her students seem to teach her just as much as she teaches them.

This particular book is about the interpretation of stories and their characters and how children (and ultimately herself) learn to develop an aptitude for using these same stories and characters as metaphors for their own lives.  These metaphors are a way of shaping understanding, of–to put it in art education speak–making meaning.

She focuses on Reeny, a brown girl (I write “brown” because she spends part of her days finding the perfect color brown crayon with which to draw her skin) with a quick mind and an aptitude for making insightful, unexpected, and honest observations.  As a class, they wrote to Leo Lionni, the author around whom their curriculum focuses but he is too ill to reply and the child is heart-broken.

Reeny has engaged in a major struggle with Leo Lionni.  First, she believes that he has reneged on the promise of her dream; she in turn denies the premise of his first book.  Magically, the air is cleared and Reeny resumes the task at hand in a more balanced position.  Ultimately, uh-huh uh-huh, it is the reader who interprets the writer.

Did you notice the “uh-huh uh-huh” part?  That’s a singsong phrase from Reeny that the classroom slowly adopts as their own, as does Paley.  It is a verbal heartbeat that thumps along with their friendships and learning processes.  The bolding is mine, because this insight is so important to PictureBook Plays.  Each play contains the potential for hundreds of interpretations because every child will see it from a new perspective.  It’s up to you to allow these interpretations.

Later in the book she writes,

I too require passion in the classroom.  I need the intense preoccupation of a group of children and teachers inventing new worlds as they learn to know each other’s dreams. To invent is to come alive. Even more than the unexamined classroom, I resist the uninvented classroom.

Paley has identified one of the keys to PictureBook Plays: giving space for invention and learning to “know each other’s dreams.”  It is only by takig the risk, placing yourself before your students and honestly guiding them through a self-discovery process that they beging to reveal their dreams to you.  And once you know their dreams, you can help them explore these dreams as they discover themselves in the world.

So, this brings me back to you.  Paley manages to regularly delve inwards, exploring her own struggles and successes as a teacher, and rejoices when her students teach her something new.

Rejoice in your own learning process; give your students permission to teach you.  And read The Girl with the Brown Crayon.  It will only take a couple of evenings for a worthwhile perspective.

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On Imagination

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create.

Albert Einstein

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PictureBook Review: Amandina

Amandina is a little dog with golden eyes.  She is shy and has no friends.  She is also very talented at many things.  She decides to make friends by putting on a performance.  What follows is lovely tale and a perfect introduction to simple theatrical vocabulary.

One of my favorite parts is towards the end.  Amandina does everything she is supposed to do to put on a good show, but no one arrives.

Sometimes these things happen and nobody knows why.

is the apt and simple explanation.  So what does the little dog do? She doesn’t cry, she doesn’t give up, she doesn’t re-plan, she performs anyways.  And when she performs, the audience arrives on their own.  The very act of telling her story is what made her audience appear in wonder.

This is a really great book for introducing theatre concepts to your preschoolers.

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Who creates this “childrens theatre”?

I have written a few times about bringing children to the theatre.  It’s a valuable field trip: theatres feel different.  They feel exotic.  Even when they’re well-used and run down.  But who creates theatre for children and how do you find it?

Not surprisingly, more and more professional companies are creating interesting, beautiful, and challenging works for children to see.  Just today, the UK Guardian (a country with a genetically inherited love of theatre!) put out a blog post about this very topic.

Performance is a way of ritualizing how we see the world, and it’s a way of playing. Children recognise and understand ritual and play on a very deep level, and that understanding can lead to an extraordinary synergy between the audience and the work.

And, although the author doesn’t really go into it, this statement really gets to the heart of theatre for children: synergy.  Children don’t just “see” a play, they participate in it.  They absorb the story in new and unexpected ways reacting both immediately and over time as they continue to process ideas.  The actors receive this feedback as the story unfolds; there are no secrets.

When I work with actors who perform for young audiences, one of my very favorite tasks is asking new actors about their experience because without fail he or she says something along the lines of, “I love that I know what they’re thinking right away.  I know if they like or hate what I do because they tell me.  I hear it.”  This give and take of story-teller and meaning-maker is what makes live theatre so exciting.  And it’s why theatre works so well within a classroom.

Children as performers experience this same synergy with their classmates, the audience members, and their teachers.  Their stories take on, shall we say, a life of their own.

But, we’ve forgotten: how do you find it?

You look.

Very hard.

The first step is to get on the mailing list of all the professional theatres in your region.  They often produce or host children’s theatres for limited engagements.  They don’t play for long, though, so you will need to be on top of things to know about them.  Some high schools and colleges also create children’s theatre.

This is a list of all the theatres that belong to TYAUSA, (Theatre for Young Audiences/USA) that may be useful.

Some national touring companies exist that will come into your school to perform.  If you decide to go this route, plan on visiting another school that is hosting the show before you commit.  Not all theatre is created equal and it is important to expose your students to the good stuff first.

Have fun!

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PictureBook Review: George Hogglesberry

Ever on the hunt for picture books about theatre, I discovered a dandy last week!

George Hogglesberry is an alien.  The book is not about terror of aliens, or riding in space crafts, it’s about finding your place in a new home.  And fitting in.  The first sentance of the book makes that clear: “Before George Hogglesberry went into his new class, he put a nose on his face.”

Poor George thinks no one likes him because his feet sometimes float away and he regularly turns into random objects like tomatoes and light fixtures when, in fact, everyone likes him very much.  When it’s time to create the school play, everyone is concerned about his ability to perform without turning into something else accidentally.

In the end, George creates his own role that suits him perfectly.  And, at the moment of performance when he feels a little nervous, it’s not another child that tells him what to say, or a teacher that gives him a pep-talk, it’s George taking a deep breath and being brave.  I particularly love this book for this simple message: only you can do it.

Most books about theatre for children hold messages of stage fright, missing out on the part you think you should have had, or impressing friends and family.  But the true spirit of theatre is about accepting the people around you, working together to tell a story in the best way you can, and having confidence in yourself.

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naeyc fun

On Thursday, as promised, we presented a small portion of our pedagogy at naeyc.  A very small portion.  With only an hour and with so much potential material, it was really hard to figure out what to include.  We ended up focusing on the actual creation of the picturebook play and using it as a way to introduce many other aspects of the technique.  We discovered this had both its advantages and disadvantages.

The advantage being that we set out with a goal and met it: we focused on “saying yes” (as the title of the workshop promised) along with guiding/coaching and trusting oneself.  These all came up on their own as part of the creative process.

The disadvantage being that we discovered what we forgot to include…the purpose of doing PictureBook Plays.  We were so focused on sharing the practical portions that we neglected the theory.  All it needed was a few sentences and we could have at least covered the basic theory to really drive the importance of process-oriented theatre home.

So, for those of you who have been following this blog, or, better yet, were at our presentation, here’s a late-night primer for you.

Process-Oriented Theatre is an essential art form in the early childhood classroom because:

  • Given the chance to make their own choices and decisions about all aspects of a story (character, blocking, words, sounds, physical engagement,props,etc.) children are given power over their own worlds and begin to understand that they also have power over the real world.
  • With the self-confidence of empowerment comes the ability to make new and challenging choices in life.
  • Students learn to communicate with their peers and teachers as collaborators and creators.
  • As an audience member (and scene partner) we develop the ability to generously appreciate the artistry of others.
  • Students develop empathy.
  • Making sense of a story translates very easily into making sense of the world.
  • Children deserve to have their artistic decisions and creations treated with respect as essential works of art.  As children who are respected by others, they grow into people who respect others.

Trust me, this is all written somewhat haphazardly late at night after playing hooky so we could take our very patient three-year old assistant to the white house, monuments and museums.  We’ve said it much better in our book.  But it’s enough, for now, because we share this pedagogy not simply to give you pro-active ways to include theatre in your curriculum but because we believe theatrical opportunities are essential for the development of whole children.

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Saying “yes” in life

On Thursday, we are presenting a workshop called “Saying ‘yes!’ to physical and vocal expression with your preschoolers.”  No one told us we’d be practicing saying “yes” to all our mistakes before we even got there.

  • SerahRose left the cord to her laptop at home.  Don’t worry, she has the mouse.
  • Sharon forgot paper. Just to write on. Plain old paper.
  • We have a handful of prospecti (we’re going to pretend that’s the plural for prospectus) for the book “Preschool Players” but we neglected to print out one very important inclusion…our CVs.
  • SerahRose only has about 20 biz cards in her purse.
  • Sharon forgot her vitamins.
  • Neither one of us remembered to go to AAA for a tour guide book, or even a map, so we are at the hands of the concierge.

But we’re still smiling, and letting go, which is the essence of saying “yes.”

Ah, and the wee-one is fast asleep in bed already so we’ll all wake up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed after all is said and done.

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D.C. Here We Come!

Just in case you forgot, we’re presenting at naeyc this year: 2009 Annual Conference & Expo in Washington, D.C.

And, I (SerahRose) have to admit that although I’m really excited to share PictureBook Plays with new folks, I think I may be more excited to bring my daughter along for some sight-seeing.  I love to travel (so does Sharon so I guess it’s in the genes!) and I love having mommy/daughter time in new places.

The last time I went to D.C. was with my mom as a young girl.  It was a mommy/daughter vacation and although I don’t remember much, I do remember loving it.  So, this city holds fond memories for me and I hope to create some new ones with all three of us.

We fly on Tuesday!

We’ll keep you posted on the conference.  It’s huge…20,000 people huge so there will be a lot to see, do, and report on.

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