Saturday, January 17, 2015

When Administrators Attack: The Audience Grouping That Gives You Headaches

This week was typical of winter work.  Weather threatened, but we kept our spirits high.  Then, the day before my first show, we got the word:  ICE.

If you do not live in the south, you have no idea how this word can throw terror into the heart of every administrator.  Now, it isn’t that we don’t know what ice is.  We do live in the south, after all.  Ice is that stuff that floats in your sweet tea to make summer bearable.

Before I’d even picked up my daughter from school for the day, the powers that be cancelled all after school activities.

I called the contact for the school I’d been planning to visit the next morning, and suggested we move the show to Friday since I had a different school on Thursday. She agreed.

By four o’clock Tuesday afternoon, they’d put the schools on a two hour delay for the following morning.

By eight o’clock that night, before even a hint of ice had begun to fall from the sky, they cancelled schools altogether.

Wednesday afternoon, my contact for the school that was booked for Thursday morning called.  We expected a two-hour delay, so we rescheduled for the afternoon.  That’s when things got really interesting.

Because of the change in schedule, the administrators decided to regroup the sets:  Kindergarteners in with the third and fourth graders for one set, and first and second graders with the fifth grade.  I later discovered this was because there was some group visiting the school who wanted to observe the kindergarten.

There are moments when I encounter something so strange I just laugh out loud.  My contact was aware that it was not the best combinations, but she had no control of the choices.

 This sort of grouping always leaves me sighing.

When I tell K – 2 sets, I don’t tell to the first grade.  I tell to the kindergartners and the second graders.  The second graders still enjoy the Kinder stories, and the second grade stories stretch the entire audience.

When I tell to 3 – 5, I tell to the Fifth graders since they are the tricky bunch in the room, and if you lose them, you have a problem.

So, the most difficult group to address for me are the Kindergartners, third and fourth graders.  Who do you tell to in that group? 

The stories I generally tell to the fourth grade are very long, involved, have plot twists, and are geared very specifically to them.  These stories will occupy the third grade as they work out what is happening, but they would be the kiss of death to the kindergartners.  The kinder stories are silly, fast paced, full of animals, bizarre sound effects, and they are about learning story structure in its most stripped down form.  How much extreme, plotless silliness can the fourth graders take before they become convinced that storytelling is for ‘babies’?

The first, second, and fifth grade was the easier of the two.  I told Janice Del Negro's Willa and the Wind, a story that works well with third and fourth grade.  I did a first and second grade piece called Too Much Noise, and ended it out with an original story composed by my children called the Prince and the SoccerBall The fifth graders lost all pretense of fifth graderness, since the only people in there to see them acting that silly were the first and second graders, and who cares what they think?

Here is a version of Too Much Noise.  Not the one I tell, but it is a good one.

The Kindergarten, third and fourth set was less successful.  Three wishes is a safe enough story, but the Kinders lose track of it, and they don’t quite remember what the point of the whole thing was, but they like the funny voices and sounds.  This means they laugh inappropriately, or they try to talk to me during the set.  Because they don’t have anyone else their size to take social cues from except each other, they learn how they are supposed to behave slowly.  When the first graders are in the house, Kinders tend to mimic their behavior.  On their own, Kinders can get difficult if you are not telling directly to them.

  One Man, One Fish, a story from China, is a much quieter story, which I tell because the Kinders are less likely to ‘fake’ laugh.  The kinders began to wiggle in the middle of the tale, and they were close to riot by the end.  We took a stretch break, and I changed up the program.

I told two stories for the kinders.  The Squeaky Door, and Johnny and Suzy thumb.  Most of the fourth graders participated without the fear they were doing something babyish, but there were a few, and there always are, who kept looking around with discomfort, and stared at me unmoving for the last two tales.  The third graders were willing to play, and the kinders loved those tales.

A reading of Margaret Read McDonald's version of The Squeaky Door.  Again, not the version I tell, but a good one to share.

Here is a link to Johnny and Suzy Thumb

Putting sets together for a diverse school audience can be challenging.  There are stories for everyone…but in a set like this, sometimes you have to wait until the teller gets around to your tale.

Happy Telling!


  1. I want to hear you tell _Willa and the Wind_ :)

  2. Hi Donna. I had to laugh– I clicked on your Johnny and Suzie Thumb story knowing almost certainly what it was, and sure enough it is what I call Willy and Wanda. It was one of the first stories I ever told a loooong time ago before I even thought of myself as a storyteller. I have since heard it told in French and Japanese and many different renditions in English. Always fun and little ones love it. You should see my kindergartners give THEIR version. Thanks for sharing. I'll share it with their parents so they can hear the story another way. Kathleen
    Kidpeople Classroom

    1. This was the first story I ever learned to tell to little kids. I'm glad you are going to be sharing it with your class!

  3. When I tell to these really mixed up groups, I "hang a lantern on it" by telling the big kids, "Look, the little K's are with us today. So, I am going to tell a mix of stories for both big kids like you and little kids like them. I promise I won't waste your time, but just hang on if you think the story I am telling is too young for you. A better one is coming." -Bring them into the situation, name it, respect them and as for the cooperation. I can usually get it.

  4. Wide disparities in age work best for me in rural communities where the kids are used to having 1 assembly for all the grades together and for family audiences of less than 100 people.