Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Kids Are Capable: They Just Need To Practice.

I am here in beautiful Beaufort County North Carolina for a week.

I've had a pretty easy tour through this part of the world. Two shows a day means I have lots of time to write, relax, and well, mostly just write!

I was given an interesting challenge today. I had to convince some grown-ups that their children were perfectly capable of handling an assembly.

I'm used to going into a middle or high school and having the principal be leery about my ability to hold the attention of a prepubescent or worldly wise audience. What I am not used to is a group of folks who don't think I can hold the attention of six and seven-year-olds.

We got a call earlier this week from a principal who was concerned about the length of the program I was going to offer. She was worried that even thirty minutes would be too long, let alone forty-five minutes and an hour was out of the question. These, she informed me, were only first graders, and they didn't have the attention span or the capability of an assembly that was longer than half an hour at the most.

The David told her that I was not planning an hour long show. I was just going to do forty-five minutes. This did not fill her with confidence.

The David told me that even though he assured the principal that it would be all right she had her doubts.

I arrived at the school in the morning, and first few adults I came in contact with told me that their first graders were "rambunctious", "immature", "wild", "not well behaved". The assistant principal let me know that she would come in and check on me as much as possible to make sure I was all right during the show.

I also found out it was a Pre-K - 1 school, but there was no way the Kindergarteners could handle an assembly.

Well, I'd planned to tell Why Mosquitoes Buzz In People's Ears, maybe Too Much Noise, and possibly a little finger game, but after all of this certainty that the kids wouldn't sit I threw that out of the window. I decided we were going to go for one of those involved, slightly unsettling European folktales. I settled on Rumpelstiltskin.

Now, you might ask, "Why would you tell that story?"


My telling of it is about forty-five minutes long, it is highly participatory, and it fits nicely into all of the language requirements I employ when telling to a pre-reading audience.

I decided that not only was I going to tell a forty-five minute story, I was going to tell for an hour...unless it would disrupt the schedule.

My goal was simple. After I told for an hour and the children were well behaved it might open the school up to offering the kids more arts opportunities instead of keeping them out because of "short attention spans" and "inability to engage with presentations".

The telling went very well indeed, and the kids had a smashing time. When we hit forty-five minutes, I pointed out to the teachers that we'd been sitting for that long. They looked shocked. I asked them if I could tell another story, and they were enthusiastic. I told a fifteen minute story and then dismissed silence.

I have a little dismissal trick I like to do with the kids. They leave quietly and are very proud to have done so.

After the set, when the multi-purpose room was completely empty, the assistant principal said, "That was amazing."

She proceeded to tell me that they'd had a different assembly at the school in the past that wasn't completely age appropriate, and the kids hadn't even managed to get through twenty minutes of the thirty minute program before they'd had to call a halt.

I pointed out that I'd offered age appropriate material.

She waved that off at once and announced that it wasn't that, but that I had presented the work in such an engaging way. I switched the conversation back to content. I pointed out that kids this age are actually hard wired for storytelling.

She informed me that she'd left to go back to her duties after about twenty minutes into the story, but she was kind of bummed. She'd bumped into the principal who'd asked how it was going. She'd told the principal it was going well, but the woman was still worried. She told the vice principal to go back into the assembly just in case I needed help.

"I didn't say anything to her," the vice principal admitted, "but I was happy to go back because I love that story and I couldn't wait to get to the part when she guessed his name."

We talked a bit then about the importance of stories in children's lives. I told her I was disappointed I didn't get to tell with the Kindergartners and she said she was disappointed in that choice as well.

"The next time you come," she said, "I'll make sure everybody gets to see you."

I thanked her and left the school.

The David called to check on me. "How was the assembly?" he asked.

"After all the worry, I was sort of annoyed that the school had such little faith in their kids. So, I told for an hour and dismissed them quietly back to their classes."

Laughter on the other end of the phone. "I knew you were going to do that."

I've been chewing on that all day. I certainly have been in schools where the kids were difficult, the work was hard, and the telling was like offering up my blood. It was completely possible that when I got in front of these children, they would all turn into the zombie apocalypse of audiences or something of that nature, but I knew right away this was not going to be the case.

The most important thing I do before I open my mouth is to check out the audience. I see how the kids come in, what their teachers are doing, how they are behaving with each other, and how they respond to the break in their schedule.

Last week, I had a kindergartener come into their multi-purpose room, look up at me and say, "Oh God, not another assembly." The police and firefighters had been there all day because of Veterans day and she was heartily sick of looking at presentations. By the end of the set, she was right in it with everyone else, but she came in clearly not expecting to enjoy herself.

There are lots of ways to diffuse a tough audience.

The kids who marched into the multi-purpose room this morning were not even close to a problem. What I did notice was that only a few of the teachers bothered to participate with me. The rest of them sat like stones. Two were actually facing the opposite direction during much of the telling until the end when they gave up being annoyed by the assembly and decided to enjoy it.

As is the case with lots of schools, the kids take their cues from the teachers. Luckily, we were all too busy playing to worry about what the detached grown-ups were doing. By the end of the set, a number of teachers decided to join in the fun.

Not for the first time in my career, I wanted to shout at the might not be the kids!

Don't assume they can't sit still! Don't assume they have no attention span. Expose them to arts and ideas. Model good audience behavior. Kids won't get any better at being an audience member if they don't know what to do. Give them space to practice.

Happy Telling!


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