Last week, Barry and I had a little surprise while visiting an elementary school. It wasn’t a pop quiz, but it did make our eyes pop quizzically.
As professional storytellers, we work with every age range – adults, children, teens, families – in almost any place where people gather (including palm tree lined beaches). But in springtime, we often find ourselves in schools, where we usually know what to expect. But on that day, in that school, something was different.
While getting the sound system organized on the stage in the gym, the principal came in to greet us. We were delighted. Rarely do we meet principals in the flesh; they are often in meetings or stashed away like good wine for special occasions.
This principal looked like a male principal archetype:. Dark pants, button down shirt, belt that had more to do with decorum than function. He walked with the relaxed yet sure gait of a leader who feels at home in his skin and in being a leader. He greeted us with a warm smile and hand shake.
After niceties were swapped, we asked him if there were specific school topics that he wanted us to address in our show. Character education “words of the month,” particular literary connections, or social studies themes are often requested. With a spunky, yet earnest glint in his eye, he said, “Forget about that stuff! I want those kids to have fun.”
Have fun. That is a phrase I wouldn’t expect in a Principal’s Conversation Starter Handbook. I was dying to see what Barry was thinking about it, but I didn’t want to be obvious. Keeping my head still enough to win a gold medal in an Olympic game of freeze tag, my eyes migrated to the left. They stretched so far that I feared that one eyeball would sever its relationship with my optic nerve and rudely tumble from my face like a marble rolling off a table. It turned out that Barry was looking at me in exactly the same way. So much for subtlety and the sideways glance.
When our eyes connected, Barry was gazing at me with two dark and shining question marks. I turned to the principal and asked, “Did you say you want them to have fun?”
He nodded and said, “These kids have so many things that they have to do, so many should’s and musts. Children need to play. I want these guys to have a blast with you. That’s all.”
Wow. We haven’t encountered a principal like him lately, one willing to admit that there are too many pressures placed on youngsters. Here was an educational administrator suggesting that children have opportunities in school to revel in the lightness of being.
It’s not that I believe educators forget this. Regulations and extensive testing have tied the hands of teachers, forced learning to fit into a box, and made the fun of learning less of a pedagogical imperative. This is the complaint we have been hearing again and again from teachers. And this is what made the news just days after our school visit.
According to The Albany Times Union, the school board in Saratoga Springs is sending a message back to New York State saying that enough is enough with testing. My take away from the article is that educators in many different areas want to teach to hearts and mind, not to the tests. http://bit.ly/12zA12x
And now, back to our principal. He wanted his students to have fun. We gladly honored his request, but… we did nothing different than what we usually do. We selected stories that were right for the mood of the audience and the age of the students. The tales had laughter, surprises, and interesting images. Educational themes of all kinds were threaded throughout, along with the developmental good things that oral storytelling offers to listeners for: brains, language, emotional intelligence, memory, and listening skills. All of that and more happened, and everyone had fun.
Storytelling makes learning fun, even when there are tests and standards. The students had fun that day in the multi-purpose gym-a-torium, just as the principal wanted, and just as they always do when they hear stories told.
We are so glad that educators are standing up for the teaching they want to be doing, like the principal we met one day last week.
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