“One reason I’m really grateful for Waldorf is that it taught me how to act.”
This was the icing-on-the-cake quote I overheard this Friday evening, at the end of a long and busy workweek, as my own children were talking about their current high school experience. They’re both involved with the speech and debate team at their local public high school and they’re finding that their Waldorf experience has been excellent preparation. Apparently those annual class plays have built some pretty great skills that are coming in handy when it comes to winning debates!
Interestingly enough, today was a dramatic day in the first grade, so those coincidental teenage comments were just the right food for my teacher soul.
Yesterday I told the first graders the story of Prunella, a little-known fairy tale about a girl who stole plums from the orchard of the witch and then had to carry out a series of tasks to save her life. As I told the story, I was a little stunned with how strongly the children took in the images. One child scooted closer to her neighbor for comfort, another got up on his knees anticipating the next part of the story and another child couldn’t help but stand up, rooting for Prunella. (Note to self: tone down the storytelling!) It all ended well, so everyone was comforted at the end, but it was definitely a nail-biter.
Last night as I reflected on the experience, I realized that their reactions were probably because Prunella was an unfamiliar story to most of them. The day before I told Hansel and Gretel, a story about parents leaving their children out in the woods to starve(!), and no one batted an eye. I’m sure my retelling was just as full of imagery, but somehow the familiarity of the story and its (of course) happy ending, helped everyone to feel comfortable and at ease. Prunella was a new and different story.
Today, I knew the images of the story would be strong in the children, so it seemed like a good opportunity to act it out. I chose one part of the story to reenact — the part that was the most exciting and also allowed the most children to participate. I called students forward, tied silks around their necks to serve as costumes, and began to tell the story.
As children are learning how to act out stories, I have found it best to serve as narrator myself, allowing them to act out the roles. This way I can control the pace, and if one character is discovering an opportunity to clown things up a bit, I can move on to the next part of the story, without the whole thing running away with itself. It’s also really difficult for a student to act in this role as narrator, which isn’t much fun anyway.
Well, today we started out our retelling with me telling the story, but the children were doing so well, I encouraged them to start speaking their parts. It started with me saying, “And then she said . . . ” and the student filled in the rest, but by the end of the story, the students had completely taken control and were moving the story from one step to the next, without my guidance at all. It was one of those rare moments when I could sit back and watch. I looked at my assistant and we both smiled and lifted our eyebrows, completely impressed. The performance ended with deep bows and wild applause.
Of course, we had to let them do it again, with different actors, and that’s where the real magic happened. Suddenly children who had been raising their hands because they wanted parts of their own, were now raising hands because they wanted to suggest fellow classmates. J and Z raised their hands saying that quiet and timid A should play the part of the vicious dog (which he was happy to do!) S said that G should be the maiden dipping her long braid in the well. D and I said that V should be the door needing its hinges oiled. It was truly an incredible experience. And, of course, their suggestions were right on, pedagogically speaking.
As I watched the second group re-enact the story just as beautifully, I wondered if this was a sign that Prunella should be our class play. But pretty quickly I realized that they’ve already had such a beautiful experience of acting out this story in class, it’s probably best to give them a new experience. As wonderful as it would be for me and their parents to watch a polished performance of Prunella, the students would get so much more out of working through a new story. And I’m sure that whatever it ends up being, they’ll do it just as beautifully.
The other thing I thought about was how grateful I am that I ended up telling this story. Right up until the day before, I was questioning this story choice. I wasn’t satisfied with the image of the “pole” “picking” “plums” to bring the letter and sound of P. The pole is such a minor part of the story (but essential to the P drawing), and “plum,” with its consonant blend, isn’t a great example of the P sound. (If you want to read way more than you ever wanted to know about choosing the order of the letters and stories to go with them, read here.) Even the day before I was asking colleagues for alternative suggestions, but it was a long and busy week, so I went with my original plan.
In the end, I’m so glad I did, even though I recognize that this meaningful lesson yielded no tangible result. We spent so much time on our dramatic re-enactments, we didn’t even have time for the drawing! I’m sure we’ll get to it next week, but if not, I’m not worried. Prunella brought us a pretty powerful message (or should I say portent – hehehe.)
Today was one of those days teachers look back on proudly. We had a deeply satisfying lesson, shared heartfelt appreciations for a birthday girl (including an all-class birthday hug that even their teacher could not contain), but most importantly, there were so many moments that allowed us to recognize the capacities of the individuals that help to unite and give us strength as a whole.
So full of gratitude to be a part of this community of learners!