About Me

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I'm author of The Snipesville Chronicles. I'm also a published academic historian, but don't hold that against me.Oh, and I'm a Brit. I just happen to live in Georgia.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Theatrical Teaching & School Visits

You know, some of the best things I've learned about presenting to kids, I've learned from British children's theatre...
Had a very good time visiting May Howard Elementary School in Savannah yesterday, talking to the entire fourth and fifth grades about kids' lives in World War Two Britain, which also happens to be the backdrop to the first novel in my Snipesville Chronicles series.
It's always interesting to see which variables affect my school visits: Timing (right before lunch can be tricky), age (above 6th grade requires significantly different strategies) and, most of all, how "on" I am. Or not.
Yesterday, I'd had to take a bit of temporary but very powerful anti-allergy medication that put me into jittery hypermode. I'm kinda afraid to watch the video now, to be honest. But kids and teachers were reportedly pleased, so I guess I pulled it off. Phew.
My large-group talks always include lots of show and tell artifacts, a multimedia narrative, and audience participation, in the form of question and answer, volunteers to the front to help me demonstrate, and objects passed around for hands-on experience. I also compare and contrast between past and present, and encourage kids to imagine themselves as children in the period.
But the very best stuff, I learned from pantomime, or panto for short.
Now this isn't to be confused with "mime", you know, like Marcel Marceau.
Panto is a interactive family theatre format in Britain that dates back a couple of centuries at least, and is a much-treasured secular Christmas tradition. British kids love it, and I'm delighted to learn from Wikipedia that a handful of theatre companies in the U.S. have started their own Christmas pantos.
My experience with TimeShop taught me that American kids love interactive and silly approaches just as much as any kid in Britain. So I've started incorporating some techniques in my one-person school visits: I wear a truly hideous costume. I hand out prizes to kids who come to the front and help, or who answer questions; random candies (from the period, I rush to add) are distributed to the audience, and I make fervent efforts to get the kids to argue with me. "They ate a lot of vegetables during the War...But you like veggies, don't you?...Especially cabbage. And Brussels sprouts."
That usually gets them going. :-)
Where I come a cropper is when I forget myself while talking to fifth graders, and revert to the historians' habit of being equivocal: "Well, there were exceptions...." etc. It's always best to keep it simple.
Does all this emphasis on entertainment and avoiding ambiguity mean that I'm dumbing down?
No, it absolutely does not.
What I try to do is all about engaging kids, and then slipping in asides to jump-start their thinking: They're fascinated to figure out that they have much less personal freedom than did the kids of wartime Britain, and also that they are generally much better behaved (not that this always a good thing...)
Once kids realize what they have in common with people of the past as well as what sets them apart...The ball is rolling, and I no longer have to push it along. That's the thing that too often gets missed by those who create social studies curriculum for elementary schools and inflict it on teachers: Cramming the kids full of facts is boring, pointless, and counterproductive. Inspiring them is the only thing that counts at that age.

Interested in having me visit your school?
First off, I want you to know that I keep it affordable, because my primary mission is not to push my books for their (or my) own sake, but to sell kids on history. I genuinely treasure my schools visits, because it's so stimulating to touch base with teachers, librarians, and, of course, kids.
So I'm not getting rich: Fees start at just $100 a day (local), rising to $800 for West Coast visits, which includes travel expenses. I will admit that I also make my books available for sale, with $2 per book being donated to your school's media center/library. However, my large group presentations DON'T depend on kids having read the book, and I always make sure they have access to library copies. Hard to believe, I know, but I ain't in this for the money.
Drop me a line at Annette@ConfusionPress.com, and I'll happily send you info by email.

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