This chat fest appealed to our older kids, who usually have a lot to say, but it meant the youngest 3-year-olds needed to find other things to do as we approached the crucial 20-minute mark -- like messing with each other. I’m still working on stretching the younger kids out at Circle Time and we’re a couple months away from getting that accomplished. Last year in the Pre-3 class they grew accustomed to the 20-minute Circle Time, but now they’re going to school with kids who are capable of going a good 40 minutes. The ideal in our multi-aged classroom is 30 minutes: it leaves the 4-year-olds wanting more, while stuffing the 3-year-olds to the gills.
I decided to try mixing things up a little by introducing children’s storytelling for the first time this year. For this inaugural session I concentrated on the older children who have been telling stories in class for over a year now. They know the drill. Teacher Tom gets out his clipboard and they take turns dictating stories to me that will be read aloud at Circle Time. I collected ten stories, many of them only a few sentences long.
As I called the children to our daily community meeting, I knew I had a game-changer in the form of those stories in my back pocket for when I need it. We kicked off with a couple of the Halloween songs, one of which was “If You’re Happy And You Know It” using a felt board jack-o-lantern to show the various emotions. Initially, I directed most of my singing efforts at Charlie L., who I know loves this song, and who as a representative of our youngest classmates I wanted to get hooked right away. Once I saw he was stomping his feet and crying a tear with gusto, I checked in with his age colleagues to make sure they were on the bandwagon as well. By the time we hit the final verse (“If ye be a pirate and ye know it say, Arrr!”) they were all fully engaged.
A couple of the older kids had been shouting out verse/emotion suggestions all along (yes, sometimes the hand raising falls apart) and we’d been sort of going with them. As the song ended, Katherine said, “That was too loud.”
I asked, “Shall we sing it more softly?”
She said, “Whisper,” so we whisper-sang the first verse.
At the end of that Thomas shouted out, “No voices!”
So we mouthed the first verse, using only hand gestures.
Someone else shouted, “Let’s do sad with no voices!”
So we mouthed the second verse, “If you’re sad and you know it cry a tear – boo hoo! . . .”
Several voices shouted, “Angry with no voices!”
And thus we sang angry, surprised, silly, scared, and pirate with no voices. The whole things was a fantastic example of a child-driven Circle Time activity, but by the time we were done we were pushing up against our 20-minute point, and right on cue some of the younger kids were starting to get squirrelly.
That’s when we went to the stories. All the 3-year-olds sat up and took notice as I began calling children up to the front of the room to stand beside me. This was unprecedented Circle Time behavior as far as they were concerned, something that they needed to keep an eye on. Josephine lead things off with her simple one-line story, followed by silly stories from Ella, Jack, and Sarah, and a longer one about forklifts and tools from Thomas. We got a solid princess story from Katherine that began “Once upon a time,” and ended “happily ever after.” Marcus’ entire story was a list of increasingly silly rules.
And three of our 3-year-olds stepped up as well. Isak followed in his older brother Jarin’s footsteps by telling a non-fiction story, this one about what squirrels eat. Lachlan told a sad story about being told "no." But Dennis stole the show with an hilarious story told mostly from the second person point of view (e.g., “An elephant sits on your sunglasses.”) He had his audience rolling in the aisles. They loved that Dennis’ story was about them. (He enjoyed his time in the spotlight so much, I expect he’ll be first in line for our next storytelling session.)
We finished with a recitation of everyone’s expected Halloween costumes and we were at 30 minutes exactly, leaving the 4-year-olds wanting more, while sending the 3-year-olds away stuffed to the gills.
From the outside, I’m sure the whole thing appeared herky-jerky and relatively formless, but that’s how it goes when your partners in creation are preschoolers. It’s a meeting after all, not a performance. We’re there on the blue rug to make a shared experience out of songs, stories, and conversation. Yesterday, we played together quite well, and made something for 30 minutes that will never be seen on this earth again.