Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Pre-K Play: Iconic, Archetypal, Foundational Literature

In January, after our December holiday break, I challenged the Pre-K children to think of something they could do for the whole school. This is how we've kicked off the New Year for a decade now. When we started I had no preconceived notion of what that might be, really wanting it to emerge from the children themselves. That group the first year took it on as a problem to solve, determining that we needed a birthday throne, and set about making the very one we use to this day.

Making water in which butterflies will swim and bad guys will emerge.

The following year, a boy named Vaughn, now a high schooler, said, "I want to do a play," and thus was born our school's tradition of ending the year with a performance by the Pre-K kids for their younger classmates. It's a project that continues to emerge each year, sparked by the strong memories of the younger children, who are now the "big kids," and who have decided that now it's their turn to create a performance for their friends. One of the magical parts of the play, I think, is that the younger children are blissfully unaware that it's in the offing. They have no idea that the older kids are meeting an additional afternoon each week to be together as older children, where they incubate many of the themes, projects, theories, and ideas that are eventually brought to full flower in the larger multi-age part of the class. When they see the play performed on the penultimate day of the school year, it is a true revelation for them.

Creating the bridge that will turn into a "butterfly one."

Once the children have settled on producing a play, we begin the writing process, which can take until at least mid-February, re-reading what we have each Tuesday afternoon when we come together, then editing and adding to it. We don't always start with our characters, but this group did. I try to write what they say word-for-word without comment. Not all the children are present for each writing session, as there are always other activities to chose from on any given day, but over the course of our process, they each have a hand in the script, at least insofar as it involves their own characters.

Making butterflies for the bridge.

Sometime in late February or early March, we move our creative process to the stage, where we begin "rehearsals," which are really just extensions of the writing process. Some kids are already capable of imagining words on paper as action on a stage, but most of them need to experience it in context with their whole bodies involved. To an outsider, this phase, which I've arbitrarily decided ends when we briefly scatter for Spring Break, probably looks like just a bunch of kids goofing off together on stage, with a teacher hopelessly reading from a script, but this is really the creative core of what we're doing, as the kids work out every detail of what they will be doing together. 

Here are these notoriously "mess averse" kids, getting messy making "fire," into which 
the Panther will "go." When they finished, they filed out of the room, hands held up like
surgeons after they've scrubbed in for surgery, to wash up in the sink.

During this period, everything may change, including the children's characters. This year, for instance, Jody started as a Dragon, then became a Bat Dragon, then a Spider Dragon, then Spiderman, then a Transformer, until he finally settled on Panther, which helps explain why the Panther that appeared on our stage for the actual performance, swung from webs, shot bats out of his mouth, and transformed into a tank.

Creating one of our backdrops.

In the meantime, as the script takes shape, we begin working on our props, sets, and costumes, either creating each piece ourselves, or cobbling them together from things we already have in our classroom or at home. I've never had a Pre-K group that put more care and thought into their costumes, many of them thinking things through right down to the rings on their fingers.

For five full months then we work on at least some aspect of this play every Tuesday afternoon. In the beginning it may just be 15 minutes of writing, but by the end, the play has pretty much come to consume our entire time together.

Tomorrow I will share the script, then on Tuesday I will present you with a video. To you, an adult, it might look like (as my retired English professor father-in-law once said about most contemporary fiction) "just one damn thing after another," and objectively it is. But what you don't know, what you can't know, is that what you read in our script and see on our stage is now a piece of iconic, archetypal, foundational literature that is as much a part of these children as it is a product of their collective creativity. It's a story both about who they are and who they aspire to be.  They all now know this story as well as any they'll ever know any story. To them it's not one damn thing after another, but rather the mythological story of who they are as "a people."

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Rachel said...

what a lovely post. truly capturing the collaborative aspect of a community of children. i cannot wait to see the video.

Jaci said...

Looking forward to the video! Food for thought as I think about a new year - at any grade level.