By MICHAEL C. DUKE
-Thu, Oct 31, 2013
It’s bright and early on a
Thursday morning, and it’s Ava Chosnek’s turn to share a story.
After writing the story with her teacher, classmates are chosen for the different characters. A play carpet becomes a stage, the rest of the class an audience, and the children put on an adorable reenactment of the day that Ava got a new bed and furniture at her house.
The cast takes a bow at the end of the little performance amid applause and praise. A chorus then erupts from eager children in the pre-K 3s class who want to share their stories next.
Teaching via children’s stories and dramas is the product of a campus collaboration between The Shlenker School and Rice University. The School Literacy & Culture project, or SLC, combines early literary research with practice through classroom mentoring and professional development for teachers.
Shlenker joined the project in the early 1990s, and educators at the Jewish day school in Southwest Houston have gone on to serve as SLC mentors for other teachers and schools. On Oct. 17 of this year, research pioneers and leaders of the project visited Shlenker for the first time, together, to see the work in action.
‘Finely tuned violin’
The visitors said they were captivated by what they found — storytelling and story-acting from Shlenker students like Ava — and likened the experience to listening to a “finely tuned violin.”
“These are very happy places for children to be,” observed Vivian Gussin Paley, an award-winning teacher and author on whose research the SLC project is based.
“We see little episodes of dramatic play going on everywhere, all the time” in these Shlenker classrooms, Paley told the JHV during the visit. “What I love about these rooms is that they’re rooms to play in.”
Paley was joined by Dr. Gillian Dowley McNamee, an esteemed language and literacy development specialist, and by the SLC’s founder, Dr. Patsy Cooper, and the project’s current director, Karen Capo.
“The play is so beautifully orchestrated, back-and-forth,” noted Capo after spending the morning with Shlenker’s pre-K 3s. “The children step right into listening, negotiating and compromising.”
McNamee observed, “This is what I would hope to see going into schools anywhere in the country,” adding, “Shlenker has a beautifully developed program that is poised for listening to these children right where they are and helping them take next steps.”
‘Making sense of their world’
SLC is now in its 25th year. The project’s founder, Dr. Patsy Cooper, is a former Shlenker parent.
Cooper gave a presentation on SLC 22 years ago during a teacher in-service at the school. Sherry Dubin, a pre-K teacher at the time, attended the presentation and, immediately afterward, encouraged her administration to join the project.
Since that time, Dubin has risen through the ranks at Shlenker, currently serving as the school’s Literacy & Learning specialist. She has championed the SLC project since day one and has become one of its valued mentors, helping to train early childhood teachers in the methodology.
Teaching via children’s stories and dramas is an effective way for children to express themselves, noted Dubin, who’s found that children tell stories about the things they like, the things they fear and the things they’re thinking about.
“We get to see what’s important to them,” the veteran Shlenker educator said. “It’s a way of making sense of their world and it’s a way of thinking through things.
“It builds community in the classroom. It cements friendships that have already begun to develop, and it helps foster the development of new friendships.
“It addresses the child and what’s important to the child,” Dubin said.
Cooper, who has visited the school many times, said that Shlenker and passionate educators, like Dubin, have made “a fascinating contribution” to the project.
“I love the fact that the children at Shlenker are learning in their most natural way — and it’s deep learning,” Cooper observed. “They own their space and they are safe in it. There’s no question that they know what their role is here and the teachers embrace what the children want to do, naturally.”
‘Imaginations lead them’
Marci Powers is a pre-K 3s teacher at Shlenker who sees tremendous benefit from storytelling and story-acting.
“The children are free to play and use their imagination,” Powers told the JHV. “They’re not stifled by something we must teach them or they have to learn.
“They’re the ones who are choosing what they’re doing, and their imaginations are leading them,” she said.
Laura Hall is another Shlenker pre-K teacher, who said she is impressed with the level of involvement that storytelling and acting engenders among her children.
“You get to know the children, and they blossom in no other way,” Hall said. “You really don’t know a child till they let you in on their stories.”
In Ronda Feinberg’s case, SLC has reignited her passion for teaching.
“The ability to fantasize and play teaches children life skills of learning how to get along with people,” the veteran pre-K teacher explained. “This incredible program [SLC] teaches children negotiating skills. It teaches them math, science, the beginnings of reading and writing, and it teaches these skills in a fun and exciting way.
“The beauty of this program and adaptation here is the fantasy play that brings you to creativity for the rest of your life,” Feinberg said. “And, I think my kids are soaring.”