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Brett Dillingham and Stacy Reeves
In performance literacy, students write a story or poem and then perform their writing for an audience of classmates and the wider community. Performances include the conscious use of sound, expression, and movement, which allow the students to learn the material and content of their writing regardless of their learning mode (visual, auditory, or kinesthetic). If the subject of their writing is a particular content area, for example history, zoology, biography, or biology, other students in the class become interested in the content as well. Of course, the stories and poems may be completely fictional and narrative in form.
During in-school and after-school programs, we trained teachers in Mississippi's Hattiesburg School District to use performance literacy with children, many from families in poverty, and found the approach helped students develop both academically and socially.
The process encompasses many areas, including oral language development, the writing process for a real-world product, reading for meaning, content integration, self-assessment, assessing the work of others, and mini-lessons that the teacher selects based on miscues or errors in the mechanics of writing and spelling. Final performances should involve students from other classes, parents, and members of the community.
A typical performance literacy sequence includes the following:
1. Brainstorming ideas in terms of problems that need to be solved. The teacher may ask the class for suggestions of problems or situations that need solutions. Some examples of problems that need solutions include why wild animals are hungry or how we can conserve the resources of our community.
2. Creating stories using a graphic organizer called a Visual Portrait of a Story (VPS). This simple, powerful graphic organizer distills a student’s work into the following skeletal framework:
3. problem or conflict
4. solution or resolution
6. graphic (or graphics) that symbolizes the story to the author
VPS helps students "see" their story before they have written it by starting with the problem and solution (or conflict and resolution) instead of the beginning. They are encouraged to draw a picture that reminds them of the story. This way students who are more artistically-visually oriented can see the story as a picture in the form of a graphic organizer before they even begin to write it.
3. Telling and retelling the story once the VPS is finished. As soon as they have finished the VPS, students tell and retell their stories to one another using sound (intonation, rhythm, volume, sound effects, etc.), expression (facial expressions), and movement (action, mimicking walks of animals, etc. ). As they tell their stories for the first time to a partner, they construct details, develop conversation, arrange the setting and the plot, and format the story elements while the tales spin from their imaginations. This process is true of stories that are fiction as well as those that are nonfiction. Next, their partners retell the stories to the original storytellers, who hear their work with creative sounds, see their work with expression and movement, and often pick up new vocabulary and details.
4. Quickly writing the story immediately after the retelling. The students sit down and write their first draft immediately after paired retellings. Even formally unenthusiastic writers become accomplished and excited authors.
5. Rehearsing the story and peer/teacher evaluation. Practicing with a peer is important, but rehearsing the story in front of the class sharpens the story into a more focused piece of both oral performance and literacy. The oral retelling incorporating sound, movement, and expression leads to the students developing their personal presentation styles. At this point, the storyteller asks the class “What did I do to make this a good storytelling?” and “What could I do to make it even better?”. The questions allow students to give and receive direct and focused comments, both positive and negative. Comments may include elements of the stories themselves or may be about the sound, movement, and expression at points during the story. After receiving feedback, the performer glories in the compliments and makes definite corrections to weak areas of the performance.
6. Performing the story within the school and community. The students are ready to perform for another teacher's class, the entire school, or at community-wide activities. By sharing stories outside their classroom of peers, the students are developing and perfecting oral performance skills and literacy expertise that will last long beyond the moment and make them truly lifelong learners of literacy.
Performance literacy develops a multitude of positive attributes for students in the areas of literacy, creative activities, and public speaking and performing. And all of this in six simple steps!
Brett Dillingham is a children's book author, educator, and storyteller who teaches children around the world how to write and tell their own stories. His latest book (coauthored with Nile Stanley), Performance Literacy Through Storytelling, will be available in May 2009.
Stacy Reeves is an associate professor in curriculum, instruction, and special education at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, Miss. Her areas of interest include literacy and its impact on children and poverty, technology infusion, and building long-term university-to-community partnerships. She has taught at Linyi University in Linyi, China, and works with children in Hattiesburg, Kenya, and China.
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