Academic journal article Language Arts

Becoming the Story in the Joyful World of "Jack and the Beanstalk"

Academic journal article Language Arts

Becoming the Story in the Joyful World of "Jack and the Beanstalk"

Article excerpt

Mera, a drama teaching artist playing Jill, reminds the preschool-age children that last week all the "brothers and sisters" were in their beds and Mother came to wake them up. She directs them to make a pillow with their hands and close their eyes. She, Heather (a teaching artist playing Jack), and Christie (the classroom teacher playing Mother) put on a scarf, a vest and an apron, respectively, while the children pretend to sleep. Mera says softly, "When I count to three, you'll be in Jack's bed. One, you can feel the soft pillows under your head. Two, you can hear the wind blowing outside. Three, you can feel the soft blankets over you."

Mother speaks next. "Good morning children! Did you have a good sleep? Are you hungry for breakfast?" "Yes," the children respond, as they stretch and rub the sleep out of their eyes. They are now the brothers and sisters of Jack, the character well known for his trips up and down an enormous beanstalk.

With Mera's soft-spoken words, preschoolers imaginatively leave their classroom behind to enter the world of pretend. Their destination is the world of Jack, where they take on new identities and become in play, as Vygotsky said, "a head taller than themselves" (1978, p. 102). Their transformation is seemingly just as magical as the infamous beans Jack trades for his mother's milkless cow Daisy.

This article looks into the world of pretend to understand how moving, taking risks, and becoming the story of "Jack and the Beanstalk" afforded three- to five-year old children the space and encouragement to take on additional literate identities. I describe a ten-week process drama residency that I studied in three classrooms in a rural Head-start school and, one year later, in two classrooms in an urban Reggio-inspired child development center. Although many stories could be told from my twenty-plus weeks with preschoolers engaged in the world of "Jack and the Beanstalk," I focus my gaze now on a prominent theme: the compelling effect of engaging preschoolers' bodies in movement and pretend, particularly for three children who presented what I choose to call "special circumstances." Their teachers and I found ourselves frequently repeating these children's stories and came to realize that children's bodies are often an unrecognized and untapped symbol system in early literacy learning.

First is Hillary, a child at Bluegrass County Preschool (BCP) (children's names and BCP are pseudonyms), whose physical limitations meant that she was dependent on her teachers to carry her from place to place and to sit upright on the carpet. Hillary's participation magnifies the significance of movement in story making. Second is Iris, a child at the Early Learning Campus (ELC), who was notably reluctant during process drama and whose teacher had never seen her pretend at school. I mapped Iris's physical positions in space as she learned to pretend in order to highlight the value of ritual in story making. And third is Charlie, whose challenging social behaviors concerned his ELC teachers. Charlie's engagement, particularly when he embodied a popular culture character, illustrated the manner in which the children's bodies made meaning as they pretended. Together, Hillary, Iris, and Charlie helped me see that movement, ritual, and pretend were ways young literacy learners of all abilities became the story.

I resist the deficit meanings associated with labels like "special needs." Rather, I focus on the circumstances that called my attention to Hillary's, Iris's, and Charlie's individual, unique participation in story making. Like Edmiston (2007), I understand that "it is particular ways of structuring communities, like classrooms or hospitals as well as wider societal structures, that disable people" (p. 342). For Hillary, Iris, and Charlie, imagining a pretend world with the physicality that drama provides was a new way of making meaning-it afforded all the children new ways of being in the preschool space. …

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