Sharing Stories

I think we all know that reading books to our children from a very young age is one of the most important activities we can do with them to prepare them for future success in school and in life (and if you didn’t know this, consider yourself informed).  But I’ll tell you a secret – that isn’t why I do it.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled that something so simple will give my kids such a significant advantage in school and in life.  But the reason I love to share stories with my kids is because “reading time” is hands-down, no contest the best part of my day.  It’s a cozy time, a peaceful time, and I usually have at least one warm cuddly body nearby who’s happily anticipating the start of a story.  I love books, too, and with so many stories to choose from (as long as we remembered to get to the library) the hard part isn’t getting started, but getting them to stop asking for “just one more book!”

Sometimes it is hard, though, if we’ve had a rather busy day, or if there’s a lot of homework.  My youngest is still filled up with the Importance of Having Homework, even though my eldest smirks and mutters, “wait ’til you’re in middle school.”  There have been nights already this school year when my eldest has had to stay up extra late just to finish his other homework, and “reading time” gets sacrificed for the sake of sleep.  Sometimes I wonder, is this other homework really more important than settling in with a good book for a while before lights-out?  But no matter what I think, grades count in middle school, and an incomplete homework assignment will affect my kid’s overall grade.  But then, what does he write in his Reading Log that night?

I’ll say it – I don’t like Reading Logs.  I think they’re tedious, and there’s nothing like a tedious checklist for sucking the joy out of something fun.  But I don’t have any reluctant readers at home, and maybe these checklists are good motivators for some kids, so who am I to judge?  For us they serve as a good example that sometimes “the boss” will ask you to complete tedious tasks at work.  You can be stubborn and resistant, or you can realize that it’s better to save your energies for bigger battles. 

I do sometimes feel like a guardian of sorts in the face of all these outside expectations, a protector of the heart, of the fun, of children getting to stay little for a while longer.  Luckily, by sharing stories in all sorts of ways with our children, we get to enjoy some fun, silly, creative, playful, cozy, loving, peaceful time together every day.  All while boosting their literacy skills, if that’s what floats your boat.  I’m in it for the joy.

Some people think they’re too busy to fit any reading time into their day, but you’d be surprised.  In my house, we read at bedtime; it’s part of our bedtime ritual and has been since the kids were babies.  But I have a friend who works second shift, and in her house they read in the morning.  They call it “Breakfast Books” and they share stories over bowls of cereal before the kids head off to school.  Sometimes I’m truly too tired to read a book to my youngest at bedtime, so we’ll just turn out the lights and I’ll make up a story.  This isn’t as hard as you might think – it always starts with “Once upon a time,”.  A sure way to shine in their eyes is to base the main character on your child, “there was a young princess named Emily.”  Then throw in a conflict, “Emily was lonely because she was the only child in the whole kingdom.”  Then just go with the flow, “One spring morning sad Princess Emily decided to go for a walk in the woods by her house, oops! I mean, her castle, but she hadn’t gone far when she tripped over a napping turtle …” and see where it takes you. 

This storytelling thing works wonders at dinnertime, too.  I think I read about this tactic in a parenting magazine, but we’ve been doing this for so many years now I can’t remember.  We call it “Story in a Circle” and it works particularly well when the kids start bickering.  One person (usually me) starts telling a made up story, and just when something is about to happen, the storytelling moves to the next person at the table.  And around it goes.  The tales that result are some of the funniest, most unexpected treats!  My kids love this – yours might, too.

A friend of mine, a fellow mom, asked me recently if I still read books aloud to my eldest.  I do, sometimes, but just as often we’ll read “side-by-side”, a term he came up with that simply means we hang out together in the quiet of his room and each read our own books.  More often than not, at some point he’ll say, “Mom, listen to this,” and then he’ll read to me from his book.  Still the best part of my day.

If you’re looking for more storytelling inspiration, you can catch Grammy Award-winning master storyteller Bill Harley at Stone Church Coffee House in Bristol this Saturday, October 30th at 7:30pm.  Click here for more information. 

Fitting It In

So, I’ve been trying to get downtown to the Bristol Art Gallery for a few weeks now, ever since I read about their current exhibit, “BOO!”  Halloween is a big deal around my house, especially for my eldest and me, so I knew this would be a great opportunity for us to enjoy an art show together.  The wrench in the mix - now that school’s in full swing, the weekends seem to fly by, full of swim classes and soccer games and play rehearsals and birthday parties (not to mention, homework!), and we keep arriving at Sunday night wherein I realize I didn’t get us to the gallery, again!  And then it occurred to me (in a forehead-slapping V8 kind of moment) – we could go during the week!  And so we did …

Oh, it was excellent!  They’ve put together a good mixture of oils, acrylics, photography and other 2-d media, and 3-d pieces as well, both ceramics and other sculpture.  I didn’t think there was anything nightmare-inducing here; I brought my eldest, but I think my younger child would have liked it, too.  Every kid is unique, so if you’re not sure, just pop-in and check it out ahead of time. 

Bottom line, if your kids are into spooky and creepy, then take them to this exhibit before it vanishes after Halloween.  It runs through October 31st – and they’ve got two special events planned for Halloween weekend.  On Saturday, October 30th, starting at 6pm, the gallery is hosting a Closing Reception for adults, where you can have a glass of refreshment, perhaps meet an artist or two, and even peek into your future with a guest fortune-teller.  On Sunday, October 31st, beginning at 5pm, it’s the kiddos turn, when the gallery invites families to their Cultural Halloween Family Night, complete with spooky music, creepy gallery ghouls, Gothic decor, and art-themed goodies to take home!  Admission is free and costumes are welcome!  All children must be accompanied by an adult.  Click here for more information.

Take Me Out to the Theater!

Theater offerings abound this fall in our community, a bountiful autumn feast with something at the table for everyone:

  • Read recently on pb update, The Bristol History Kids will be hosting a Halloween Birthday party on Sunday, October 24th from 2pm-4pm in celebration of Linden Place Mansion’s 200th anniversary, and everyone is invited!  The History Kids are a group of local students who perform in period costume at special events throughout Rhode Island.  Tickets are only $5, and there will be egg races, a donut-eating contest, a pumpkin hunt, old-fashioned games, crafts, birthday cake (and other food), prizes, and more!  Click here for more information.
  • Rehearsals are underway at our own Kickemuit Middle School, where the Masquers Theatre Company players are busy readying their production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  A favorite in these parts thanks to Trinity Repertory Company’s longstanding tradition, the KMS production is sure to be a hit.  With shows scheduled for December 3rd, 4th, and 5th, we can hardly wait to see what the kids can do with Dickens!
  • We hear the Bard is coming to Bristol!  This November, Mount Hope High School’s Masqueraders will present Shakespeare’s shortest but bloodiest tragedy, Macbeth.  From November 17th through the 21st, Lady Macbeth will utter her mad, famous line “Out, damn’d spot, out, I say!”     
  • At the university, you can catch the final performance of Roger Williams University Theatre’s production of Iphigenia, a play written by the ancient Greek playwright Euripedes and adapted by Edna O’Brien, Saturday October 16th at 7:30pm.  For less than the cost of a movie ticket you can sit with the audience and discover,

How will Iphigenia respond when she learns her father, King Agamemnon, has summoned her not for marriage with Achilles, but for sacrificed death to appease the goddess Artemis?

      Up next at RWU is The Good Woman of Setzuan, a comic satire by Bertolt Brecht with shows running in November and December.  Click here for more information.

  • And last but most certainly not least, 2nd Story Theatre has opened its 2010-2011 season with Kimberly Akimbo, a comedy with a dark sense of humor by David Lindsay-Abaire.  About a girl with a rare aging disease (that makes her appear sixty instead of sixteen) and her dysfunctional family, critic Channing Gray calls this production “an irresistible night of theater.”  Kimberly Akimbo runs through October 24th.  Following close on her heels is Moliere’s School For Wives, a classic comedy about love and marriage and the folly of a man with a plan.  Sounds like a fun night out (ahem, dear husband, take note).  Opening night is Thursday, November 18th with performances scheduled through December 12th.  Click here for more information.

Doodling in the Margins

Do your kids doodle in the margins of their schoolwork, like mine?  Before you tell them to stop it, ponder this – Thomas Edison was known to be an “inveterate doodler“, so is Bill Gates, and according to psychologists doodling is a strategy used by many people to keep their brains “on task”, in other words, doodling helps you pay attention!  Better that we encourage those creative energies, and next month Warren Art Spot on Child Street is offering kids age 5 to 12 the chance to turn those doodles into something more, in Cartoons I and Cartoons II with Jim Bush, professional artist and cartoonist:  

“In this 4-week workshop we will explore comics, caricatures and learn cartooning techniques to create our own panels and strips.  Students will draw using pencils, pens, markers, ink and paints.  Bring your imagination!”

Registration form is available on their website.  Warren Art Spot is also offering a handful of other classes this fall, along with a few more Open Studio Saturdays through December.

The Arts are the Key

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock these last few months, you’ve probably noticed the recent media coverage focused on education reform.  First, there was the Newsweek article in July, “The Creativity Crisis”, that explored the alarming downward trend in our children’s creative abilities … In late August the U.S. Department of Education announced the winners of the federal Race To The Top funding (huzzah! Rhode Island won a 75 million dollar grant) … In mid-September, Oprah Winfrey dedicated two shows in one week to education reform, shining a spotlight on the stirring documentary “Waiting For Superman” and then on the $100 million challenge grant pledged by Facebook founder (er, co-founder?) Mark Zuckerberg to the Newark, NJ school district … Time magazine published a special issue “What Makes a School Great” on September 20th  … “Waiting For Superman” premiered September 24th in limited release, hopefully it will come to our neck of the woods when it’s released to a wider audience … And finally, NBC held a weeklong education summit called “Education Nation” in the last week of September, including a slew of broadcasts and live events dedicated to the subject of education reform in this country. 

Here at The Arts Room we are aware, as are many parents around the country, that although there are certainly some exceptional schools in our cities and towns, there are far too many mediocre (or worse) schools that are having a detrimental effect on the lives and futures of our children.  We are long overdue for a transformation of education in this country, so the buzz being generated by the media coverage of education reform efforts is exciting indeed, and as the national discussion continues we must make sure the best ideas are translated into action before the enthusiasm inevitably wanes and a new cause takes center stage.  

We at The Arts Room stand with those who recognize that arts-learning is key to achieving an excellent education.  The arts are particularly well-suited to teaching exactly the kinds of creative-thinking skills that top CEO’s are looking for, but our kids are lacking.  Moreover,  the structures and strategies used in teaching the arts, along with arts content, can be shared with the other classes that make up the school day in creative, interdisciplinary ways, resulting in a considerable improvement in learning (and enthusiasm!).  I have seen firsthand the extraordinary things that can happen in a classroom when the teacher takes the time to integrate the arts into the whole curriculum, and countless case studies from around the country confirm my own experiences with arts-integration (if you want to start to learn more about arts-integration, read this and this). 

Recently in the Bristol Phoenix (published 9/23/10) it was reported that SAT scores have been steadily falling for the past five years in our school district, even as NECAP (our state standards assessment test) scores have risen steadily.  We have been teaching to the test, a practice that may help our schools achieve good marks with the Rhode Island Department of Education, but one that most certainly is not helping our children achieve an excellent education.  In response to this discouraging trend, our superintendent has stated that the district is now working “to strengthen the rigor and depth of our content and instruction, to get students to think critically and deeply.” 

It has been demonstrated often enough around the country, and here at home, that strong arts-learning and arts-integration programs teach children to think critically and deeply (read this, for example).  How, exactly, our teachers and administrators are strengthening our district’s programs has not yet been reported, but we hope to find that arts-learning and arts-integration make up a significant component of the plan.  Stay tuned.