Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Show and Tell

Character Education programs come in two flavors: showing and telling.

Showing is most often used by storytellers. In this style of teaching, a character goes through an experience and subsequently learns a life-changing lesson. These types of tales capture an audience’s attention because they remind us of ourselves, our families or the situations we experience. They do so by creating a moving picture that draws us into the action, even when we know what will happen next. Our preK-2nd grade assembly, “The Golden Rule Show”, includes three of these story-songs: “I Don’t Want to Go to Bed Right Now”, “The Rainbow Fish” and “Little Bunny and Red Bird”. What unites these stories is the time-honored tactic of using drama to teach, instead of preach, and remind us of the values we hold dear in our communities. As Mary Poppins might sing, stories are a “spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.”

Just like the creators at Disney, Beth and I mix music and humor into all of our school programs with the expressed purpose of drawing kids toward us and making learning fun. Do kids know that they are learning about good listening, following the rules, conflict resolution and making good choices in “The Golden Rule Show”? Most do, but we reinforce our point by using songs and dialogue that tell, too.

Telling is more fact-based or editorial in nature. For example, the opening verse in “Do the Right Thing,” our 3rd-6th grade show, gives kids the straight scoop without the ornamentation of a story:

Whether someone’s watching you
Or even when they’re not
That’s the time you’ve got to show
The character you’ve got
For everybody has a choice
It’s called ‘the inner voice’
It always guides you to the truth
And that’s the bravest choice

“Do the Right Thing!” by S. Bierko/B. Bierko

Some lessons are so important that we deliver them without subtlety or humor (think U2 or Bob Dylan, here). What saves us from being preachy, however, and being “tuned out” by the older children is the use of music, especially music that pulls them in emotionally. Rock and folk, our two favorite writing styles, work well when we want to express a powerful message that might move children to change their behavior. Whether it’s a power-chord anthem like “Do the Right Thing” or a folk-ballad like Bob Blue’s “Courage”, we’re using the marriage of music, lyrics and an emotionally-charged performance to encourage children to stand up for themselves, their friends and create a more just world.

In our seventeen years of writing and performing children’s music, we have found that a mixture of showing and telling works best for an arts-in-education assembly. A story song or a dramatic piece that invites children to join us on stage is often followed by dialogue that makes clear the lessons learned for anyone who might have missed the point. That’s the “tell them what you’re gong to tell them, tell them and then tell them what you told them” philosophy made manifest in a Beth & Scott show.

As our shows progress, we challenge the children with deeper ideas because we have gained their trust through humor, music and interactivity. I think that’s why people refer to us as master teachers. I prefer the term, “teaching artist.” Teaching artists use their art form to promote the school curriculum, the arts and, in our case, to encourage children, teachers and staff to agree to a common set of values, namely: treating one another with respect and acting responsibly. I accept that we may be masterful at this type of teaching, but there’s one last point to consider…

It takes more than skill to capture an eight or twelve year old’s attention when only two hours before they were snug as a bug in their beds or playing a wild game of dodge ball. The show and the songs must resonate with what they are working on in their lives in order to strike the right chord. A great school show isn’t great because of its special effects, costumes or sets. A great school show must be worthy of pulling the students out of their classroom. That’s why our character education shows are full of honest feelings, perhaps the best and truest form of currency when trying to motivate another person. As an acting coach once said, “you cannot ask your audience to feel what you don’t feel yourself.”

Like the children in front of us every day, Beth and I remember the sting of being left out by our friends. When we write our shows, we “walk a mile” in a fourth grader’s shoes so that we can remember how frustrating it felt to be caught up in an argument without the means to talk things out and make everything better. If we can say one thing in our shows to help them, then we’ve done our job for that day.

Most teachers I’ve met feel called to the profession because they want to “be the change you want to see in the world” (M. Gandhi). For us, it was a desire to merge our love of music, a talent we are forever grateful for, with values that our parents and teachers have passed on to us. Ever since we were kids, we have been following an insistent “inner voice” that has brought us to where we are today as a married couple, as parents and as teaching artists. Along the way, we developed our own method of performing that combines showing and telling and works pretty well for school kids. Hey, some things we learn in kindergarten are the things we use all life long!

For information about "The Golden Rule Show", "Do the Right Thing!" or any of our shows, please contact us at info@bethandscott.net or (800)364-5381.