Every now and then in my job, I come across a new approach to teaching that captures the pure anticipation and imagination of the children I teach. The ability to deliver a lesson that ignites wondrous excitement is my goal as a teacher. A lesson that is so much fun it essentially has the children teaching themselves and because they are so engaged and focused on the activity all you have to do if be the facilitator! But it's also important that the lesson awakens excitement in me. As a teacher, if I find myself looking forward to teaching a lesson, I will revisit it time and time again and that's when teaching for me becomes a pleasure and not just a profession.
Teaching drama wasn't one of my strengths even though I absolutely adored it as a child. Drama was the deficit in my teaching toolbox, so I made it my mission to research effective teaching methodologies around this subject area. My goal was to build my confidence in delivering fun drama lessons while also using drama as a way of reinforcing the literacy outcomes of the new language curriculum. Over the summer I came across a group of teachers discussing helicopter stories and instantly I wanted to know more about it, so I googled what I could find online and felt excited that this was something that I could bring into my classroom.
Princess, Dragons and Helicopter Stories!
Yes, it's every bit as exciting as the title suggests! Through the art of story acting this wonderful book written by Trisha Lee combines all the magical experiences children love... stories, imaginative play, freedom of expression and creativity by merging them together as a truly wholistic way for children to develop their literacy and communication skills, while also building confidence and peer interaction.
So How Does It Work?
The great thing about helicopter stories is that the preparation is really minimal. I mean you can literally have a go at this tomorrow and I guarantee that it would be a successful lesson. The first time I tried a session I just found myself with a free slot in my timetable and jumped head first into it, very much unprepared apart from a few videos that I'd watched online. The results were instantly electric, to say the least. The children were animated and overflowing with enthusiasm. From the moment that I started the session all the children just came together to have the most fun and entertaining language session in ages, the laughter did not stop.
The Scribing of Stories...
The teacher or teachers act as scribes, modelling the process involved in writing right in front of their eyes. The children get to choose if they want to act in their story, if so what character they want to play. What I really love about Helicopter Stories is that it is very much child-led. You write their words, not yours. I think teachers tend to spend way too much time telling children what to think and do and all this results in is squashing their own imagination and making them feel their ideas don't matter, that instead, they should conform to an adults way of thinking. Helicopter stories specifically deter the teacher from doing this and in the book Trisha goes into detail about the importance of scribing verbatim. It has to be the child's words and you're not allowed to correct them during the session (save the grammatical instruction for a discrete language lesson). During story acting, the children are free to take risks without the fear of being corrected. When they are acting, it is their own interpretations that are encouraged and it doesn't matter how big are small they are.
The Stage can be as simple as a rectangle of tape on the floor but I use the large classroom rug as my stage. The children sit around the carpet on their chairs. Once I have some stories ready to go, the children sit around and we discuss the role of a good audience. Not every child will get to have their story scribed during one session, so you might choose to keep a list to make sure everyone gets a turn over consecutive sessions. But there is plenty of opportunity to involve those children in acting out someone else's story. What I love about Helicopter Stories is that they encourage acting out everything, a child could be a chair, the wind or the door.
Helicopter stories advocates inclusion of all children and as the story is read, Trisha suggest the children be cast in order of the circle. In this video we had already had a chat about the story and preassign the characters. But next time I want to try assigning the actors to from the circle in order and cast more parts to try and have everyone get a turn. The only prompting I give them is to encourage them to think about how the character/prop would move or speak. The audience or author are also happy to offer their thoughts here but we don't want to overwhelm the actor on the stage so I need to bear this in mind. The children are encouraged to think for themselves how their character should act. The teacher does not tell them how a dinosaur flies, so if that dinosaur wants to skip that's ok! This concept took me a while to get used to and I found myself having to control the urge to tell them how to act.
Modelled Writing & Reading at its Finest!
Above are examples of children dictating to me in private scribing sessions. You could also use Aistear play as a time for any reluctant story writer to come to you dictate their story without the pressure of their peers. But if a child is happy to scribe in front of the class I use it as an opportunity to model some shared writing and reading. Apart from anything, this is a perfect moment to build confidence and offer the children a chance to learn from their peers!
How Helicopter Stories Enhances Literacy Learning
What I have learnt is that drama offers a far more effective teaching and learning tool than many teacher-lead lessons, especially when it comes to teaching those literacy outcomes. Once again I realised that drama doesn't have to be an extra subject I need to fit into my over-crowded timetable. Drama was offering me an incredibly fun and playful route to teaching those difficult literacy outcomes!
"Prepare the children to achieve by not setting them up to fail!"
Getting children to write can be difficult, particularly for boys who tend to be more reluctant writers than girls. What I really want teachers to understand is the need to focus on language first before you attempt any written record of genre or creative writing. Having children struggle to put down on paper a creative story, only to have a teacher come along and cover their work in marks that highlight all their failures is one sure way to disengage children from writing. If you put your focus on embedding in children the language of story first, then when the time comes and they have gained the handwriting and spelling skills needed to scribe their own stories the process will be effortless and writing will be a wonderful experience for them. It is important that children get a chance to experience success, when we know that so much of their learning is built around learning from mistakes. Teaching that prepares the children to achieve by not setting them up to fail!
"Helicopter stories puts the focus on language"
All too often in our great haste to educate, we forget that our role in the infant years should be more of a facilitator allowing children to explore and discover in a safe and encouraging learning environment. We put pressure on ourselves to produce written tasks as if they’re some sort of measurable reflection of our ability as a teacher. In our haste to give content to our display boards we overlook the value of the somewhat unmeasurable content that reflects imagination and creativity in the form of language and communication. But really the infant years are just not that measurable. Because the focus is meant to be on oral language, the building blocks to literacy. Helicopter stories puts the focus on language. If you're too busy looking for adjectives and verbs then you risk forgetting the magic of simply telling stories.
"Helicopter Stories makes an abstract concept real for children by bringing their stories to life"
"Creativity and imagination without the confidence to share it is a tragedy that falls upon so many of us"
Helicopter stories gets children excited about writing and if I can offer children the easiest route to writing success than this is exactly what I will choose to do. The story acting approach should without question be part of your teaching toolkit. Teaching through the arts will make learning more holistic, nourishing their imagination and building the confidence needed to share their thoughts. Creativity and imagination without the confidence to share it is a tragedy that falls upon so many of us. If we don't nourish the gift of childhood curiosity and untainted imagination in the early years, then that flame will likely smoulder, if not extinguish altogether.
Practice Makes Perfect
Like any new skill it takes time to perfect how to deliver the lessons. I am constantly referring back to my Princesses, Dragons and Helicopter Stories book to help make my helicopter sessions run smoothly. I want to take every opportunity to get the children involved and engaged, using expressive language and developing acting confidence. In time I'll update this post with more of my own classes videos but for now I'll leave you with a lovely video of Trisha working her magic with the children. I highly recommend that every teacher get their hands on a copy of this book in their personal collection. I found it a very easy read, and full of practical teaching ideas as well as addressing many ways to approach difficulties that may arise such as under confident children or EAL children. Helicopter Stories is suitable for everyone regardless of academic ability or language competence. I would love to see Helicopter stories rolled out in all pre-school right the way up through primary. Developing the concept alongside children's language skills as they grow. I would absolutely recommend that every teacher/school has a copy of this book. It’s not just for infant. Lasses but pre-school as well as older classes.
I would like to thank the children who kindly consented to having their work samples and/or photographs used on this website. Infant Education was granted parental permission for the participation of their children on this website.
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