Drama is a good way to encourage young children's understanding of how a story has been put together, how the characters interrelate, and what the themes and subtexts are. At last year's Cheltenham Festival I based a workshop for schools on the children's picture book, The Dance of the Eagle and the Fish. This is how you could adapt it for the classroom.
The book tells of the love that grows between Kartal, an old eagle whose kingdom is in the mountains, and the fish Balik, whose kingdom is in the seas. When Balik needs to travel to warmer waters in order to survive, Kartal vows to follow her. He eventually dies from exhaustion, ending his life with a majestic dance that begins in the air and ends in the sea, where Balik is watching.
The final words are: "From the exact spot where he fell, the fish Balik rose up like a mighty eagle, powered by Kartal's great wings of love, and she danced the most beautiful dance the earth, the seas, and the skies, had ever known."
To stimulate children's powers of imagination, inventiveness, and critical awareness, by offering them the opportunity to make judgments about the story and its themes.
* Before starting the workshop, read the story to the whole class and look at the pictures (you could use an OHP or slides).
* Briefly discuss the children's reactions to the story - was it sad, happy, or both? What was their favourite character or setting? Which description stayed in their minds?
* Make a "story map" together, looking at characters, and showing the settings where events take place. Discuss where the characters will be when certain scenes take place (see pages 20-21 for an artist's impression ofa story map).
* Eagle and fish dancing alone.
* Meeting and falling in love.
* Eagle killing hare.
* Eagle travelling with fish.
* Eagle dying and final dance.
* Kartal the eagle.
* Balik the fish.
* The mountains (for the story map I rendered these as a jagged outline, then linked them with a badly drawn sketch of the eagle in profile, with his distinctively hooked beak).
* The sea (soft wavy lines with a dotted line linking this to Balik).
Make it live
After I had read the story we made decisions as a group about how to enact it. The main focus was on self-expression through teamwork. You might try:
* Discussing subsidiary characters first rather than focusing on the protagonists. Some of the sea creatures are referred to in text and illustrations, while others appear only visually in the book's illustrations. In addition to making choices about who would play the solemn swordfish and the dreaded scorpion fish, we explored what other kinds of creatures might appear. Dolphins, rays, and sharks were added by the children.
* Teamwork: all characters were played by more than one child. This enabled lessconfident or less-able children to feel supported, and it channelled the groups into co-ordinating their ideas. The eagle character was played by five children, with the right and left wings interpreted separately in order to deliver the power and expansiveness of the first line of the book:
"The ancient eagle opened his massive wings and soared". Create a selection of more and less structured roles for children to choose from. Children who feel more at ease with a looser framework for expression, rather than struggling to match a tightly defined description, might be attracted to the role of "energy". This is not a defined entity in the story or the pictures, but was created for the workshop. It can act like a Greek chorus, as a linking thread between the main elements of the narrative: settings, characters and events. "Energy" was played by a group of half a dozen children who first worked out how they might move - like buzzing insects milling together, or holding hands and strung out between the points of action.
Talk about the main themes of the story. How could they be expressed through contrasts? For example:
* breathing in the airbreathing underwater;
* living togetherliving apart;
* struggling againstgiving in to nature;
* old eagleyoung fish;
* quality of lifequality of death;
* eagle dancing towards the seafish leaping into the sky.
When all the role-playing groups were well-spread out around the room and ready to go, I began to tell a distilled version of the picture-book story.
Key words and phrases helped to create atmosphere and jog memories about the story, which I had read through at the beginning. I included descriptions that encompassed the new action unfolding before me, placing value on the children's creativity.
The children were encouraged to continue their role-play even when the focus was not on them, and to make sounds to match the setting, their movements and their role. For example, some children summoned up the icy blasts of the mountains, and the sounds of the sea creatures scurrying past one another.
Reading for writing
Use the workshop sessions as the basis for writing activities. Pupils who are familiar with a narrative after exploring it through role-play may find it easier to construct their own stories. The headings in the story map will help you to approach the activities in manageable chunks. Refer children back to their individual role-plays.
Adapt your own tale
The same workshop structure will work with other stories. Here are some hints for adaptation.
lPlan how many words you need. In the case of the The Dance of the Eagle and the Fish, the final count of 700 words was about one third of the source text. When cutting, ensure you're going to be left with a compelling story. You can choose with your class what elements to leave in or take out (your story map may be helpful here).
* Make your version unique. It should resonate with the children, perhaps through incorporating local jargon, pupils' names, or geographical features. Research the story's setting and themes, and compare and contrast tales from different cultures. Children could vote on their favourite, or pick out the features they like and you could incorporate these into the narrative.
* Brainstorm a title and character names. Decide whether the names will have the same linguistic root - particularly interesting in relation to myths. A dictionary of baby names will give you lots of options.
* Think about how you might use your creation - will it be developed as a performance or as a text for whole-class reading (possibly even your own picture book), or to display to other classes? If you perform the story, encourage children's evaluation and reasoning skills by reporting back on the best and worst features and working the feedback into future performances.
If the project is a success, you could expand it to include work with other year groups, or create themed music or dance to accompany it.
Alison Boyle has lead literacy workshops in UK schools and at literary festivals and is adapting author of The Dance of the Eagle and the Fish illustrated by Ka-gan Guener (pound;4.99, Milet Publishing)