Every morning was the same. I would ride up to the school on my scooter and as I stood outside the glass doors, undoing my helmet, I would be inevitably spotted by one of the children inside. Within moments, a dozen little bodies would be pressed against the window, fighting for space, their faces beaming. The English teacher had arrived and this caused intense excitement.
Walking into the kindergarten was perhaps the most ego boosting experience one can have. Both my hands were grabbed and I usually found myself giving someone a ride on my leg. Everyone tried to get my attention, every student wanted to show me something special, wanted me to notice them. I was everyone's hero and at the height of my popularity.
After the initial greeting, however, everything went to hell. Maintaining control of 15 four and five-year-olds who speak limited English, is challenging to say the least. Most of my students were certain that I was only pretending that I couldn't speak Chinese and carried on long conversations with me, to which I always replied, "I had no idea you read Nietszche."
Most of my teaching time was spent in trying to gain control of the situation, with limited success.
The only time I had complete attention was story time. My roommate, a teacher by profession with many more years experience working with children than me, always said that the most important and rewarding activity in teaching language was telling stories. It allows children to hear the langauge spoken in a natural way. In Taiwan, rote repetition is popular and encouraged at most schools and the result is that acquired English often sounds like robot talk. By telling stories, new language structures and vocabulary are presented in a normal manner.
Most importantly, the kids love it.
Now storytelling is an art form as few people can tell you since it is indeed a dying one. It isn't enough to simply read the words and change the page to show the pictures. Inflection of voice is vital, the taking on of accents and imitating actions is crucial to presenting the story. A storyteller must not only invite the listener into the story, but also make the audience an active part of the telling. Exaggeration is key. I loved it and honed my skills over the few months that I worked as a teacher in Taiwan. I not only had the attention of the 15 wee ones in my charge, but every morning, the entire reception staff, the cook and the cleaner and the owners would come into my classroom to hear my daily tale.
It was a dramatic performance.
I sat, barefoot on the floor, the children in a circle around me. Like at the front door when I arrived, they fought to get the choice spot, as close to me as possible. Every few minutes I would have put down the book, thereby delaying story time, and repeat one of the few commands they all knew. Go back. Go back. Go back. Sometimes I felt like I was being suffocated as they slowly moved their little bodies closer and closer, trying to reach into the book, into the story I was telling. For a moment, there would be a minor show of animosity as elbows and feet were repositioned, legs crossed or un-crossed. Some would throw each other dirty looks for waylaying the story but eventually, they would all settle down, and 15 pairs of eyes would stare at me intently, waiting with baited breath for the next installment.
The stories were often repeated but even the 10th time around, The Three Little Pigs was as enjoyable as the first nine times. In fact, it enabled me to involve the students even more because they were already aware of the major points of action and I could encourage greater reactions.
"What is he doing?"
At that moment, everyone would begin to imitate the huffing and puffing of the wolf as he blows down the house of the first little pig. The looks of the elated wolf would then be replaced by the fearful looks of the frightened little pig as he runs to his brother's house.
For 15 minutes I had the kindergarten wrapped around my little finger. This might not sound like long, but as anyone who has worked with this age group can attest, this is a marathon stretch of attention. My favorite and most rewarding memories are of those moments when I was the fire around which so many youthful minds briefly gathered and enjoyed.