Communication Currents

Communication Currents

How Undergraduate and Elementary Students Learn Through Performance

January 9, 2020
Higher Education, Instructional Communication, Theater & Performance, Visual Communication

Julie-Ann Scott-Pollock, Professor of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, was hired to create an ethnographic or personal narrative performance troupe in place of the UNCW Storytellers, a traditional children’s literature performance group. Scott-Pollock has created additional ethnographic and autoethnographic troupes for undergraduate students, but also continues to run the UNCW Storytellers. In a new article published in the NCA journal Text and Performance Quarterly, Scott-Pollock describes how the UNCW Storytellers has been beneficial to both undergraduate students and the elementary students that it serves. 

Undergraduate students may be members of the UNCW Storytellers for course credit twice, once at the lower level and once at the upper level. The performances create a unique opportunity for learning and connecting through storytelling. All assignments center around creating and improving the UNCW Storytellers annual show. The troupe performs at a mix of elementary schools in the university’s surrounding community, including all Title I schools. At Title I schools, at least 40 percent of the student population is designated as low-income and at-risk. Scott-Pollock emphasizes that it is important for students to perform at the Title I schools because “for many children in our audiences, the UNCW Storytellers are their first exposure to anyone who goes to college. For many Storytellers, this course is the first time they learn how economic and racial segregation in public school districts impact opportunities.”

A video of one of the Storytellers performing “Stinky Cheese Man.”

The troupe is composed of 12-14 undergraduate students who prepare one-person performances of children’s stories. For each performance, the students perform stories from children’s books with minimal props or costumes, other than a common uniform that creates a sense of comradery among undergraduate students. The undergraduate students embody the stories, using gestures and pantomime to aid in the storytelling. After the performance is complete, the performers discuss the moral of the story with the elementary school students. When performing at schools, the students perform in six to eight classrooms simultaneously and rotate through classrooms every 6-10 minutes. Scott-Pollock identifies 4 steps for students to follow as they develop their script and performance through the course of the semester.  

Step 1: Enrollment

When Scott-Pollock took over the troupe, students were required to audition. Now, Scott-Pollock allows any student to participate who is committed to performing during school hours and creating a polished performance for elementary students. Scott-Pollock describes the importance of the polished performance: “Subpar performances are not allowed into the community. Lots of administrative and teacher turnover keep our relationships with the at-risk schools fragile. The elementary students deserve to be engaged and an unprepared performance will not be a positive experience for the students, teachers, or Storyteller.” 

Step 2: Literary Selections 

Scott-Pollock also advises students on story selection, and Scott-Pollock argues that plot-driven stories help ensure dynamic performances. In addition, students are discouraged from using stories that have been made into well-known movies or television shows. Scott-Pollock emphasizes that the students’ chosen story should also have a high level of interactivity: “We continually re-set the children’s attention with either movement or oral responses at least once every two minutes. The Storyteller must do and say the planned participation with the children so that the children immediately know how to be involved.” Furthermore, Scott-Pollock emphasizes that stories must not contain microaggressions, unkind language, or sarcasm. Finally, students must choose stories that they can reasonably perform and that they are excited about performing. 

Step 3: Script Creation 

By weeks 3 and 4 of the semester, students have picked their stories and begun memorizing them. Scott-Pollock requires the students to memorize the stories as they are written, without paraphrasing or removing words. Students are also prohibited from using accents of marginalized groups. Students can use accents from their own cultural speech patterns; students also adjust the timbre of their voices to perform as children or adults as the script requires. Students take notes of feedback provided and incorporate them into a working script from which the final script is developed. 

Step 4: Finished Performance 

Scott-Pollock notes that by weeks 5 and 6, students are more comfortable with their performance. Students rehearse together or with Scott-Pollock as appropriate as they prepare for their school performances. 

Teaching and Learning through Performance 

In addition to performing at the schools, students have performed at a Children’s museum and an after-school program in subsidized housing. Scott-Pollock argues that these performances “foster connections between the university, the schools, and each other that are long lasting and transformative.” The elementary school students learn morals from the stories, as well as seeing what college can be like, perhaps for the first time. Scott-Pollock says that, ultimately, the Storyteller experience “fosters the individual and cultural connections and transformations that the performance of literature has the potential to bring.” 

This essay was translated by Mary Grace Hébert from the scholarly journal article: Julie-Ann Scott (2019): (Re)directing a university storytelling troupe for at-risk elementary students for course credit: a story of embodied empathy, literacy, and personal transformation, Text and Performance Quarterly, DOI: 10.1080/10462937.2019.1691742

About the author (s)

Julie-Ann Scott-Pollock

University of North Carolina Wilmington

Professor of Communication Studies and Director of UNCW Performance Studies

Julie-Ann Scott-Pollock