Laura Amy Schlitz readily admits that, as a child, "I loved to pretend I was somebody else and I loved to perform." Her sense of drama eventually led her to create Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, a series of monologues that were honored last week with the 2008 Newbery Medal as the year's best children's book.
Beyond Ms. Schlitz' personal triumph, it's worth noting that this work by the longtime librarian and chief storyteller at the Park School in Baltimore is also part of the private school's fifth-grade curriculum. Who says learning can't be fun?
In response to a suggestion by some fellow teachers more than a decade ago, Ms. Schlitz rolled around in some straw and pretended to be a medieval peasant. Then she decided to write characters - including Nelly the sniggler (an eel catcher), Drogo the tanner's apprentice and Alice the singing shepherdess - for students to act out.
What began as an appeal to a student's imagination and sense of movement has become a tradition at the school and an important learning tool. Typically, by the end of the school year, the fifth-grade students are writing their own monologues, setting their medieval characters in such places as China's Forbidden City or Syria's Krak des Chevaliers.
Another Park School teacher has aptly described the medieval monologues as "sneakily informative." And the Newbery judges were impressed by the fact that the book version can be read silently or performed aloud. Ms. Schlitz's students might describe her work as interactive, but using drama to bring lessons to life is a time-honored method of engaging students, especially those who learn best in nontraditional ways.
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! makes its readers think while entertaining them. That's the essence of good literature as well as good teaching.