You wouldn’t have heard of Boolanoola unless you’ve read The Araboolies of Liberty Street.
This is the rambunctious ball game that caused General Pinch, the mean bully and dictator of Liberty Street to call in the army. The story, a 1989 picture book written by Sam Swope and illustrated by Barry Root, has been made into a children’s opera and stage musical.
And in a small elementary school in Silver Spring, Maryland, ESOL teacher Madeline Taylor engaged her students in turning the book into their own musical, retelling the story by adapting well known tunes. For most of her 13 third graders, struggling English learners, mostly born in the US to foreign-born parents, this was their first time in a play.
General Pinch and his wife rule Liberty Street. They prohibit fun and mandate uniformity. All houses are painted white. The streets are quiet as no one can play outside. There are no pets or plants. Then the Araboolies move in—people with changing skin colors, multitudes of exotic pets, and habits, like playing games and sleeping outside. The Pinches summon the army to remove the Araboolie’s red and white zigzag painted house.
Joy, a Liberty Street child, conceives a way to foil the Pinches. She enlists the help of the other neighborhood children. At night, they paint all the houses bright colors and crazy patterns. They decorate the lawns and streets and paint each other’s faces. When the army arrives, under orders to remove the “weird” house, the one that stands out, they upend the Pinches’ white house, taking the home and the Pinches far away. Peace—and fun—are restored to Liberty Street.
Using songs like “Jingle Bells,” “The Wheels on the Bus”, “Oh My Darling Clementine,” the class rewrote the story and learned the words by singing. “They knew these tunes from songs in their own languages, “ said Taylor. “Learning the words by singing them came easy to them.” The class practiced about a month before performing the play this week at least six times for different classes in the school, parents and administrators. Colored bandanas provided the costumes and the students created the set: cardboard houses painted white on one side and a variety of colors on the other. Both costumes and props were easy to switch as the story unfolded through songs.
Here’s an excerpt from “BoolaNoola Ball”
(Sung by the ensemble to the tune of Oh My Darling Clementine)
BoolaNoola BoolaNoola BoolaNoola ball you flew
Through the window of the General with such force we never knew
Hit his stomach hit his stomach hit his stomach good and hard
BoolaNoola in the stomach in the stomach full of lard
That BoolaNoola was the last straw was the last straw for the Pinch …
After the performance, the audience—other 3rd graders and their teachers- asked questions. It was obvious how the students had absorbed the book’s messages: freedom and diversity vs. uniformity and bullying. Thanks to their memorable engagement with this story, I bet they’d recognize these themes in other literature. It’s experiences like these that help students pass tests, not rote memorization and drills.