Six Montgomery County schoolchildren sat spellbound yesterday as storyteller Maxine LeGall flitted from character to character, assuming first the voice of a sneering snake, then that of a trilling bird, and finally the slow speech of a lumbering cow.
When the tale was told, the youngsters clapped with glee, but LeGall said her playful tale had a purpose: to teach the value of various kinds of communication.
"I wanted the kids to see that there's a time for one kind of language and character and a time for another," said LeGall, a speech professor at the University of the District of Columbia. "They get to see me comfortable with standard English, slang, and black dialect."
LeGall's story was the highlight yesterday of a program at Burnt Mills Elementary School in Silver Spring designed to teach black children that different types of language are appropriate for different occasions.
The program, developed by two black speech pathologists who work for the county school system, was at the center of a controversy last week after some black parents complained about a letter that Burnt Mills Principal William Snyder sent to them inviting their children to participate.
Yesterday, Snyder said he expected the program to cause controversy. "I understand that there are deep feelings, genuine feelings about this issue. I was fully aware of that."
"I would perhaps change my method of invitation," Snyder added, "but I would be derelict if I saw a need and didn't do something to address it."
Snyder said he allowed the program, called the "Code Switching Club," to be conducted at Burnt Mills after realizing that some black children at the multiracial school showed "specific speech patterns and mannerisms that needed to be addressed."
Snyder added that only one parent had complained directly to him about the club, and that she decided to allow her child to participate after watching the group's first meeting last week. The program, now in its second year, was conducted at three schools in Montgomery County last year.
The club, open only to fifth-graders, meets once a week for 50 minutes. The Burnt Mills program drew eight students last week and six yesterday.
Throughout the semester, club participants will meet physicians, educators, scientists and other professionals who will explain "how effective communication is important to their work," said Wanda Carroll, a speech pathologist who works at Burnt Mills.
The group's activities are observed by a team of black speech pathologists who work for the county's school system.
"The goal of this type of program is to create an awareness of different communication forms, and to enhance their communication skills," said Tina Williams, one of the speech pathologists who developed the program, which also is being run in Maryvale Elementary School in Rockville.
Olivia Featherson, another speech pathologist present yesterday, said she and her colleagues fear that black children sometimes do not understand until it is too late that black dialect is not appropriate for all occasions.
"A lot of teachers don't deal with it," Featherson said. "They're afraid to be called racist. But these kids need to understand that if your English grammar is not standard, some people write you off. The way people perceive is based on how you communicate."
Whatever the lessons, the Burnt Mills students -- five girls and a boy -- seemed to enjoy themselves yesterday.
LeGall shared one tale, called "The Transparent People," a story about a long-ago people who were angry at God because they had no skin color. Before her enactment, LeGall told the enraptured children to say "Yes," "Well," and "Amen" at her signal.
LeGall moved easily from the bold, authoritative language of God to the tinny whining of the people, telling the students that God relented and gave people different skin colors, but that human arguments persisted.
"I can tell you this," LeGall said, "until we learn to get along, we're not worthy of being called children of God."
Then, at LeGall's direction, the boys and girls cried, "Amen."