Drama is a very powerful learning tool. There is lots of academic research in education to back this statement up. I will not be presenting arguments to back it up in this post. What I will be discussing is how I made use of drama, as a learning tool, in the other subjects that I teach (other than drama).
I have always been passionate about theatre and drama. But one thing frustrated me: a lot of the theatre programs I participated in, whether as a teacher or a student, were more focused on the show than on the learning experience for the participants. My passion for drama was a lot more educational than it was artistic. Maybe that is why I did not really feel that a career in theatre is what I wanted (and I did experiment with that path for a short period of time).
Also, I wasn’t just satisfied with a career as a drama teacher. I wanted to bring the educational benefits of drama into other subject areas. I wanted to find ways of integrating drama more into other curricula. I set out on a quest to find out how, and I experimented with a lot of tools. This is a post I wrote to share my experiences.
Firstly, there are a lot of theatre or drama conventions/strategies that drama teachers generally use with their students to help them analyze text to build character and to understand motivations and objectives. My first experiment with taking these tools outside the drama classroom was with conscience alley in my year 10 humanities class in 2011. This technique or convention requires students to form two lines facing each other (i.e. an alley) and one student plays a character facing a dilemma or a difficult decision. The student-in-role then walks through that alley, whilst being bombarded with advice and conflicting arguments. I used this technique to explore the motivations the Muslims may have had for invading Spain in the Middle Ages. One student stepped into the role of the Caliph at the time, while the dilemma was ‘to invade Spain or not to invade Spain’. The students had to quickly read through the text and come up with arguments for and arguments against invading and bombard the Caliph with their arguments as he/she walked through the alley. This activity was then used as a basis for a reflective journal entry in which students had to weigh up the arguments and solve the dilemma. The students thoroughly enjoyed the activity and were very engaged, and I believe the activity improved their arguments in the journal entry. They even requested more similar activities being brought into the humanities classroom.
Later on, I experimented with hot-seating, where a student would step into the role of one of the historical figures studied, and be interviewed by the class in a sort-of press-conference-setting. This activity requires the students to have some good background information about the historical figures, but also there is a lot of room for creativity and just having fun with improvisations. Mantle-of-the-expert was yet another drama strategy that I used in the same unit of work about the ‘Islamic History of Spain’. The students studied the achievements of the Islamic world during the Golden Age of Islam, and so some students were assigned the role of a panel of experts from the various fields of achievements (astronomy, mathematics, geography, agriculture, poetry etc…). The class would then interview that panel of ‘experts’ about their contributions to the Golden Age of Islam.
This year, I used thought-tracking to explore the thoughts and feelings certain characters may be having during certain parts in a novel studied in my year 8 English classroom. A student would be asked to step in role and voice the thoughts and feelings of the assigned character at a certain stage in the novel. I also made use of the other drama strategies mentioned earlier, and I noticed a much higher level of engagement from the students and deeper reflections when these activities were used as a stimulus for journal-writing.
Earlier this year I designed an assessment framework (as part of my masters) that relies wholly on drama strategies as a stimulus for speaking and writing, and to assess reading and listening. This was when I came across this fantastic resource: Joe Winston’s book ‘Second Language Learning Through Drama’. I would highly recommend it for any teacher interested in integrating drama more into their classroom, even if they do not teach drama. I also found the Swansea Grid for Learning literacy resources to be very useful, especially this leaflet.
The advantages I observed of using drama as a learning tool in the classroom are:
- Engagement: I noticed students were a lot more engaged and interested in the material studied, even if they did not necessarily want to participate in the drama activity, they were still keen to watch their classmates perform.
- Kinaesthetic learning: these drama strategies require a lot of movement and can appeal more to students that get restless when sitting down and writing for too long.
- Great stimulus or prompt for a writing task: as it allowed students to dig deeper into the text and actually step into the role of the characters or historical figures, which improved their understanding. This was in turn reflected in their writing.
- A practical and authentic formative assessment tool: to see whether or not the class have understood the content or the text.
However, there are challenges that teachers should be aware of:
- Not all students will be keen to participate at first: of course, not everyone likes to perform because they may be shy or self-conscious. I found that slowing introducing these activities and encouraging students to try their best eventually led to full participation. I told my students that trying something new for the first time is the hardest, like riding a bike for the first time, but the more you do it, the more confident you become at it.
- It will often get noisier: I noticed that students get very excited when I apply these strategies in class and this can led to them being noisier. Moreover, the strategies themselves do encourage a lot of talking. Just relax at first and understand that while they are noisy, it does not mean they are not learning. Just be clear about your expectations and set up an easy class signal to get back their attention.
- These activities are not a panacea: they are engaging strategies that can be added to a big repertoire of other teaching activities. Naturally, a teacher should have many diverse tools and tricks in their teaching arsenal to appeal to all learning styles, and ensure that everyone is learning.
I hope this reflection on my experiences with drama outside the drama classroom was helpful and that you may take at least one thing out of it. Now, it’s your decision: To Drama or Not to Drama? Maybe set up a conscience alley to help you decide ;)