All the world's a stage

9th November 2015 at 17:13

MrSellickEnglish, Subject Genius, The use of drama in English

Drama is a lifeblood to English. In most schools, the relationship between the two is perhaps a little more complicated than it needs to be. It seems that more and more schools are moving drama away from English and across to faculties of Performing Arts. 

Every institution is different of course. But I think it's a shame that the two subjects are  not as entwined as they could and should be. 

In my school, drama lives with PE and music, but I feel lucky to work with a head of drama who teaches English, understands the dynamic, and is happy to do room swap deals involving our Arts Theatre (especially when said lessons occur on 5-lesson Mondays!) 

I love teaching practical sessions that encourage empathy with characters in plays or books. My year 7 class recently improvised a lovely piece in which they presented Auggie's bullies in Wonder as wolves. I've no doubt that their writing benefited as a result. 

But I'd like to encourage fellow English teachers to explore, not only 'drama' per se, but, in a broader sense, the potential in using 'theatre' to make pupils' learning of texts more tangible.

I've been using this approach in my teaching of The Curious Incident for a number of years now (long before the play was produced!); asking pupils to consider how they would stage Christopher's intellectualising of 'dry' topics like algebra and the myriad of 'sciencey' things he talks about in the book. This engenders healthy debate about Mark Haddon's inclusion of such sections and encourages empathy with Christopher. Pupils never fail to offer original ideas - I do of course offer them an unlimited budget, and as a result, their stage designs are often wondrous. Nowadays, YouTubable clips of the actual play offer pleasing 'big reveal' moments in class, once their work is done, when they get to compare their work with the professionals. I'm their teacher of course, so I know I would say this, but their ideas are often on a par with the National Theatre's wonderful cubic creation. 

When a theatrical company offer an education pack for a production of a text we are studying, we, as English teachers, really are quids in. But there's so much googleable stuff out there, that we shouldn't have to wait for a neatly packaged bank of resources to mine directors' and artistic designers' brilliant perspectives for our own gain.

Online, Stephen Daldry offers insightful words of wisdom on An Inspector Calls, and his legendary stage design for Priestley's classic provides inspiration for a cracking revision lesson I use with my GCSE class: 

1. Ensure you deliver a good initial lesson in which you allow students to ponder the symbolism offered by Daldry's decision to build the Birling house on stilts.

2. Prior to the exam, rob a box from reprographics and draw the outline of a house. *Teacher Over-Exlplanation Klaxon* Scribble 'THE BIRLING'S HOUSE' on your newly built model.

3. Complete your 'stilts design' by balancing the box on four toilet roll tubes.

4. Proudly display your creation to the class before handing them scraps of paper and asking them to write as many answers as they can think of to the question, 'In your opinion, what brings down the Birling house?'

5. Organise a mass paper throwing competition in which the class ball up their ideas and launch their missiles at your precarious model of the Birling house. Aiming of course, as Tom Jones might say, to "bring down the house." 

6. Complete this wholly satisfying activity by cleverly describing the big clean-up of your classroom as a chance for pupils to pick up and un-scrunch the paper balls so they can steal their classmates' ideas for their own revision purposes. 

And, hey presto. 

Drama is the key. Which of course, it should be when studying a play! But as my Curious Incident example shows, you can use a practical approach for any form of text.

So, if you're looking to be a little more creative when devising your lessons, what better place to go to than the world of theatre, our most creative of arts - irrespective of which bloomin' faculty it belongs to!