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Inside the fence

Disruptive behaviour, limited attention span and trouble with extended writing. Brian Radcliffe explains how these problems are being tackled with drama. Picture the scene: you've prepared a well-structured and varied lesson plan on a stimulating text. You await the arrival of the class with enthusiasm and high expectations. The door opens and in they tumble, laughing and gossiping, bursting with energy. Your voice level rises as you attempt to create some order. Eventually you start the initial task but there's no time when the whole class is quiet and listening. You can see frustration levels rising among pupils who want to learn but are hindered by the poor behaviour of others. Your confidence and self-belief slides.

At Fallibroome High School, a performing arts college in south-east Cheshire, we're attempting to address these behavioural issues across the curriculum through the use of drama techniques. Cath Pranauskas and Jen Mason, English teachers at the school, have been working with classes of Year 7 mixed ability pupils on the novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne. It's a moving text that views the Holocaust through the eyes of a young German boy, who is the son of the camp commandant.

We believe poor behaviour often originates in boredom, the result of classroom routines that are too predictable. Drama techniques that are varied and engaging can be the perfect antidote. So to grab attention at the start of a lesson on the novel, sit the pupils in a circle with a series of simple props at the centre (a piece of chicken wire, a swastika, a map of central Europe and a Star of David). One by one they're invited to approach the centre of the circle, pick up a prop and explain, in a single sentence, what it reminds them of from the narrative. Pupils in groups of four or five can illustrate the action from set chapters using their bodies to form characters and props.

In science lessons, a similar effect is gained by instructing pupils to act out a scientific process they've recently learnt, taking on roles such as molecules and electrical resistors. The activities help the class to review collectively what they already know in a vocal and physical manner - an approach we've seen particularly appreciated by boys.

Limited attention span can be another cause of poor behaviour. To counter this, an empty chair is placed at the front of the class (the hot seat) to explore characters' motivations and reactions. Whenever a character makes a significant entrance or exit within the narrative, a pupil is invited to sit in the hot seat and, in role, answer a series of questions. Some will answer with simple, objective information. Others will provide deeper analysis. What matters is that as wide a range of pupils are involved as possible and that the reading task is broken down into a simpler, more accessible format.

Finally, we're discovering that drama techniques can help pupils who misbehave because they struggle with extended written tasks. For instance, to highlight the boy's naive interpretation of what he can see in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, pairs of pupils are asked to produce a 60-second TV news report on what's happening on the "other side of the fence". A framework can be provided, reminding pupils to include the who, what, why, where, when and how information.

The technique was used in a PSHE unit of work for Year 9 pupils about social isolation. Liberated from the practical concerns of writing, some have shown much greater levels of empathy and sustained involvement. Spontaneous laughter and applause from the audience provides immediate encouragement. Maybe, for some pupils, that has been at the heart of their behavioural issues all along.

Brian Radcliffe is a writer and supply teacher at Fallibroome High School in Cheshire. His latest book Drama for Learning is available from Teachers' Pocketbooks.


- Establish a simple routine to gain pupils' attention, such as a 5-4-3-2- 1 countdown.

- Be a role model - participate in the drama yourself.

- Use the given space - with a little imagination drama can fit any location.

- Be flexible - allow the drama to develop in its own direction.

- Emphasise the role of the audience - sensitivity, support and appreciation.

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