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Soap-free zone

Reva Klein explains how Noadswood School drama students turned their backs on realism.

Non-naturalism may seem an odd direction to take when your pupils' notions of drama begin in Albert Square and end in Brookside Close, but Theresa Matkowski is not the sort of head of drama to opt for an easy life. When she decided that this was the way to engage Year 7 and 8 pupils and in particular to raise boys' low achievement, she was taking a risk. But it turned out to be one worth taking.

In a drama session at Noadswood School in the New Forest village of Dibden Purlieu that I observed, Year 8 pupils were transfixed, moved and moving in their responses to photographs that newly qualified drama teacher Susie Costa had distributed. Working in small groups, their brief was to present a word and then a mimed "play" that conveyed their reaction to the emotive images they had been given; one image was of a tiny shrivelled black hand inside a large, plump one; another is the famous Dorothea Lange picture of a woman and her children in the "dust bowl" of 1930s America.

Not easy for GCSE students, let alone 14-year-olds. But they discussed, collaborated, negotiated and in the end came up with some arresting vignettes in the short time allotted to them, ably conveying threat, despair and indomitable human spirit, with nothing more than their own bodies and expressions. There was no smirking, shirking, or messing about, even when touching each other was called for. And the boys were in there 100 per cent, alongside the girls.

Theresa Matkowski's resolve to extend younger pupils' dramatic horizons rather than indulge their appetite for hyper realism has been as much a challenge to the teachers in the drama department as it has been to their pupils. Ms Matkowski explains: "There's a culture in drama where children feel that soap opera is what is expected. In the department we looked at how to challenge that attitude within a curriculum that we felt was tired and needed re-evaluation. It bcame clear that we needed to introduce to pupils a toolbag of new skills, such as non-naturalism, that would equip them with the experience and expertise they would need by the time they came to GCSE."

In the process, the drama teachers decided to put their own attitudes and approaches under scrutiny. "In an in-service training session, we looked at different teaching and learning styles and at how our teaching styles reflected our learning styles. There was discussion on how it could be that the predominant teaching style for women - too much talk - was leaving the boys out. We learned that boys often respond better to shorter-term targets, where they're given something specific to do and then do it fairly quickly."

So in Susie Costa's class the pace is fast. Pupils are asked to produce something like a freeze frame before quickly moving on to something else that will elaborate whatever preceded it. But this is not at the expense of children understanding what they are being asked to do and why. Each new exercise builds on the previous one and pupils' visual, kinesthetic and auditory senses seem to be stimulated simultaneously. So is their verbal communication: critical discussion of each group's presentations, in which technical terminology is used, are an important part of the approach.

This is the first year key stage 3 pupils have gone "non-naturalistic" but so far, says Ms Matkowski, "some work we've got out of them is the best we've ever seen". It remains to be seen whether taking this more daring, unconventional tack will have an impact on how many choose drama as a GCSE option.

But for the moment, Theresa Matkowski is keen to encourage them to take what they are doing now seriously. "We talk to them about levels that we are measuring them by, to make them aware of how they are achieving. I tell them 'you've all got the toolbag to create drama with. Maybe you've only got a spanner in it now, but by the end of the year you'll have lots more tools.'"

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