A chance to go with the flow

22nd September 1995 at 01:00
Drama is a clear strand throughout the curriculum: teachers have to do it. Yet too often, writes Reva Klein, they do not know how.

If Joseph Heller had been asked to write any part of the national curriculum orders, it's a dead cert that he would have found drama within English the natural home for the full irrational force of his Catch 22. In the new English Order, drama at every key stage is promoted as a useful tool for delivering the curriculum, appearing as a clear, identifiable strand running throughout the phases, whether it's for speaking and listening or for reading texts. Teachers are told to adopt drama techniques such as role play and improvisation. This is where Heller comes in: teachers have to do drama, but most don't know how. There is little or no training, there are few drama advisers around to help teachers acquire the skills, and no non-statutory guidance exists. But do it they must, whether they know how or not.

Teachers know well that drama touches parts of children's understanding that the rest of the curriculum cannot. For decades, the work of drama-in -education gurus Dorothy Heathcote and Gavin Bolton has demonstrated the power of drama. Sean McEvoy, head of English at Varndean College, Brighton, and a member of the drama working party of the National Association for the Teaching of English, defines its unique pull: "It is one of the few areas in school where you hand over the responsibility of learning to students, when they can be as expert as anyone else. Any student can have feelings and articulate them. If they are prepared to act, they become as good as anyone else and cease to be the spotty boy in the corner."

Self-esteem comes with the acquisition of experience, language and control, says Cecily O'Neill, Professor of Drama at Ohio State University and Heathcote-schooled drama teacher in this country for many years: "It's one of the few places in the curriculum in which what children bring to it is validated. They get a sense that instead of just swallowing facts, they are taking responsibility for themselves and for what goes on in the class. It's a simple system but the social and educational pay-offs are so important: group thinking, critical thinking, cognitive learning, co-operation."

But drama is a skill that requires specialist training if it is to be done effectively; it goes far beyond the cliches of role play and improvisation. Geoff Readman, principal lecturer at Bishop Grosseteste College in Lincoln and former inspector for drama in Nottinghamshire, thinks that "role play and improvisation have become catchphrases. They carry connotations of drama as a functional tool and nothing else. I want children to have opportunities through drama to seize dilemmas and engage with contexts."

The problem, says Readman, is that by using role play and improvisation as short exercises, characterised by role or situation cards, children "grab on to whatever occurs to them most quickly, usually drawing on soap opera models from TV, because they worry about having to show their work to the rest of the class. There is no time for the development of ideas".

Like most specialists, Readman believes in the power of well developed drama projects, in which a subject is covered over a period of three or four weeks. In a project on the Irish potato famine, a class looks at the dilemmas facing people, the positions they assume and the rationales behind them: the identity of the farmers, decisions whether to stay put or emigrate to America, the role of the English landlords. "It gives pupils the opportunity to look at history in a different way." The best drama practice, underpinned by careful planning and guided by an ever-vigilant teacher, will look as fluid and extemporaneous as a stream.

Schools around the country have strategies to help teachers come to terms with drama. At Comberton Village College in Cambridge, head of drama and expressive arts co-ordinator Paul Bunyan set up meetings between the drama and English departments to share skills and expertise. "We've been able to free up time so that English teachers are able to work alongside the drama teachers and vice versa, where the drama teachers go into the English classes. A reciprocal understanding is developing through sharing teaching experiences."

Where drama is perceived as a part of the English curriculum, the fight is half-way won. In Geoff Readman's view, "Schools have to find a strategy for English teachers to develop their skills. And that means that drama teachers must be brought in to help them. Schools need to ask themselves what it's reasonable for primary teachers to know about drama in education and what the role of a specialist drama teacher is. At the secondary level, if I was the head of a school I'd be putting a drama teacher to head the English team, to give teachers the opportunity for dialogue and to feed into drama projects. And I'd ensure that the drama teachers' fears of being subsumed within English and losing their own specialist identity would not happen".


* Drama offers narrative, language development, writing and reading opportunities. Can be spoken dialoguetext or writing diaries or letters in role.

* Be realistic about what you can do with your class. Drama is a risky business . It's up to you to create a safe environment in which pupils can express themselves without fear of ridicule.

* Key elements in drama work are: - The use of symbols - Assuming roles - Dramatic tension - Context * Teachers in role shouldn't necessarily take on the character of a controller.

* By taking a lower status role, a teacher shifts the responsiblity on to the students, allowing them to take decisions, make contributions.

* Teachers should make observations on what is going on by stepping in and out of character.

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