A lead role for drama

10th January 2003 at 00:00
Why should the subject be the Cinderella of the curriculum, asks Teresa Early. It can be an invaluable tool for building confidence and self-expression

Somehow you never hear people say: "Don't you think the children would be happier if they did not have to trouble themselves with maths?" Or: "Don't let's play team sport. It uses up all the green space - leads to anti-social behaviour and hooliganism..." Both comments could be said to be at least partly true, so why aren't they aired?

But I have often heard: "Don't let's have a specialist drama module... Lessons make noiseconsume resourcestake up space ... We do not have the staffI We don't encourage drama in the classroom ... It's so disruptive - makes you move the furniture, gets the children excited...."

I would argue that the teaching of drama is good for getting rowdy classes to behave. In drama we witness remarkable new developments in individuals, see the growth of discipline, the sudden creative breakthroughs, the dismantling of barriers between students and the forming of positive, constructive social relations... We are justly proud of what we produce. However "difficult" the school is, good drama teachers should be walking around with grins on their faces.

Yet drama seems to be the Cinderella of the timetable. And then people wonder why children are inarticulate, have no social or inter-active skills and no ability to co-operate.

I'd be interested to hear what the current new crop of drama teachers think are the real reasons for the precarious status of their chosen subject. As a new teacher of drama you might be lucky - you might be appointed to a burgeoning performing arts department with a supportive headteacher and a budget and facilities that are ample for all your needs. You could be allocated to a primary school where drama is integrated into the curriculum at all levels and all staff share in the delights of creating a school performance. But many of you won't be so lucky. Sometimes you may feel you're on a mission, and a lonely one at that. You may need to work hard to defend your practice. The first necessity is your own conviction of the value of what you do. This is what will give you the courage to face that waiting group of youngsters and begin.

The format is of course different for the different age ranges. In a primary school you may simply need to work improvisation or role-play into a literacy session, or perhaps dedicate a movement session to dance drama. A game can be a way of ordering your class at the beginning or end of a day and dramatisation can be part of reading aloud.

In secondary education you are more likely to be given a class unit to teach for sessions of variable duration, and in the upper years a choice may have been made to do drama "as an option" for several hours a week.

Of course, because you believe in it, you've got loads of resources. At your fingertips are hundreds of warm-up exercises, physical conditioning exercises, vocal and breathing techniques and games. You know dozens of rhymes, chants, concentration and articulation exercises and have a library not only of plays and props but also of suitable music for dance drama, improvisation and meditation. You know your soft from your hard palate, a lingua palatal from a guttural and how to help people find out where and what these are. You know a dozen ways of leading into improvisation and role-plays, can set up sessions of hot seating, vox populi and forum theatre, and you are socially and psychologically shrewd and observant. For emergencies you also have a few conflict resolution exercises up your sleeve. If you think you might have missed out on a few of these skills, try the specialist bookshops and websites for books of games and warm-ups, scripts and technical manuals. Look up evening classes for new techniques. Your local theatre may have an education department, your local youth theatre might run courses. Ask them for work experience or just for some help. If you are lucky, you will have colleagues in your department who will know several tricks you don't. Be shameless and steal ideas wherever you find them. Squirrel away any bits of information you can find about technical and financial matters relating to theatre. You will need them all. Then you'll be surprised when the staff regard you as the expert, and come to you for ideas and advice.

When you take your first drama classes, it is important that from the start no one should be left out. I would strongly advise no one be allowed to watch because at this point an audience inhibits free exploration. The first tasks must be easy. But make sure every individual contributes. The Name Game is universally the most popular (you know: my name is Teresa and I like tap dancing, and so it goes around in a circle) - anybody over 18 months can do it and you get to know the pupils' names very quickly (important for discipline). It's hard though, when you're shy so a class where all have managed their piece has done well. Acknowledge these small achievements, they're important.

The discipline you impose must always relate directly to the production of the best quality work. To speak your name in an audible manner in a group, invent a piece of movement and to take a bow is hard work. It demands self- discipline, confidence, speaking skills and above all courage. As such it should be carefully observed by the rest of the group, applauded and respected. It is the beginning of something important. Later the class may be expected to watch each other's improvised work, sit in on rehearsals of others' scenes and also offer constructive comment and criticism.

Don't be afraid to be a dragon. Any jokes or ridicule at others' expense should be jumped on from the start. The safety of the working space is down to the teacher, and if this is not present no one will be able to progress. Exclude pupils from the session if you need to, in order to allow the class to develop its own internal discipline. Once this has happened, the joker will find himself without support and the group may find itself able to contain him.

Be flexible. Sometimes you can walk into a room and realise that what you had planned is totally inappropriate for the group before you. It can be that the subject matter touches a raw nerve, or that something has happened that day to upset the emotional tenor or level of energy, or sometimes class discipline is a problem. As a drama teacher you need to be exceptionally resourceful to teach successfully. An instant change of tack may often be needed to meet the challenge some groups present. You can cover your original plan at a later date, but if the group is "lost" to the teacher on that one crucial day, their confidence and interest may never be regained.

Teresa Early is director of the Magic Eye Children's Theatre in Peckham, south London

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