Improvisation brings all kinds of subjects alive and boosts self-confidence at one Scottish primary. Julie Morrice reports
For a moment it is difficult to pick out the teacher. All the desks and chairs have been pushed to the sideof the classroom, and everyone is on the floor doing a warm-up. Then Lesley Christie extricates herself from the crowd and takes command.
Christie has been teaching for 28 years and has always used drama as an integral part of her class work. If her class is studying history, students will act out little scenes based on the events and attitudes of the period. They improvise around episodes from the books they are reading. "I have discovered over the years," Christie says, "that the things they remember best are those they learned about through drama."
At the moment her P7 class at Bridge of Allan Primary are working on projects about the 1950s. The walls are plastered with drawings of rock 'n' roll heroes and posters shouting Ban the Bomb!, and in previous drama sessions the class has explored the impact of Suez, and the changing pattern of gender roles.
Today she is bringing gender issues right up to date. "Peter's got a problem," she tells the class, and relates a tale about a boy who wants to join the after-school cookery club instead of going to football coaching with his friends. "Now get into groups of three. You are Peter and two of his friends. What is the reaction going to be when Peter tells them which club he wants to join?" That is all the prompting they need. A babble of conversation erupts as the groups explore the little improvisation. The class is well used to the method and there is none of the coy hanging-back that might be expected. Five minutes later, when Christie calls "Freeze!", the hands shoot up to volunteer their interpretation of the scene.
Christie chooses a group to perform. She is pretty much hands-off, only making sure that the performers can be seen and heard, and bringing the scene to a gentle close if there is a danger of the conversation turning in ever-decreasing circles. Each group is briefly praised for its ideas and execution.
There is a surprising variety of interpretations. One group of boys is particularly inventive, looking beyond the obvious stock characters and coming up with supportive friends and selfish parents. A group of girls produces wonderfully realistic dialogue, and one or two of the pupils stand out as highly competent actors.
"It's very good for developing their observational skills," Christie says. "They have to think about their peers, the adults around them, their body language, how they talk. And they are fairly convincing in the roles."
"If you gave them a script, you would lose the spontaneity entirely," explains Christie, "but in improvisation they are full of ideas. It's a wonderful way to start off language work. We'll probably follow up what we've done today with some written work. The drama gives them a stimulus, they have already begun to explore the arguments behind an issue. And it's good for all levels of children. It helps the less able ones and the middling ones, and stretches the high achievers."
Christie's class has more than its fair share of pupils with poor language skills when it comes to written work. But in the drama environment, some of those who have the most difficulty shine in the quickfire exchange of the improvisation. For those pupils, Christie says, drama is a tremendous boost to their self-confidence. "It enhances their whole self, and it improves their sympathy for other people. Everybody's valued - everybody's given a chance."
Bridge of Allan Primary has little in the way of external drama provision. There is no visiting drama teacher, and the workshops on offer at the MacRobert Arts Centre in Stirling are largely aimed at secondary school-age children. The school does put on its own productions and small shows at assembly, but the drama that Lesley Christie uses is much more a classroom tool than an introduction to the world of theatre.
"I would love to take them on trips to the theatre," Christie exclaims, "but the financial cost is too heavy". She uses drama as a regular part of the classroom routine, perhaps two or three times a week. "It can just be for an odd 15 minutes. And it's a nice cooler if there's been a tense lunchtime or whatever. It seems to calm them down a bit. I would never dream of going to the hall to do drama - a big barren room like that." In its own space, the class feels secure and encourages experimentation.
"I'm no expert," Christie says, more than once. She does dance and movement with her class, as well as improvisation, but she emphasises that no particular qualifications are required. "Just give them the stimulus and they'll come up with the ideas."
What does make a difference is her willingness to disappear as a teacher figure, so that when she joins in a scene the pupils see her as the character she is adopting, rather than as an authority figure.
She illustrates this by suddenly turning to a pupil. "It's 1960. You're the headteacher; I'm Susan Brown coming into school. What do you say to me?" "Get yourself home and change out of those trousers at once, girl!" comes the instantaneous response. "I'm only Mrs Christie when the 'freeze' is on, and I'm explaining the next stage of the story. But some teachers don't want to lose control in that way."
The different atmosphere is, however, obviously appreciated by the pupils. "I really enjoy it," says Hazirah Nasir with relish, "especially when we do family problems." "It can get really dramatic," adds Amanda McIntosh. "The boys can be pretty silly sometimes, but Mrs Christie gave them a pretty good warning this morning."