Class act

21st November 2003 at 00:00
Cecily O'Neill describes how drama can be used to explore topics like human cloning

When the classroom is a creativity-free zone, children perceive school as boring and irrelevant. But in drama, teachers can invite pupils to engage with important topics, placing them in fictional situations where decisions and their implications can be explored safely. Teacher in role, for instance, requires spontaneity, playfulness, a willingness to deal with the unpredictable and a readiness to re-negotiate the relationship between teacher and class. But it is not a formula for indiscipline and chaos. This two-way relationship doubles the teacher's ability to explore big questions, which are the ones that interest young people most.

Take human cloning. Should children be genetically programmed before birth to become more healthy, intelligent, or gifted? Are there situations where it might be acceptable to raise a child who is a clone? What would it be like to discover one was a clone and no longer unique?

This topic was explored through drama in a London primary school, where the teacher wished her pupils to reflect on questions of status and identity that might face them when they transfer to secondary school. The play began when the children took on roles as outstanding teenagers - footballers, dancers, artists, writers, and athletes - who had been invited to a mysterious organisation called the Institute for Human Potential. After meeting Miss Green, an employee of the institute (the teacher in role), the children found they were part of a genetic experiment that had taken place 18 years earlier and each of them was the clone of an outstanding person.

As the drama unfolded, it was not clear whether the young people's families had been complicit in the experiment or if the people from whom they had been cloned were aware of what had happened. Within the context of the drama, they considered how genetic engineering might change the ways in which we define our identity and organise our society.

This drama seemed to offer the possibility of further development, and in a pilot project between the Unicorn Theatre and the Wellcome Trust, it entered a second phase in a Lewisham primary school. The Unicorn's education officer and a scientific adviser worked with the class teacher to widen the exploration. The children's interest in the drama provided the motivation to discover what is currently and potentially possible in genetic science. They wanted to know how they had been created. What was the process and how was it different from IVF? What might they inherit from their genetic donor? Was their future pre-determined? What were the potential benefits as well as the possible dangers?

As in scientific inquiry, drama asks "what if?" questions. The topic was explored in still greater depth when the Unicorn put together a team for a two-week residency in Charles Dickens School, Southwark, supported by the Pool of London Partnership. The team included a drama facilitator, a director, two actors, a writer, a video maker and a science adviser.

Working with the class teacher, the team helped the children's investigations through role-play, movement, writing, video making, art work, discussion and reflection. The residency culminated with the presentation of many of these elements in the form of a "sharing" with an audience of pupils, parents and friends.

Involvement in drama can help establish a community of learners where the teacher is an indispensable partner and is able to exploit the curriculum.

But, as in the cloning story, drama can also help us explore our identities within society. It offers one of the most powerful means of investigating significant aspects of our world and their implications.

Although this residency brought together the teacher, the children and professionals, it is possible to engage upper primary and secondary students on personal identity, family structure and the moral responsibility of science through the drama structure shown (see box below).

Dr Cecily O'Neill is a freelance drama consultant and associate artist with the Unicorn Theatre

'Human Clones' drama structure

Roles: Students take on roles as gifted young people, aged 16. Each chooses an area - the arts, sport, literature - in which these young people have already been acknowledged as outstanding.

Invitation: Talented students invited to spend a week at the Institute for Human Potential.

Visualisation: Students offer details of the appearance of the institute - its location, amenities and atmosphere.

Teacher in role: The young people are welcomed to the Institute by Miss Green, who is anxious that all their special needs have been met, and they are all comfortable.

Bad news: Miss Green unwillingly tells the young people they have been part of an experiment, and in fact each one is the clone of an exceptional person. She claims she was not party to the experiment and condemns it.

Contacting families: The young people are offered the chance to telephone their families. They work in pairs, as parent, sibling, or friend, and the teenager. Is it possible to determine whether the families were complicit in the cloning experiment?

Implications: Should the young people cover up their secret? What impact would the knowledge of their background have on their careers?

News items: In small groups, the students create a TV news item set sometime in the future that shows what might have become of the clones.

Extension activities

Movement: Individual mime of a particular skill or talent.

Writing:Newspaper headlines and accounts of their greatest achievement so far.

Role-play: Interviews in pairs as journalists and gifted teenagers.

Writing: Registration forms, with their names, skills, and special requirements Art: A picture of their room at the institute Writing:Diary entry for their first night at the institute Research:Research into human cloning, on the Web and elsewhere.

Writing: A letter to parents or family, asking for the truth.

A poem, based on the format: "I was - I am" Movement:A sound and movement sequence, in small groups, showing the clones' nightmare.

Role-play:The clones, who are now adult, talk to a journalist - the teacher in role - about the whole experience.

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