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2nd November 2007 at 00:00
Whether it's a traditional nativity or Sheikh, Rattle and Roll panto, pupils love to get involved. Follow Sue Cowley's tips to take the fuss out of your festive drama.It's that time of year again. The supermarkets are clearing shelf space for tinsel and toys and the turkeys are looking nervous. Yes, it's time to start preparing your Christmas production.

My first school show was a version of The Jolly Christmas Postman. As a boy from my reception class wobbled in on his bike, lugging a bag of letters, I felt ridiculously proud. Years later, I got involved in a tradition of Christmas staff pantomimes. Plenty of cross-dressing, merciless caricatures of senior management - the pupils loved it and so did we.

There's no need to limit school shows to Christmas time, or to stick to the traditional nativity story. At West House School in Birmingham, the year is punctuated by a series of exciting productions.

"Last Christmas we did Sheikh, Rattle and Roll, at Easter we had a Tudor banquet, then in the summer we did Captain Noah and His Floating Zoo," says Susannah Palmer, a teacher at the school.

Putting on a show is stressful and time consuming, so advance planning is important. Share the work around, enlisting help from staff and parents wherever you can. Plot out the key jobs (directing, rehearsing, music, costumes, props, lighting, sound, front of house) and then delegate, delegate, delegate.

It's tempting to give key roles to well behaved and trustworthy children. But this could be an opportunity for your challenging pupils to prove themselves, and to gain a sense of achievement. Don't rule out speaking parts for those who struggle with literacy: even if their reading and writing is weak, they may still be confident vocally. Standing up on stage in front of an audience can give them a great confidence boost.

There are many opportunities for cross-curricular enrichment when putting on a school production: costume design in art lessons, prop making in design, budgeting and front of house in maths, and posters in technology. Set up a display in your foyer to show visitors what has been going on in class.

It can be tricky to judge how much time to allocate for rehearsals. If you start too early, the show feels like an anti-climax, with the pupils bored rather than inspired. If you start too late, manic last minute preparations add unnecessary stress to the end of term. Depending on the show, between four and seven weeks is about right.

"We pick something we like, hate it by the start of December but love it again when we see the kids perform," says Nichola Mott, who teaches at a primary special school. "After rehearsing songs for the 50th time I want to shove them where the angel Gabriel wouldn't think to find them."

If your show involves the whole school, with different classes doing different scenes, factor in plenty of time for a final few rehearsals together. Don't panic if the dress rehearsal is a disaster - in the theatre it's believed that a terrible dress rehearsal means a great first show. On the day itself, aim for maximum professionalism. Ensure that costumes are labelled and kept in bags or on hangers. Limit access to side stage, and discourage your pupils from peeking out to wave at Mum or Dad. Invite the local press, so that your children's efforts are celebrated in the wider community.

And of course there are benefits to a school show beyond the curriculum. "It is a fantastic opportunity for integration," says Nichola. "An electric wheelchair proved fascinating to some of my children who had never seen one before, especially in a dance routine."

Sue Cowley taught in both primary and secondary schools and put on numerous school productions. She now works as an educational author, trainer and presenter. Her latest book is Getting the Buggers into Drama (Continuum)

Tips to get started

- Pick a fresh theme for your school show, rather than sticking to the tried and tested. Children's books are a rich source of inspiration.

- Incorporate the show into lessons, using it as a topic for work in a range of subjects.

- Organisation and delegation are vital: have a clear plan as to who will do what and when it will happen. Then stick to the plan.

- Involve the children in key decisions, using the show to boost self-esteem in your more challenging pupils.

- Leave time at the end for the whole cast to rehearse together, and encourage a sense of professionalism during the show.

And the winner is ...

The winners of the French competition, which ran in The TES Magazine on October 5, are: Mrs C Davidson, of Manchester, and Jo Crocombe, from Dorset. The winners each receive a complete set of Primary French is Fun DVDs, worth pound;250.

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