Director's cut

19th November 2004 at 00:00
Using dramatic enactment to examine the transition from text to popular movie can develop pupils' critical faculties across the curriculum, says Ruth Moore

A year on from publication of several important documents on Drama, including the Key Stage 3 Drama Objectives Bank, and the national training of all KS3 English consultants, there is an increasing recognition of the impact of drama on teaching and learning, in English and across the curriculum.

Drama is part of the core entitlement at KS34 in English and is exemplified throughout the KS3 Framework. It's impact, however, can be felt far beyond the constraints of a speaking and listening strand or a separate drama curriculum that does not focus on the transferable learning, thinking and curriculum skills essential for all students to make progress.

The latest round of the KS3 strategy consultant drama training exemplified the next step of the journey. What follows is a report on a unit of work I have developed with my Year 9 students using drama to develop an analytical approach to the text, screenplay and film of Rabbit Proof Fence, about Aboriginal children in Australia. The activity moves our understanding of drama's impact on developing speaking and listening, reading, writing and analytical skills towards the development of high-level skills which students can transfer to many areas of the curriculum.

My Year 9 class is to analyse the opening of the film. First, I engage students in a context-setting activity. A projected still, showing the desert landscape and fence stretching into the distance, covers one wall, the soundtrack is playing and pairs of students are guiding each other round the room. One of the pair, glancing frequently at the image and using physical and verbal cues, carefully guides the other, whose eyes are closed, around the imaginary place.

The activity is structured so that the guides provide a stream of information about perceived and imaginary details, while exploring the classroom space and their collaborative relationship. "You are just coming up to a large rock. If you touch it you will feel its cool surface." "We're walking on an uneven surface. You can see nothing on the horizon for miles ahead. Can you hear the insects?" The sophistication of language and listening skills and the level of engagement are impressive.

The opening shots of the film are now shown. An understanding of the context-setting process and the use of music inform students' responses. By defining a landscape and recognising the effects of image and music, they have come to a greater understanding of the director's choice of image and sound at the beginning of the film. Analytical media skills are being developed.

I use a combination of drama conventions to make exacting demands on students' critical thinking and emotional engagement. Through this process they come to a greater understanding of textual features and media and dramatic structures. They develop analytical skills and the ability to use their critical thinking with other media, texts, ideas or issues.

Cinematic techniques A text extract from scene 39, when Molly is called to the front to see Mr Neville, is projected on a screen. The student playing Molly stands at one end of the room, facing the teacher, who will be in role as Mr Neville. The rest of the students stand in two lines. The teacher explains that, as Molly walks between them, her conscience speaks to her; they are to speak these thoughts as she passes.

An analysis of this scene enables the students to recognise how the director creates a "conscience alley" effect. As Molly walks through the rows of students, the camera takes up her position and prompts the viewer to explore her viewpoint and feelings.

The students are exploring the director's techniques. By employing a range of questioning techniques, with pupils in or out of role, I add structure and help them evaluate and analyse the learning process as well as the content of the lesson. They are driven to think critically: they are modelling, participating in and analysing the processes of adaptation, representation and audience interpretation.

The adaptation process Pupils then consider the different aims and techniques of writer, screenwriter and director. They begin with the original text and focus on the scene when the children are taken from their parents by Constable Riggs to the Moore River Settlement.

After reading the extract from the text, some students are "sculpted" by the rest of the class into position at the moment when the children are taken by Constable Riggs. I ask the students to place one in the picture, in role as the writer. The students use various criteria for this, including the writer's distance from certain characters, the events, the reader's view and what control the narrator has. The "reader" is then placed in the picture in the same way and the space between reader and writer described.

I then reveals that the writer is Molly's daughter, and asks whether this information alters where she should be placed. The final placing is clearly less significant than the impressive level of discussion and analysis that has gone before, as students make decisions and justify them. By physically placing the characters, the students question the style, language and authorial control, and discuss what the reader brings to the story. This work has a direct effect on their ability to write about this and to use evidence from the text to back up their ideas.

When repeating this process for the screenwriter, the students question the ways in which screenplays differ from biographies. They also question the way in which the role of the director differs from the screenwriter and writer.

The discipline of the art form is evident throughout this work, as is the sustained time needed for such work to be developed. Students are developing a number of skills specific to drama as an art form and learning to select and develop appropriate drama conventions.

However, the lesson structure enables students not only to explore the content of the material and the media techniques, but to visualise difficult concepts and ideas and analyse the learning processes involved in developing these skills. It is this understanding that enables them to transfer these skills to new situations.

The approaches to texts are not seen separately from traditional essay-writing and could clearly be used to inform coursework for GCSE English or drama. The use of drama conventions and written responses complement each other. The practical work leads to a more detailed analysis and understanding of the film and the adaptation process.

For English departments who are concerned about the core entitlement of drama at KS4, such an approach offers a clearly defined structure. Units such as this do more than meet that entitlement: they develop skills and lead to real progress being made in a way that could not be so easily achieved without the use of drama.

As the unit draws to an end, a piece of chicken wire which has been used throughout the work to symbolise the fence, is placed in the centre of the room for students to attach cards with their responses and ideas, alongside short accounts from statements presented to the official Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families.

Projected onto the screen is the image of Molly's mother and grandmother holding on to the fence. The soundtrack is played as pupils make their way round the fence, reading out a mix of responses and biographical accounts to create a sound collage of "fact" and "fiction". As they complete their readings, a powerful silence falls on the room, and the teacher reads out Neville's last speech:"We have an uphill battle with these people, especially the bush natives, who have to be protected against themselves.

If they would only understand what we are trying to do for them."

Silence again falls and, against the backdrop of the fence, the pupils read and reflect on the responses. For anyone interested in raising standards in critical thinking or learning skills, it would be impossible to argue that drama should not remain part of the core entitlement for all young people.

Ruth Moore is deputy headteacher at Hasland Hall Community School, Derbyshire, and treasurer and past chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE). She has written on drama for the KS3 Strategy, and provided training for it

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