Dramatic awakenings

28th April 1995 at 01:00
Reva Klein visits a year 5 class at a Nottinghamshire school, where drama is used throughout the curriculum to engender confidence and independence.

Storytime at West Bridgeford juniors in Nottingham is a little different from storytime in other schools. Just because a story is started doesn't mean it will be finished - or not, at any rate, in the way the author envisaged. A couple of paragraphs could well be the starting point to weeks of improvised drama, feeding into English, history, religious education, even science.

Headteacher Wendy Daley kicks off with the first couple of pages of Chris Van Allsburg's The Widow's Broom, after an introductory discussion about magic. Then the year 5 children are asked to assume the characters of the broom-makers. As if this were an everyday request, they spring into action, assembling themselves into groups of four and five and, in an air of intense concentration, sweeping themselves into the business of making brooms. Some groups choose to stomp off into the forest to chop down the branches that they need, others carve handles, others bind the twigs together, yet others, making deductions on who would be engaged in this kind of work, mix magic potions. Every now and then they freeze on the command of their headteacher and are asked to explain to the rest of the group what they're doing, why, how they're feeling, what's going to happen next.

Gradually, by consensus they improvise a rather sinister storyline, with the occasional suggestion thrown in by Wendy. She doesn't interfere with the direction of plot, as a rule. "I support their decision-making and watch them follow it through, to allow them to deal with the cause and effect of the choices they make."

But what if the more violent side of their imaginations take hold and set up a devastating scenario in which the whole village is massacred, leading to children possibly getting upset? "I'd hold a freeze, have them keep a still image and give them a chance to go back and change past decisions. If they choose to carry on, they must agree to take responsibility for it. The role of their decision making is the most important part of the exercise. It's one of the strengths of experiential learning."

But getting back to the broom-makers, thankfully there is no shedding of blood on the agenda. Instead, intrigue is in the air, spiked with the necessary element of danger. The witches-cum-broom-makers have been infiltrated by an anti-witch spy and their lives are in jeopardy. All around them are people who hate and mistrust them because they are witches. Secretly, they must prepare to take flight. Again, they freeze in the midst of packing up their belongings to say how they feel. One boy says: "I'm beginning to feel that it's not just drama - that it's more like real life." A girl in another group echoes this. "You can relate it to what's happening to real people, like some people not liking others and forcing them to leave." And a group of girls chimes in, saying: "We felt older doing this."

The year group had been doing some work on refugees earlier in the morning and, while this drama activity was sparked off by a story about magic and witches, the children saw the connections and - just as importantly - felt them. For them and for Wendy Daley, it's all in a day's work. Throughout the school and the curriculum, drama is used to enlighten and empower both staff and children.

The children seem confident, at ease with themselves and vocal. For the recent LEA-wide Springboard Arts Festival, West Bridgeford children organised their own events, even down to inviting the mayor and arranging a parking space for his official car with the local police. They hold their own school council meetings, consisting of 250 children and a single adult, Wendy, every week. There, as part of the decision-making and airing of grievances that is the stuff of council meetings, they are given the space to rehearse and enact the business of democracy. A teacher may have been unfair in chastising a whole class for the misdemeanours of an individual. Or someone may have an idea for a playground activity or lunchtime club. Whoever is in the chair for that particular meeting keeps a semblance of order as people speak their minds and, collectively, the council members try to find some resolution to problems. Wendy Daley puts this assuredness down to the self-esteem the children get through being allowed to express themselves in a school environment that prioritises the arts. "Through the arts we engage the children's capacity to be expressive and independent, without judgments being made. They meet situations, for instance in drama, that give them the language of empowerment. And that helps them understand their world. They learn to be unafraid of failure or of problem solving because we've set up a climate that the children feel in possession of." The cross-curricular strengths of drama are, according to its supporters - among whom are Her Majesty's Inspectors themselves - limitless. The inspectorate's document on Drama for 5-16 (Curriculum Matters, 1989) states that it is the task of all primary teachers and particularly those who have responsibility for drama, to "see that opportunities for children to develop dramatic concepts, knowledge, imagination, skills and attitudes are woven into the general experience of the curriculum". Anyone who has adopted and observed drama methodologies used in this way understands why. According to John Somers, senior lecturer in education at the University of Exeter: "If drama is used within a project across the whole or most of the primary curriculum, it can act as a focus for integrated learning, giving a coherent understanding of a topic that has been viewed from a number of different subject standpoints." Hand in hand, according to HMI, "it is a powerful way of bringing alive knowledge and experience".

Even when not used directly, Wendy Daley finds that the knock-on effects of drama used at certain points throughout the day meld into the whole school experience. "It's such an exuberant working tool that when I go in to do science later with the group that has just done the few minutes of drama on The Widow's Broom, I know they'll be involved and engaged and will offer hypotheses. And it will be because they are transposing the expressiveness and openness they've used in drama into everything else they do today."

Wendy runs drama in-service training for other primary schools around the country. She also has trainee teachers from Bishop Grosseteste College coming to observe her and her staff's drama practice as well as taking classes to the college for the students to work with. In addition, children from a residential cerebral palsy school come in every fortnight to do drama classes with her pupils. The classes are conducted at floor level.

She is an unrepentant proselytizer for the power and the effectiveness of the expressive arts, particularly drama, in reaching those areas of understanding and attitude that more traditional teaching approaches don't reach. "If you have the expressive arts at the heart of your school, you've written your policies for spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, for anti-racism, for disability and for personal and social education."

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