Every second counts
It is literacy hour for Year 6 at Avenue Muslim School, Kilburn, and there is not a desk, or a book, in sight. There is no mention today of word level, or sentence level. Nothing even about spelling or punctuation.
The starter activity is a strongly physical exercise, to warm bodies as well as minds, involving much shaking of legs and arms, and culminating in a cry of "Rubber chicken!" And at the end of the hour, there is a plenary session, in which every child performs for the rest of the class the story they have been working on.
In between, they have explored the meaning of "connotation" and "denotation", discussed in pairs, and used postcards of famous paintings as the starting point for writing some highly imaginative stories. Not a moment has been wasted. Their excitement is palpable, and they leave the lesson with minds and bodies fizzing.
This is literacy hour as practised by the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn. Every Monday morning, for eight weeks, this Year 6 class sets off on a 15-minute walk from their school and spends the hour in the rather different ambience of the Theatre's "creative space" - a light and empty room with a wall of mirrors down one side.
The session is led not by a teacher, but by an actor - Reg Buttar - supported by former primary teacher, Juliet Whitfield. Five other local schools are involved this term, and this is the third year that the theatre has been running the programme free to schools. The chief aim is to use drama as a way of boosting children's literacy skills, widening their experience and injecting into the hour some of the dynamism and creativity that the Government is now crying out for.
When the literacy hour was first introduced in primary schools, children responded eagerly to the quick pace and interactive style of the lessons, and many - though by no means all - teachers welcomed its structure and precision. But for some, over the years, this hour has become a drill. Some teachers cling to its prescription, perhaps unduly fearful of departing from the small print. For many, the literacy hour has come to resemble a serviceable but well-worn garment, now much in need of rejuvenation.
"The children get very excited about coming here," says their class teacher, Dilshad Abdulkader. "It's a different environment for them, there's more space to express themselves, and they get the chance to interact with other adults. You have to do much more in literacy hour at school to get the excitement."
Dilshad has been bringing classes to the Tricycle for three years, and she is in no doubt that it improves their writing. Lessons at school are carefully linked to theatre sessions, so that the children can build on the work they do here.
"It influences their writing quite a lot," she says. "They go back to what they've done here, and they use their experiences. It's also been very good for confidence-building: here they are getting their individual ideas out, instead of a less-confident child thinking, I won't say anything because hisher idea is better than mine."
The children themselves are very clear on what they like about these sessions. "It's much more active," says Abdurrahnan, 10. "At school in the literacy hour we sit down and do it out of textbooks - it's a bit boring."
Zouhur, 10, enjoys the Tricycle warm-up exercises: "They make you think more -it makes you active."
"It's exciting here, because you're not in the classroom," says Halina, also 10. "In the classroom you don't do all the activities, but the activities make us awake."
The Tricycle's eight-week programme is closely tied to the national curriculum, and includes work on rhyming and non-rhyming poetry, alliteration, story-telling (plus sound-effects), descriptive writing, and devising play scripts. The emphasis is on imagination and creativity, and every session incorporates a chance for some live performance. After only a few weeks, according to Dilshad, the children are not only better at expressing themselves and projecting their voices, but they have become a much more respectful and attentive audience for each other.
Juliet Whitfield, workshop assistant, believes that many children are missing out on drama - either because their teachers lack the necessary training, or because, in a confined classroom, they are worried about maintaining discipline.
"Teachers need to be creative with the literacy hour, but often they are afraid to step off the literacy strategy, and that doesn't always allow room for children to express themselves," she says. The theatre is hoping to run a teacher training programme, to introduce more teachers to its approach.
"This is a chance for children to engage with their imaginations, and not to feel inhibited," says Reg Buttar. "We stress that there is no right and wrong -it's about how you want to express things. It's giving them that chance to think outside the box."
* For more information go to: www.tricycle.co.uk
* Drama subject focus, pages 24-29