Everyday role play

25th November 2005 at 00:00
Carolyn O'Grady visits a primary school where drama infuses the whole curriculum

In the drama hall at Shenton Primary School in Leicester, Year 4 teacher Helen Gosling is deep into a lesson on the Tudors. This week it's Henry VIII, and the children have been discussing Henry's character and his wives.

"Now I want you to do some still images," says Helen. She hands out pieces of paper with statements typed on them. One reads: "After Arthur's sudden death, Henry is advised to marry his brother's wife, Catherine of Aragon."

After some group discussion, the children arrange themselves into tableaux, each depicting the statement they've been given. Arthur is on the floor, Henry and Catherine are looking dubious, the adviser smug. Nobody speaks, the idea is to register thoughts and feelings.

"I'm going to do some thought tapping," says Helen. Approaching each group in turn, she places her hand on the shoulder of each participant and asks them to voice their thoughts: "I don't know if I want to marry her," says Henry. Catherine feels roughly the same about Henry. Arthur, who it transpires is not quite dead, bemoans his fate.

The lesson is rounded off with a hotseating activity. One pupil is chosen to be Henry VIII, and with a crown on her head adroitly answers questions about his reign.

Looking at the ease with which pupils slide into them it is obvious that drama techniques, such as "still images", "thought tapping" and "hot-seating" are as familiar as the register to most pupils at Shenton.

Indeed, drama infuses almost the whole curriculum, providing a context for learning throughout the school.

Earlier in the day, Dionne Christian has been looking at journalistic writing with Year 6. Their starting point is the story of a schoolgirl who has come to the city to search for her mother. During the lesson, which will later lead to writing a newspaper article, pupils work through a series of drama activities.

They create a headline: "Door-to-door desperation", and make still images of it. In the role of a person who answers the door, Dionne is questioned by pupils playing reporters at a press conference.

In a Year 2 science class on the life cycle of a frog, pupils are given "the mantle of the expert" and questioned by others to reveal what they know. In a Year 3 geography lesson on an African village, children hot-seat a villager and create a role-play of life in the village, beginning with activities in small groups, such as cooking and children's games, and bringing them together into a complete village scene later. The teacher provides a voice-over to intensify the visualisation of village life.

Drama is everywhere, but why drama? Headteacher Maggie Welton says: "I wanted to give more opportunities to teachers to develop their strengths and to use their creative energies to give them an alternative starting point for learning, enabling pupils to bring their richness and strengths with them to lessons."

In a school where 98 per cent of pupils have English as an additional language, it was also important to develop oral skills and to raise self-confidence. Literacy co-ordinator Smita Lad says: "Drama helps pupils build positive relations with each other, gets them out of their ability sets and mixes girls with boys more. It encourages them to become actively involved in their learning." And it can encompass many skills: discussion, expression, collaboration, teamwork and negotiation.

To create a whole-school drama policy, the school worked with Rachel Dickinson, a drama consultant and lecturer at Warwick University. At first, Rachel taught and the teachers observed, but gradually, as their confidence grew, they took over.

Meera Bulsara, drama co-ordinator at the school, says: "Drama can scare teachers. They're not sure what it is; they're concerned about pupil behaviour and unsure of the conventions.

"Shenton is now engaged in a project focusing on drama with four other schools. We saw the difference straightaway - improvements in writing, especially imaginative and creative writing - followed from progress in speaking. Pupils' vocabulary increased, and we also saw differences in terms of participation in lessons."

It had involved changing the culture of the school, says Maggie, "and cultural change can be slow, but it has been beneficial for all those involved in our journey through drama".

lImproving your Primary School Through Drama by Rachel Dickinson and John Neelands, based on work at the school, will be published by David Fulton in January


Other drama techniques used at the school:

* Good Angel Bad Angel One child is in role as a character with a decision to make and two other children voice different viewpoints, for example the good side of human nature and the bad side. This can also be done with the whole class.

* Soundscaping Children create sounds to go with an environment. For example, when studying a book on castles, they can create an "alleyway" of the kind of sounds which might characterise a dungeon. Other children walk through the alleyway to understand how a character might feel on entering the dungeon.

* Alter Ego Similar to thought tapping - one child mimes the body language and behaviour of a character while another child acts as narrator, speaking thoughts and feelings.

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