Get in on the act

27th January 2006 at 00:00
Giving drama a high profile can vastly improve your students' performance, says Alison Thomas

"Mein Leben ist hart. My life is hard. I have to work every day. I have to work all day long. I even have to work at weekends." So begins Aschenputtel (Cinderella), written and performed by students of Notre Dame High School, a Language College in Norwich. It continues in similar vein, as the ugly sisters boss their victim around. "You must sweep the floor!" they exclaim.

"I must sweep the floor!" echoes Cinderella. And do the dishes. And the ironing. And a hundred other tedious chores. "I'm alone in the world and my heart is heavy," she sobs, rolling up her tattered sleeves as her stepsisters set off to buy posh outfits for the ball. "New clothes for us, but not for you! New shoes for us, but not for you!" they taunt, as they leave her to her broom.

The script is arresting and stunningly simple, yet it cleverly incorporates a wide range of core language. "With a little imagination, you could use it to teach most of the GCSE syllabus," says head of modern languages, Yvonne Clerehugh. "Family relationships, special occasions, clothes, minor ailments... it is all there." The same applies to grammar. Modal verbs, adjective endings, tenses, question forms, commands, word order, prepositions - all are introduced with humour and reinforced through repetition.

It was the need to brush up on grammar that first inspired the project two years ago, although not with Year 11. For Aschenputtel began life as a bridging resource between GCSE and AS. "At the start of the course, students' syntax is often shaky and we also have to integrate people who join us from various neighbouring schools. This was a way of revising basic structures, getting them to speak and having some fun," she explains. With the help of drama specialist Joc Mack, an advanced skills teacher from Framingham Earl High School, the class developed the script, communicating exclusively in German as they worked.

Their eventual audience - 80 Year 7 pupils from Bignold Middle School - was a further indication of the resource's wide appeal. "Because the story is familiar and the language is backed up with exaggerated gestures and actions, young learners can follow what is going on," she says. "Afterwards you see little children wandering around repeating, 'Das ist ja wunderbar!'

and 'Eine Party? Wo ist die Party? In der Disko? Im Park? WO?'"

But how did she find time to prepare a dramatic production and still cover every aspect of the prescriptive AS specification? "I was a little concerned at the outset but Joc assured me it would not take long and pointed to the benefits in terms of laying solid foundations and boosting oral confidence," she replies. "Putting it all together took one or two lessons a fortnight for five or six weeks, plus a few lunch hours and after-school rehearsals. It certainly paid off."

It paid off again the following year, this time with a group of exceptionally able Year 11 students, who had passed GCSE with flying colours in Year 10. As one reason for fast-tracking had been to ease pressure in the all-important exam year, preparing them for AS was not an option. Aschenputtel filled the gap. They embellished the script with a few touches of their own, learned their parts, created props and put on the first of several performances in November. Audiences have ranged in age from key stage 2 to sixth form - and beyond, as it even attracted the interest of teachers from Germany on a visit to the University of East Anglia. It has also earned the school a European Award for Languages.

Boosted by their success, the group moved on in the following term to a much more demanding text - an abridged version of Der Besuch der alten Dame. The production, too, was more sophisticated and the action took place against a backdrop of projected PowerPoint resources and video clips. The cross-curricular dimension made for a rich learning experience while Duerrenmatt's darkly comic play lifted the participants' German to new levels. "Imagine how much they learned through memorising lines of this calibre," she enthuses.

She acknowledges the debt she owes to her colleague, for both projects have been the fruits of close partnership. "I didn't have the confidence to teach drama on my own, or indeed the skills, and the amount I have learned from Joc is incredible," she explains. "ICT is my passion, which is why we worked so well together on Der Besuch der alten Dame."

They complement each other in other ways too - Joc is outgoing and impulsive, while Yvonne is more reflective and tends to anticipate problems. "I hold her back when she might go too far and she pulls me along when I'm too cautious. We are not a bad team really," she says.

She may lack confidence in her own expertise, but she is in no doubt about the power of drama to motivate. Of the 19 students who comprised the Year 11 fast-track group, nine are now studying German in the sixth-form compared with an uptake of three and two in the two preceding years. What is more, they are clamouring to do another play, and even those who are not taking AS want to be involved. And her current Year 11, a conventional GCSE group, are keen to perform Aschenputtel, which they read together in class at the end of Year 10.

There are only so many hours in the day, but she is certainly tempted by the prospect of a new venture. "I have been toying with the idea of 'Snow White and the Seven Giants'. That could be fun," she says. "I think there is definitely a future for this in language teaching if only we can break away from what is required, or what we believe is required. We just need to be a little more daring. If it captures students' interest and requires them to memorise not just vocabulary but grammatical structures, then it must be worth doing."

Lesson ideas

You can download the script, translated into French and Spanish, from Notre Dame's website, together with a variety of German language activities and abundant ideas on how to teach language through drama. Choose "German" in the subject box and follow links to Aschenputtel.

Sample language activity - family relationships and personal characteristics

* Using dictionaries, students find five different adjectives to describe each of the following: Cinderella, her stepmother, the ugly sisters, the prince and the fairies. Alternatively, they refer to a vocabulary list provided and assign each word to the appropriate characters. Games introducing these adjectives are available online at: www.quia.comjg525414.html

* Students choose a character and write a brief description.

* Exploiting the same language, they describe themselves or their family and friends.

* They describe relationships, using subordinating conjunctions - eg Cinderella gets on well with the prince, although he is rich and she is poor. This can be done as a matching exercise, with jumbled beginnings and endings, or as a word order activity to practise the position of the verb in a subordinate clause.

* They adapt these phrases to fit their own personal circumstances.

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