Contemporary lessons can be learned from the Second World War. Heather Neill sees them unfold
What is an evacuee? How does it feel to leave your home and family for an unknown destination? And how would you adjust to beginning again with strangers in a completely new environment? The first question could be covered perfectly adequately in a history class. But what about the others?
Would the experiences of evacuees be better understood by helping pupils to bridge the gap between the Second World War and the lives of young people today? Bigfoot Theatre company think that making that leap could help quite a lot.
Bigfoot, based in south London, but with offices in several other UK cities, have drama as a tool and history as a particular interest. They will design their history workshops according to a school's requirements and organise in-service training sessions, but the need for schools to cover planning, preparation and assessment (ppa) time has given them another function. Bigfoot has always offered supply cover (with a drama twist) but now members of the company have regular slots in some schools to allow teachers planning time.
Joel Scott covers ppa time at Poplar Primary School in Morden, south London, every week. He is a highly energetic drama specialist, with all the qualities that Bigfoot (who train all their tutors) expects. He knows how to be inspiring and how to keep control. For the second half of the afternoon he leads a Year 3 drama class about adventure stories.
First he helps a Year 6 class use drama for a different purpose. One lesson combines two of Bigfoot's regular strands: Living History and drama. Other Living History workshops include the Egyptians, Romans, Tudors and Victorians, but they can be custom-made too. This is the second session in Joel's six-part back-up to these pupils' Second World War lessons. Last week he helped them build a context for upheaval. They imagined a happy family scene, then a sad one, using drama techniques, in which the participants "freeze" at a crucial point. After the "normal" family situations he got them working in groups of about five, enacting a teenage birthday party into which one of them as "parent" burst in to announce that the soldiers had arrived and they must leave now.
It's quite likely in a London school that some children will know a good deal about being uprooted and encountering military personnel. Joel knows this all too well but doesn't want to force what might be upsetting recollections. He leaves it to about the fourth lesson to ask children for their own experiences.
The second session begins with an assessment of the class mood and one or two drama games to energise or to calm, as appropriate. Joel then recaps the first session and the children discuss the issues raised. They consider what they would choose if they had to pack just three things in a bag at 10 minutes' notice - a family photo, perhaps, a diary, a favourite book or toy - showing this in solo "still images". Next, in groups, they move to improvisation, with the family packing up and a teenager clearly showing reluctance by body language. Then, in pairs, a "parent" and "teenager"
confront each other. Why might the young person not want to leave? What persuasive strategies might a parent use? The groups create still images of the family saying goodbye to their home. Each invents a single sentence to sum up their feelings at this moment.
The thrust of the lesson is more to do with contemporary uprooting than the experience of evacuees more than 60 years ago, but some of the children get the chance to link back to their normal history lessons by trying on gas masks. Next time they will return to the story they've been building and find out what it might be like to travel into the unknown in convoy.
Gail Richards, Bigfoot's arts development director, is publishing a related series of packs with PCET Publishing. So far: Egyptians, Victorians, World War II. Examples are the rationing game (the teacher calling out food names: were they rationed? Children go to one corner for Yes, another for No. Discussion follows.); and role-playing evacuees at a station (hot-seating followed by making diary entries and storyboards).
Students "sculpt" each other into expressive poses; "frozen" images to sum up improvisation; "hot-seating": characters questioned in role about their situation and feelings.
* Bigfoot Theatre Tel: 0870 0114307 www.bigfoot-theatre.co.uk