Humanities - Shimmy like Alexander

9th December 2011 at 00:00
Drama can be a great tool for learning, if you stay in control

I have always been passionate about using drama techniques to enhance pupils' learning - but I soon discovered the pitfalls. Visiting an infant school as a student, I went into role as a king who could not do simple tasks, like untying shoe laces. My aim was to place the children in the empowering role of experts. Unfortunately, rather than explaining how to take shoes off, several enthusiastic pupils dived at the surprised king, undid his laces and removed his shoes to reveal some rather holey student socks. From this I learnt that drama techniques need boundaries.

More recently, I have been using the ideas of educational consultant Pie Corbett and the National Gallery's Take One Picture schools project. Their selected painting, Veronese's The Family of Darius before Alexander (http:bit.lyssQvST), depicts an event in the life of Alexander the Great. First, I read out excerpts from a biography of Alexander. Then I asked my Year 4 pupils to draw rough images on whiteboards reflecting the text. Working with a partner, they added words to their drawings and we combined these to create a whole-class version of Alexander's life.

We then added drama actions to illustrate the key words. Unfortunately, some actions did not quite capture the right tone - such as the Beyonce-like shimmy one girl suggested to illustrate the words "powerful leader". It was not quite what I had imagined, and it meant that 28 children and their somewhat reluctant teacher shimmied every time we rehearsed our communal script.

Using this performance piece, I asked the pupils to re-draw Alexander's life story in more detail. Working in pairs, they then used these pictures to retell Alexander's life orally, elaborating as they did so. Next, each wrote up their own individual biography of Alexander. It was fascinating to see that, while their writing had the structure and sense of the initial, whole-class version, it also included additional layers of individual detail.

This sequence of activities produced excellent speaking and listening results - and mature writing - and the shared script supported those who would usually struggle to speak in public. Each child was keen to listen to their peers and they were enthused by a common purpose. While the drama was fun, it also introduced a range of methods of working that will support more challenging drama lessons later in the term and build their skills in social learning. As a bonus, the pupils acquired knowledge about the period, which will support the teaching of history skills.

Jon Makepeace is a primary teacher of Year 4


Get young pupils engaged with famous rulers from ancient times with the TESiboard Kings, Queens and Rulers collection. There is a mock website and some interactive games to support reading - tell us what you think.

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