Protests, plots and play days - Crispin Andrews discovers how drama takes teachers out of their comfort zone and offers pupils valuable lessons
At first Anna Jones is anxious. She realises creative thinkers and risk-taking problem-solvers will do better in today's world than those who just passively accumulate knowledge.
But asking her to teach history, geography and PSHE through drama - three years into a career as an RE specialist - to help her students develop these skills? That is another matter.
But Anna also relishes coming out of her comfort zone. She is creative and flexible and keen to embrace the challenges the cultural studies project at Kingstone School in Barnsley will bring to its Year 7 pupils and their teachers. A year and a half later, she is really glad she did.
"When I first heard about it I was like: 'I'm not a primary teacher'," she says. "But now I worry less about getting to grips with new subject matter, changes to my classroom routines and planning topics in advance and more about the direction of children's learning and effective means to get them there."
Imagine the year is 1952 and for the representatives of the people of Egypt it is time to decide whether to build the second Aswan dam. Impassioned debate about the rights and wrongs of the proposed project is instigated by two teachers - Anna, acting the part of a pro-dam politician, and Helen Cheetham, an English specialist who is taking the role of conservationist.
Surely soil fertility in the Nile delta will suffer? Won't people lose their homes when Lake Nasser is formed? Bilharzia snails will pollute the lake but don't many people have no water at present?
Anna is thrilled by the considered, in-depth and heartfelt responses from pupils. "Feeling involved personally provides a strong foundation from which they can take learning in many directions," she says. Creating roles as Egyptian farmers or mothers with children helps the Year 7 pupils consider how experience and personal interest can affect opinions.
Acting as investigative journalists interviewing various characters about the dam allows them to produce newspaper articles, also using knowledge gained from the initial debate. "Students are challenged to innovate and take responsibility for the quality and direction of their own work," says Debra Kidd, a creative practitioner employed by the school to support the project.
Ten teams of three cultural studies teachers take one class for nine lessons every fortnight. Instead of a traditional diet of history, geography, PSHE and RE, staff teach topics which include all these curriculum areas. And students use drama techniques to help them learn while studying themes such as child labour and global poverty, British culture and identity, plots and protests and the most recent topic based around the novel Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce.
Hindu beliefs about respecting the environment are examined through the eyes of the Chipko movement, the original 17th century tree huggers; while canonization and sainthood is introduced via the story of Thomas Becket, with students making links to today's protest groups and contemporary abuses of power.
Ondrie Mann, Kingstone's co-ordinator for cultural studies, says: "In real life, geographical, historical and religious factors are linked together and are relevant to the health and welfare of individuals and communities - so surely it is sensible for our studies to reflect this."
* Choose topics with contemporary significance.
* Allow pupils enough time to delve into issues in depth.
* Use small teams to teach the programme to one class. Relying on a larger number of subject specialists makes it difficult for teachers to retain an overview.
* Development of key skills and the learning process is more important than the breadth of content covered.
For more information
www.ltta.ca - Learning through the arts
Look for books written by Allan Owens and Keith Barber, Jonathan Neelands or Dorothy Heathcote.