Role-play can uncover more than you expect, writes Mark Ballard
It wasn't meant to be a monumental drama lesson. The students filed in and arranged their chairs in a circle as they always did. I walked around with the bin collecting mouthfuls of gum as I always did. I waited for quiet.
And kept on waiting, pretty much as I always did. But today's lesson was different.
We'd been looking at status, with students teetering on top of piles of chairs heedlessly flaunting health and safety regulations to make the point. Other students had rolled in the dust at their feet. Some learning had taken place: sitting atop increasingly precarious stacked chairs indicated high status; rolling in dirt, low. The students engaged with the task: a role-play between a high status individual and a lowly one. I walked around and saw familiar scenes played out: playground disputes, corridor barging, girls being dumped on park benches and, most familiar of all, the detention. The sarcastic teacher and his captive victim. I winced.
In the middle of the room was a scene being played differently from the rest. The tall student was berating the other, shorter, fatter one. Such a stream of nastiness coursed from his mouth that I feared they were off-task and it was about to kick off. But no. The short boy was in character and taking it from the tall one, and boy did he take it. The tall kid swore and screamed, leaned over him, bullied and bullied until I was certain it would end in tears.
The short boy started to argue back, in this dispute about a motorbike. The tall one came out of character - his performance had been so ferocious I'd forgotten how gentle he was for his size, a kind lad - and began to direct his victim in what he should say. "You react like this, you put your hands over your ears," he explained.
The short boy was not a natural. He faltered and at that moment his dominating "director", sensing the scene about to collapse, took action. He swung himself into the other role. He was both boys now, brothers it would seem. He played out a scene of sibling anger and tenderness and violence, stepping from one side to the other. Now the aggressor, now the weaker, backwards and forwards. Eventually, as the aggressive (I assumed older) brother he lay down in his rage and seethed on the carpet. I approached with caution. "That was quite a performance. Did you lie down," I asked, thinking myself clever, "to make yourself low status?"
"Not really", said the boy. "It was me and my brother. Arguing about his motorbike, Sir, and I lay down because he crashed it, didn't he? He's dead.
And I feel a bit better now."
Dazed and barely hearing the bell, I muttered something about the redemptive power of drama and dismissed the class.
Mark Ballard is a secondary teacher. He writes under a pseudonym