Role Call

8th February 2008 at 00:00

Acting allows pupils to take an active part in learning. Hannah Frankel reports on how drama can be used across the syllabus to help bring subjects alive.


A group of Year 7s are forming a ring around a pupil to represent a womb encasing an ovary. A sixth pupil, or sperm, enters the "womb" and joins the "ovary" in the centre of the circle. It is a novel way of representing fertilisation. But it is not a unique experience at Norwood School in south-east London, which aims to include drama in almost every lesson.

The performing and visual arts college is one of the few schools in the UK with a dedicated drama specialist whose role is to develop drama across the curriculum. Since joining Norwood three years ago, Chris Harvey has worked with almost every subject and every year group to unlock learning through drama.

Planning and teaching alongside subject specialists, Chris has staged debates about the abolition of slavery in history; made pupils physically embody ambition, greed and desire in art lessons on Pieter Bruegel's famous "Tower of Babel"; made human bar charts in maths, and used pupils to physically represent the entire birth process in biology, complete with screams and bursting water balloons.

"We have quite a few EAL (English as an additional language) pupils here, so it helps them if learning is more physical," Chris says. "But drama lends itself to all pupils because it makes lessons fun and accessible, while developing communication and interpersonal skills."

Jessie Nicholas, an art teacher and assistant head, says that Chris's expertise has given her the confidence to try new things. "I was familiar with some drama strategies such as hot seating, but this goes way beyond that. I've learnt much more active approaches to learning through Chris, which I've then been able to use on my own with other groups. It furthers teachers' repertoire of skills."

Lyndsey Mathews, a science teacher at the school, agrees. "It's broadened me as a teacher," she says. "I now have new ideas and activities I'd never have thought of on my own, and it's obviously excellent for kinaesthetic learners. This sort of pro-active learning happens much more in primary schools, but there's no reason it shouldn't continue to work in secondaries as well."

All staff volunteer to work with Chris, and together they embed drama into the existing syllabus. They report that it brings the fun back into teaching, as they bounce ideas off one another at the planning stage, before teaching together in the classroom. Crucially, it does not increase teacher workload either; if anything, it reduces it because Chris helps teachers during the planning and teaching process.

Jacqui Bowers, a maths consultant for the London borough Lambeth, was thrilled to see a Year 7 lesson on number sequences - not your archetypal "exciting" topic - enlivened through drama at Norwood.

"It's so refreshing," she says. "Lots of maths teachers are budding actors and they could easily bring the subject alive if they see examples of how it's done. Drama forces pupils to participate, but in a pleasant way. They want to take part and be engaged."

For the uninitiated, learning through drama can be daunting. Instead of quiet pupils with their heads down, these lessons see desks shoved to one side as groups of pupils noisily argue among themselves about how best to illustrate and perform a point.

"It is a risk," admits Jessie. "It does cause a fair amount of disruption and noise because the lessons aren't always in a space designed for drama, but it is worth it. We're not trying to replace the curriculum, we're enriching it."

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