Scene setters

19th January 2001 at 00:00
Role-play and artefacts add a new dimension to teaching geometry in this drama project set in Euclid's time. Sally Griffin explains

Although I teach drama, I was invited last summer to work on a numeracy summer school organised by Geoff Dunn, head of maths at Penrice Community college, for Year 6 pupils from our local feeder primary schools in St Austell. Our focus for the cross-curricular project was based on No Royal Road to Geometry, a series of 10 lessons in mathematics, history and drama for Year 5 and 6 by Eileen Pennington and Geoff Faux. Geoff Faux visited the school and helped us in our planning.

Ptolemy Soter, the first king of Egypt, studied geometry under the great mathematician and philosopher Euclid in Alexandria, one of the ancient Greek City States. Ptolemy found the subject difficult and asked his teacher if there were not some easier way to learn it. Euclid replied: "Oh King, in the real world there are two kinds of roads. Roads for the common people to travel upon and roads reserved for the King to travel upon. In geometry there is no royal road."

The No Royal Road to Geometry activity plans take the students through an extended role-play as modern-day museum designers, generating ideas for a living museum in Alexandria, Egypt. The museum should depict life in 290BC Alexandria and celebrate the work of Euclid. The main living exhibit in the museum is a demonstration of Euclid's teaching, which includes the application of certain rules of geometry.

The most striking link between drama and Euclid's geometry is the importance of visualisation. An essential feature of drama is the art of visualising and making real the constructions of the imagination for others, whether in workshop or performance. Drama in education helps students develop the world of the imagination and acquire a physical and literal vocabulary to express themselves. Throughout our No Royal Road to Geometry summer school we used drama to establish a pretext and a context for the geometry.

Spatial awareness in an aesthetic sense is essential in theatre: designers, directors and actors all cultivate their ability to use space effectively. Set designers have to visualise and build models to scale. Directors have to create visual images with actors on stage, using levels and distance to convey meaning: the proxemics, or distance between characters at different moments, being highly significant.

We ran a workshop to establish the physical location and the time scale of Alexandria 290BC. Students created a time-line of rope, pegs and date cards to trace dates back from the present through key moments in history to the year 0 and then further back to 290BC.

The line took us all the way down the maths corridor to the door of the room we were to use a the museum workroom. In the room were texts and artefacts, on loan from the County Museum Library Service, and a transparency showing the museum plans projected on to the wall.

One of the objectives of the project would be a living exhibit presentation for parents visiting on the final day of the summer school, nominally in role as sponsors of the museum. Looking forward to the presentation gave the students a real sense of purpose.

Working in role changes the relationship between the students and the teacher. The teacher can play the role of Euclid, and the students the role of ancient Greek adults who have never studied any geometry, thus giving the students licence - in fact demanding - that they ask many questions.

The roles can also be reversed with the students in role as teachers trained by Euclid and the teacher in role as a new student asking searching questions. If the objective of the role-play is complete accuracy, students in role as teachers can confer and, when they are unsure, note down the questions to ask Euclid himself. This can be done in more role-play afterwards.

When students are not involved in this kind of role-play, asking questions can make them feel vulnerable to ridicule from other students or, even worse, from the teacher. In role, they are liberated to ask and answer questions. Even reminding students of appropriate behaviour can often be done in role with good humour.

We created Greek costumes, inspired by artefacts on loan from the library. The students measured the himations - rectangular lengths of cloth worn across the shoulder - and cut out their own from rolls of fabric left over from a recent production, to wear with tunics from the drama department. Pictures of Greek warships called biremes and triremes provoked some literacy discussion on the use of "bi" and "tri" in relation to mathematical terms. The warships inspired some mental calculations of the numbers of rowers on each side, and the students also recorded themselves for the presentation, as slaves rowing a ship to the beat of a drum.

A significant part of the presentation was the in-role explanation of geometrical terms and exercises, such as drawing a circle with a makeshift pair of compasses, and recreating an angle without a protractor.

Our young actors loved the costumes, arranging the props and assuming the gravitas to portray the ancient Greek maths lesson. Their enjoyment was one measure of the success of the scheme; their confidence with the maths content was another.

Sally Griffin is head of drama at Penrice Community College, Cornwall. 'No Royal Road to Geometry' is published by Education Initiatives, Cardew Farm, Dalston, Carlisle CA5 7JQ. Tel: 01228 710661. Fax: 01228 711090.Price pound;11.95 inc postage

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