Still image, moving ideas

4th March 2005 at 00:00
Sarah Nunn shows how creating a 'frozen' tableau can stimulate dynamic discussion and descriptive writing.

"Let us on your imaginary forces work!" (Henry V). William Shakespeare's characters express the deepest of emotions through carefully chosen words, and paint pictures of distant lands, but are words enough for our pupils today? How do we continue to inspire, motivate and focus our pupils'

learning when computer games and blockbuster movies can transport the individual to virtual realities beyond our immediate experience?

Today's children want lessons that stimulate and challenge their thinking.

We can use drama as an imaginative way into all areas of the curriculum.

Drama can clearly enrich the learning environment: it is a subject that is accessible for all children, regardless of language and physical or academic ability. Everybody can take part.

In order for us to meet the drama requirements in the national curriculum, teachers can use drama in a variety of subjects. In literacy, "hot seating" characters, or addressing teacher or pupil in role, is an excellent way to explore characters, relationships and settings.

While studying the Victorians and Oliver Twist last term, the Year 56 teachers in our school began a week's literacy by creating tableaux of children outside a privileged house watching the family inside celebrating Christmas. One teacher acted as a facilitator, asking pupils where they thought these characters were, what their relationship was, what they could see and how they felt. After collecting initial ideas, the teacher activated the scene and further information was revealed through dialogue.

The scene was then stopped and further ideas shared. Children were then asked to replace the teachers and continue the scene. Exciting developments to the drama took place and the story evolved in a way we could not have planned.

This initial stimulus was supported by watching a scene from Oliver Twist where Bill Sikes meets Fagin. It is a moment when Bill does not utter a word. After watching the scene the children took part in a dynamic discussion about status, setting, and how the director had created a tense atmosphere. As a result of the visual stimuli, the children's descriptive writing was imaginative and thoughtful.

Anthony Browne's picture books are another excellent starting point for drama, writing and discussion. Voices in the Park (Corgi pound;4.99) addresses many issues which are relevant to today's children. After reading the book, the pupils worked in pairs, creating a still image to reflect the relationship between Charles and his mother and Smudge and her father.

These were shared and the physical actions of the children allowed us to collect adjectives and phrases which described the characters'

relationships and feelings. The class went on to use these ideas in their writing.

Finally, we introduced a fifth voice and, by using a video camera, we created a diary room where they could record their viewpoint about their opinion on the character's relationships. The children chose diverse characters - a business man on his lunch break, a tree and a bulldog. This activity, as well as being fun, allowed children whose first language was not English to "rehearse" their writing before putting pen to paper.

As a whole school, we decided to participate in the National Gallery's project Take One Picture, each class exploring Degas' painting, "Beach Scene". One class recreated the painting physically and through improvisation created "real" characters who had a history. The nursery class set up an ice-cream parlour in the role-play area and the language and social skills development was impressive.

Starting with no story can also produce exciting results. We put the children into groups of three and asked them to create a still image with a dilemma. Their picture was photographed and projected onto the whiteboard and, through questioning, stories about the possible scenario evolved. This work led to additional discussions on how to resolve the conflict in the situation.

Working with arts organisations can also support teachers in the development of drama in the curriculum. While studying Richard III with the Globe Theatre, the class were presented with the question: "Does circumstance justify actions?" The classroom was turned into a police station, physical evidence such as a broken mirror, back ointment, letters, wedding rings and sleeping potion were collected. A full investigation took place. Key witnesses were interviewed and strong arguments were presented to a panel of "judges". It was a challenging project which stimulated the class and enabled them to use their previous experiences of drama to full effect.

Taking time to plan drama activities in your teaching is time well spent, as the rewards for pupils and teachers are immense. Take risks, use drama to explore situations, to develop the speaking and listening skills of your pupils and ultimately to take your teaching onto another creative dimension.

Sarah Nunn is assistant headteacher and creative arts co-ordinator at Charles Dickens Primary School in the London borough of Southwark

* An exhibition of primary school work inspired by Degas' "Beach Scene" is at the National Gallery from April 18 to July 4.

The National Gallery's Take One Picture

Shakespeare's Globe education programmes: Tel: 020 7902 1433

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