Thinking out loud on the highway

22nd September 1995 at 01:00
Jonathan Stewart is the head of English at Howard of Effingham School in Leatherhead, Surrey and on NATE's Drama Working Party. With a class of Year 9, he reads an early 20th-century ballad by Alfred Noyes called "The Highwayman".

Jonathan reads the poem with dramatic intensity. It's a brutal tale of love and revenge set in 1750. He discusses the period with the class, preparing them to get into the role of the townspeople who are on the periphery of the story.

Divided into small groups, they are asked to assume an occupation for themselves and then mime an action. Then they "thought track" out loud, expressing their characters' thoughts on the news that the Highwayman is back in the village. One child takes the role of the Highwayman and as he walks around the room, each group comes into focus, gossiping about him.

"Have you heard?" says one group of lively girls. "He's back! And he's so good-looking!" Then in a set of freeze-frame images of the Highwayman and his lover Bess's first meeting, the teacher points out things like body language. Another exercise dramatically recreates a particular passage. Each character in the tableau does a "thoughts aloud" .

In one 50-minute session, the class manage to get under the skin of the ballad, look at the historical period, explore the language and analyse the motivations and feelings of the characters.

Tying the work in with GCSE speaking and listening, Jonathan has used a number of dramatic conventions to contextualise and deconstruct the ballad, making it a living piece of writing and enlivening what could have easily been another hot and sticky afternoon.

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