Time for the future?

21st November 2003 at 00:00
Drama can be far more than merely another option on the curriculum:it can be an investment in students' learning styles and thinking skills, says Karen Wilson

Somewhere in England, a group of people is in trouble. They are arguing with a small bunch of officials as nearby, a human wall of protesters are linking arms around a circle of standing stones. Ten or more people with spades and a small crane push through the linked arms and begin the process of removing one significantly different stone from the circle.

The protesters fall silent as the stone is lifted away; they stand, their faces lifted in defiance, as they watch a lorry carry the stone off. They huddle together in small groups, talking about the stone, then go to their desks and begin their extended writing on the fate of their town, now that the stone of significance has gone.

It took an hour of drama to turn Year 4 into a group of eloquent and effective writers, fuelled by a real anger, articulating complex concepts about ownership and subsequent loss, betrayal and the consequences of their actions. One hour placed into a tight curriculum, an hour well spent that challenged everyday thought patterns, gave vent to a public voice in a private classroom and created opportunity for individual and group expression of one of the fundamental human activities, the capacity to create and tell a really good story.

"The children love drama, but we don't do it, we haven't got time" - words spoken on a windy concourse at a conference on theories of intelligence. We had just discussed the responsibility of teachers to find a forum in which pupils could exercise their different ways of learning, placing the theory of multiple intelligence in a practical context. The speaker had a degree in drama and English, yet hadn't found the opportunity to use her drama skills in her primary classroom. She was fully aware that some pupils would, like her, perceive drama as being their area of talent, and some who would benefit from that particular structure of teaching and learning. She was genuinely worried about finding a time and place in the curriculum for drama, concerned that some pupils would never realise their talent or pupils would miss the opportunity to work in their preferred learning style.

How much time does it takeI lto watch children think? A group of Year 1 pupils are protecting a princess and her diamond crown, hidden in a castle room. They let in a stranger who wishes to say hello to the princess. The stranger steals the diamond crown. Asked in role: "Did you let the stranger in?", the whole class falls silent. Several seconds of visible, palpable thinking result in a resounding communal "no" and one tentative extra-thoughtful "yes" from the corner of the room. On reflection, out of role, the discussion about telling the truth was fierce and informed and the resulting assembly carried a strong message to the whole school. Time: 50 minutes.

lto focus a class on Romans in Britain, using drama? Electing a pupil as the soldier, the class "sculpts" him until he looks "tough". They write on the board behind him all the words they can think of that soldiers might say: "All hail Caesar, all hail" "SoldiersI march, quick march", "SoldiersI halt". They improvise with plastic cups, the teacher's car keys, beans in a tray, their own voices, feet stamping, the sound of soldiers on horseback and marching along a rainy Roman road. The soldiers halt, the horses stop, the sound of chains rattling fades into silence. After two rehearsals, the "performance" was taped to provide a different and striking resource for the history display. Time: 30 minutes.

* to create the independent learner? Working with Year 3 SEN pupils in a withdrawal group, role-playing the story of a naughty dog that has chased a cat through a market, the teacher puts one of the pupils in the hot seat as "Mum", the owner of the dog. The other pupils, standing arms akimbo, are in role as angry stallholders. Watching and listening to "Mum" as she defends the dog, the stallholders fiercely argue back. The stimulus is the act of drama, the context, the story; the ideas are all theirs as independent thinkers and learners. Time: 40 minutes.

* to surprise pupils with their capacity for profound thought? Year 5 pupils have listened to a programme about Indian reservations and want to devise an open-ended drama. In role as Indians, they make a list of requirements for their people that they take to the government (teacher in role). The government listens but denies their request. The Indians are angry and call on other tribes to support them. The story is stopped, and the pupils choose their next role as American soldiers. They position themselves along a line of chairs; over there, they say, are the Indians.

There is a flurry of activity as they draw their weapons with a co-ordinated action, prepare, aim and fire; then silence. I ask them to go into the reservation and show what has happened to the Indians. They climb through the chairs and position themselves in various poses of death. Out of role, I ask them if they want to change the end of the story: they say no, because they have told the truth as they see it. I ask why the soldiers have killed the Indians. One boy says: "Sometimes when people have got the power to destroy people they just have to use it." Time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

Compare these experiences with a small group of Year 10 pupils taking their GCSE options; for the first time in their school career they are making their choice. They've chosen to do drama, mainly because they have a gut response that this is what they want to do, but also it is part of a dwindling number of options they've got, because in the main they have opted out of school. I know that because we've talked it through, we have to talk it through very seriously because they have never heard their own voices in public, never been to the theatre and only have an inkling of how clever they are going to be - given time.

Many teachers use drama in their day-to-day teaching and fully appreciate the difference it makes to the quality of pupil interaction with the whole curriculum. Creative partnerships and associated projects are enabling pupils to have more contact with the arts. Schools where inclusion is integral to the ethos of the school are seeing the benefits of accessing the curriculum through drama. As John Crofts argues: "Drama is an essential part of our curriculum, giving pupils quality time to explore issues and form their own responses, to think without pressure, to use and develop their life skills. It has made a significant contribution towards our inclusive provision." It is crucial for each school to make explicit curriculum provision for drama, ensuring the experience is worthwhile and powerful enough for pupils to carry forward into their future.

With thanks to Turves Green Primary School and St George's Church of England Primary School for their contribution to this article Karen Wilson is teacher adviser for drama in the Birmingham Advisory and Support Service

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