Turning words into actions

9th June 1995 at 01:00

I read once of a government in the developing world sending a team out to a remote village with an instructional film on the benefits of modern farming techniques. Lacking any film vocabulary, the villagers identified with the only thing that seemed familiar and the experts were disappointed when all their audience could recall about the film was a shot of a chicken running across a yard.

Melanie Peter's book, which is concerned with the special needs of pupils with learning difficulties, exudes the same reforming zeal and will, I fear, be received with similar incomprehension by the special needs teacher who picks it off the shelf.

Melanie Peter is not afraid to admit that the most important thing for her is the integrity of her methodology. She wants to provide drama for pupils "without compromising any aspect of what is considered to be the theoretical framework for drama-in-education." Phrases derived from this theory, like "salience recognition" and "situational understanding" abound; pupils live in a world where they "negotiate their own learning needs" and teachers are ever "on the look-out for possible learning areas that may arise". After a section on "whole-situation recognition", bemused readers may be relieved to come across a checklist of things they might recognise - such as dinner times, bus times, toileting needs and problems with PE kit.

Undoubtedly, this book will be of value to experienced drama teachers, perhaps working with pupils with learning difficulties for the first time but already well-versed in drama-in-education rituals like "teacher-in-role". For non-drama specialists looking for practical suggestions, however, it may be a disappointment. Ideas for classes take second place to the proselytising, which makes it hard going, not to say intimidating, for the uninitiated; there is no fast track, even for willing pilgrims. Any ordinary teacher seeking a place on Peter's progress from "novice" to "expert" faces stern trials on the road to the Celestial City.

This a shame because there is much plain good sense in the book. Special needs teaching is, above all, an intensely practical affair. Small, domestic matters can take on huge significance, particularly where pupils also suffer physical disabilities. It is therefore surely right to emphasise the importance of such things as being honest with pupils about what is going on - some pupils with profound learning difficulties really do find it difficult to distinguish between acting and reality. When the author leaves the pulpit to make these points, the text begins to come alive.

Satisfaction with drama, as special needs teachers know, comes from the excitement generated by dramatising a story. There are moments in this book when this simple pleasure is acknowledged; beneath the burden of methodology I suspect there is hiding a fine teacher. As readers, we could do with her guiding presence.

David Hornbrook is Performing Arts Inspector for the London Borough of Camden and an Associate Fellow of the Central School of Speech and Drama.

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