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Vesuvius: then and very now

Horrible history, boring geography or mind-numbing maths: want to put the fun back? Warwick Mansell tells how drama helps

Have your pupils ever put themselves in the shoes of a Roman citizen caught up in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius? Have they acted out what it would be like to shelter from a Second World War air raid, or sought to help an imaginary princess with her maths?

These are among the tasks dreamt up for children in a drama project that is winning plaudits in staffrooms for its ability to enliven subjects as diverse as English, geography and science.

The Drama for Learning and Creativity scheme, which has been running in 60 primary, secondary and special schools in Norfolk for more than a year, may now be extended to other areas of the country.

The project involves teachers getting together to receive advice about creating a series of lessons in which the focus is using drama to capture serious ideas behind subject lessons.

Costessey Junior School, in Norwich, has its Year 5 pupils acting out the aftermath of an imaginary earthquake, telling them that strange events are occurring. Youngsters are then cast either as witnesses with information to impart, or as scientists, detectives and reporters trying to find out how the disaster unfolded. In the next lesson children write up their findings and present them at an imaginary meeting.

At Flegg High School, in Great Yarmouth, Year 8 pupils learn about 17th-century witchfinders by acting out scenes in which an old woman visits a village and is followed by a witchfinder (their teacher).

The children listen to the witchfinder's description of the old woman and discuss whether or not to turn her in. They then write their descriptions and say whether they think she is a witch. In the discussion afterwards, the teacher praises pupils who defend the woman and holds a discussion about bullying.

At Avenue Junior School, Norwich, five-year-olds learn about Diwali after they are presented with a lamp. They are asked to imagine that their father brought it back from India, where he grew up. They then study the history of the lamp, which is central to the story of Diwali, through acting and dancing scenes from Indian life.

Dene Zarins, an advanced skills teacher at the school, says: "In terms of pupil engagement, this is one of the most powerful things I have ever done with the children.

"Through the drama, they are investing in something. It makes it feel real and they are connected to it. If they can make an emotional connection to it, the learning will stay forever."

This approach is also being used in maths. Children at Great Hockham Primary, Thetford, act out a scenario in which a fairytale princess has to be helped to count in multiples of three.

The schools involved have vastly increased their commitment to drama.

Before it was launched, only 2 per cent of them were spending more than an hour a week on it. The figure is now 35 per cent.

The scheme is a collaboration between National Drama, Norfolk county council and the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has been supportive and other local authorities and national strategies are believed to be interested.

Tony Gardiner, past president of the Mathematical Association, says the project follows in the footsteps of some innovative work from the 1960s and 1970s.

Zoltan Dienes, the maverick academic mathematician, encourages pupils to learn about maths through dance. However, Dr Gardiner says creativity has been crowded out by narrow Government approaches to teaching since the 1990s.

He warns that using drama to enliven teaching is difficult. He says the danger is that teachers will focus on "softer" notions of empathy, rather than ensuring pupils are actually mastering the substance of the subjects


At Cecil Gowing First School in Norwich, Year 3 pupils are presented with photographs of Pompeii and told about Vesuvius's eruption in 79AD. They spend two lessons finding out about questions they have raised. They also act out what it would have been like to have been there when the volcano blew, before writing newspaper articles and letters as if they witnessed the eruption.


At Alderman Swindell First School, Great Yarmouth, Year 3 pupils are given the background on why English children were evacuated to the countryside during World War Two. They then act out building an air raid shelter, discuss the pros and cons of evacuations and afterwards write letters imagining they are evacuees.

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