Drama, Multimodal Learning, Oracy, Reflection

Using Dramatic and Active Learning Strategies with Written work in Drama: Exploring Practically before putting pen to paper

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Becky Griffiths – Curriculum Leader for Drama

When I think back to this time last year, negotiating all the changes of the new GCSE 9-1 specification, I recall how challenging it was. It felt as though everyone in education was wading their way through reforms with feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty. Part of the challenge for me as the Curriculum Leader in Drama was to find ways to engage my students with the significant increase in written content at GCSE.

When I reflect on my encounters with Drama at school, I remember experiences where we explored plays, improvised and collaborated with peers.  My experiences enabled me to develop a genuine passion for the subject. Written work was a marginal aspect of GCSE drama; far more concerned with exploring through practical drama. When I try to reflect on behalf of GCSE drama students across the country, in the midst of current educational reforms, I am conscious that their experiences of studying drama are wildly different to my own due to the shift in weightings for written and practical work.

I’m a firm believer in reflection being a tool for change, so decided to investigate this issue as part of my MA dissertation. At the core of this, was student voice. My initial question was: ‘How can I increase engagement in drama despite the reduction of practical content in the new GCSE drama specification?’ and a subsidiary question emerged: ‘Do dramatic and active approaches increase engagement and develop students’ written work in drama?’ After interviewing students, it became very evident that they wanted to inject the ‘drama’ back into our classroom. Therefore, I decided to create a series of sessions based around active and dramatic approaches to explore written work, before committing any writing to the paper. Heathcote and Bolton (1995: 32) were both advocates for “process drama” whereby students explore a play, story or theme by actively experiencing it, stating: “There is an active, urgent, purposeful view of learning, in which knowledge is to be operated on, not merely to be taken in”.  

Some examples of the active and dramatic strategies I used included:

  • In-role Activities: Students exploring the themes of a play through improvisation, hot-seating and Teacher in Role.
  • Competitive Games: Relay races where students have to memorise key information in teams and using post-its to create a version of ‘Heads Up!’ and guessing the name of characters, with certain rules in place.
  • Technology: Using iPads to to film each other practically and writing down precise observations, based on lived experiences.
  • Forum Theatre: Using forum theatre to experiment with scenes practically and working in the mind-set of a director.  

As a result of these memorable active experiences, students were able to articulate responses, which, in turn, improved the quality of their writing.  Stredder (2009: 17) has highlighted the benefits of approaching Shakespeare’s plays actively in support of written work: “Some of the confidence, involvement and ownership that result from active work in the classroom, as well as the ability to use ‘ways into the text’ productively, should carry over in their independent work, including, of course, their written work”. What became very evident was that students needed to physically enact moments from a play in order to visualise them and this helped them to create more precise written responses. It transformed written responses from “I would put on an angry facial expression as Lola is angry with Sephy,” to “I would use an aggressive facial expression by furrowing my brow and curling my lip to the side to show my distaste for Sephy”.

But what about my subject? I hear you ask. I have seen other curriculum areas utilise the power of drama to explore and investigate topics. In Science, for example, teachers have set up crime scenes where students have to investigate. Or perhaps in Geography, where students make David Attenborough style documentaries to explore climate change. The possibilities are endless and students appreciate having the freedom to explore interesting topics in ways that are memorable and that ‘stick’.  

This research has helped me to explore and devise strategies that I can build upon to mediate my teaching within the ever changing climate of education and for my students to view the experience as a challenge, rather than a negative barrier that we could not overcome. These new strategies, I hope, have provided my students with the same enriching experience that I had at school and I hope too that what we have learnt together during the process of my enquiry, as teacher and students, allowed for more meaningful and confident connections to be made between ‘acting out’ and ‘putting pen to paper’.

For more details of the full version of my MA dissertation, tweet me @MissRLGriffiths

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