Category Archives: Drama Education

Dumbing Down the Arts

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The Guardian gushes: At a time when arts are squeezed in some schools, teachers are embracing them as a tool to teach the environment without realising it is this insidious belief that the arts are merely a pedagogical tool that is leading to a paucity of engagement with great art.

The tragic figure of the starving artist in the garret eking out an existence is such a romantic image that it has informed great works of art like Henry Wallis’s ‘The Death of Chatterton’ and Puccini’s sublime La Boheme yet in the future our art will be a dreaded commercial enterprise trying to turn people into environmental warriors.

‘At primary school children are ‘learning songs about climate change and the environment… It’s a fun way to learn… we learn the ‘compost and growing’ song and produce artwork in relation to it, too. The arts and other curriculum areas are continually connected. Teaching the children to be sustainable has nice science, humanities and responsible citizenship links.’

Instead of singing the ‘Ode to Joy’ these children are singing odes to compost.

Instead of making pots inspired by Grayson Perry or Bernard Leach children are making:

‘footballs out of recycled paper, carrier bags and elastic bands, and they discuss global issues around poverty, fairness and fair trade…’

Instead of wrestling with Sophocles, Shakespeare and Sarah Kane pupils are engaged in:

“farmer drama” sessions have been encouraging students to put themselves in the position of those working within the supply chain.

Now of course Sarah Kane isn’t suitable for primary children, nor for adults if the Daily Mail review that called her first play a ‘disgusting feast of filth’ is to be believed. But primary schools are essential breeding grounds for artists and audiences, future amateurs and professionals and also the foundations for what Chesterton called the ‘soul of a society’. By embedding the arts in the service of farmer drama and compost songs, and by hiding real art in project based learning, children will not know the deep truths that making difficult art can uncover. This starts young, with specialised art teachers teaching art, to children, as subjects in their own right.

In primary schools pupils should have art, music, drama and dance lessons and not only in the service of the rest of the curriculum. If teachers want to teach ‘the whole child’ then do this through the depth of study not merely by ticking some breadth boxes in the name of arts coverage as ‘a useful tool in explaining subjects that may otherwise be considered complex or inaccessible’

 

A Knowledge Organiser and the Trivium

Knowledge organisers are gathering momentum in a number of schools. This is a good thing. Some people have misgivings about their reductive nature but many can see how they assist pupils in getting to grips with basic subject matter and being able to memorise key bits of information.

There are many different designs of knowledge organiser and it is probably worth, as a teacher or department, designing your own so that it fits with ‘the way you do things’ but I would like to share a few principles that form the basis of a ‘trivium’ approach to designing a knowledge organiser. In classic Blue Peter style – here is one I prepared earlier, it is about the theatre practitioner and playwright Bertolt Brecht – someone I have taught about for over twenty years. By teaching something for such a long time I have really got to understand what is helpful for students to know about him, these are the concepts and ideas I keep repeating when teaching that really make an impact on the knowledge of my students. This is useful to know – experienced staff can really help in the design of these organisers.

The first principle is that it should be on one side of A4. This is to make it ‘at-a-glance’ and can fit into a folder. Any bigger than this or going onto more pages seems to defeat the object and over-complicates something that should be simple.

The next principle is that it is part of an ongoing ‘joined-up-curriculum’. A trivium curriculum is a narrative not a collection of one-off lessons or schemes of work. Therefore the first part of the knowledge organiser is the section ‘influenced by’ and ‘influence on’. This section could be labelled ‘connections’ but whatever it is labelled it should refer back to previous study and then forward to study yet to come.

The next part I have emphasised are his major theories and works, followed by techniques and quotes and some other notable features. A short Bio is included and then I move on to other areas of the Trivium.

Central to trivium teaching is the idea of argument and debate. This is also a great way to learn as by setting out his arguments for theatre and others’ arguments against his work pupils can really involve themselves in the issues being explored. Please note that when I am teaching Brecht it is always set alongside the work of another great theatre practitioner, Stanislavski. This interleaving and juxtaposition enables pupils to really understand the issues being talked about and also helps them to begin to decide which ideas they might prefer and why.

Finally I have put in a small square ‘rhetoric’. This points the pupil towards the pieces of major work that they will be expected to complete. One of these is an essay and the other two are practical realisations of Brecht’s theories. The essay question is connected to my ‘major organising principle’ for understanding this practitioner which, in this case, is based on a quote by Brecht about creating a theatre ‘fit for the scientific age’. By knowing the essay title so far in advance they can begin to prepare for it earlier should they so wish. This is followed by some further reading suggestions. Pupils are expected to use wider reading in their essays. This wider reading has to be quoted by them in their essay where relevant and can also inform their own ‘extra’ knowledge organiser on Brecht should they wish to complete one or should I decide they ought to!

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You can access the PDF here:

Brecht Trivium Knowledge Organiser

 

 

Drama in Decline

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Apparently there are now 1,700 fewer drama teachers teaching in UK schools than there were in 2010. I don’t have any information as to how accurate this figure is and what the figures are in the constituent nations of the United Kingdom nor how it compares to other subjects, suffice to say it adds to a general impression that the arts are in decline in schools.

Many of the various voices who decry the decline use utilitarian arguments to make their points. I think this is a mistake.

If the arts were to be removed from the curriculum, would it be a bad thing? If we take a strictly utilitarian point of view then the bare bones of the curriculum would suffice. Literacy, Maths and Science are the subjects that seem to rise above all others in our hierarchical view of subject worth. Arguments for drama’s inclusion in the examined curriculum that suggest it is important because the entertainment industry generates a lot of wealth for the country are ridiculous. For a start you don’t need a GCSE in drama in order to become an actor; and though I’m sure studying ballet, piano etc. has a more obvious utility I expect most who study these arts don’t end up adding directly to our GDP through their work in the entertainment world.  Some drama teachers don’t even teach drama in schools with the idea of developing actors. Which is where another utilitarian argument comes in, that drama develops the skills that employers want: collaboration, creativity and communication skills. Even if we put aside the notion that skills are not easily transferable, there is a leap of faith to be made that children who have, say, delivered the lines:

ESTRAGON
All the dead voices.
VLADIMIR
They make a noise like wings.
ESTRAGON
Like leaves.
VLADIMIR
Like sand.
ESTRAGON
Like leaves.
Silence.
VLADIMIR

They all speak at once.
ESTRAGON
Each one to itself.
Silence.
VLADIMIR

Rather they whisper.
ESTRAGON
They rustle.
VLADIMIR
They murmur.
ESTRAGON
They rustle.
Silence.
VLADIMIR

What do they say?
ESTRAGON
They talk about their lives.
VLADIMIR
To have lived is not enough for them.
ESTRAGON
They have to talk about it.
VLADIMIR
To be dead is not enough for them.
ESTRAGON
It is not sufficient.
Silence.
VLADIMIR

They make a noise like feathers.
ESTRAGON
Like leaves.
VLADIMIR
Likes ashes.
ESTRAGON
Like leaves. (2.98-118)

will be better at working for HSBC, McDonalds or at bricklaying than those who haven’t… The very idea is a bit far fetched.

Another argument goes like this – STEM subjects are important (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) so let’s stick an A in there too because arts are important too. This utilitarian approach falls apart very quickly. In the first place engineering hardly features as part of the curriculum in most schools. Technology is also in a parlous state. In fact STEM is all about S&M, but that makes a rather unfortunate acronym. To chuck in an A, seems to add to an already unsteady mix. Call it what you will but STEAM is not about giving the arts a privileged position in the school curriculum, it is about subsuming some shallow arts practices into an ‘integrated approach to learning’. STEAM is a cop out, entirely devoid of art, it is a corporate middle-manager’s idea of art, and is no way to ensure real arts practice remains part of the school experience.

Another utilitarian argument goes that the arts are important to mental health, they might well be, though there are clearly some people involved in the arts who have mental health problems so whether art makes them better than they would have been or adds to their problems I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess.

The arts are important on their own terms. Studying drama might help you become a great director, actor, and/or informed member of the audience. Beyond that the arts are a study on what it is to be human, they tap into our subjective experience of the world and help us to make sense of our lives. This enrichment of the subjective realm is difficult to quantify and by trying we reduce the very art we wish to protect. A school that shrinks the arts provision that its pupils are able to access is making a decision about what they think their priorities should be. If they are guided by utilitarian choices then it is easy for them to cut back on arts programmes because it is far less easy to justify the arts on these terms than, say, Maths. But if they are guided by the desire to educate their pupils as to what is important to them as human beings to make sense of the world and their place within it, then they will do their very best to ensure the arts have a proper and sustainable place in their curriculum.

 

Views.

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An innocent tweet? Apparently, for some, it was all too much. Comments about rows instead of groups, chairs facing one way and not the other followed… and ‘seating plans’ it became a proxy battleground for traditional and progressive minded teachers to make their points. Our tweeter even got called an abuser and a probable victim of abuse… I kid you not…

anyway, my view:

The first classroom I taught in was, actually, a school hall. Through the windows was a view of a tower block. I was told to teach the class away from the windows because the ‘bullet’ holes in the windows were caused by a disgruntled ex-pupil who lived in the flats and was taking pot shots at the school with whatever calibre of BB gun he possessed.

The last classroom I taught in was a ‘black box’ where the entire room was painted black and heavy black curtains covered the windows which, in any case were over six foot off the ground. So ‘views’ were not really my thing, most of the time.

As for chairs and tables…

I didn’t have them. A seating plan was an odd thing in my mind. Chairs and tables were scary enough, when I had to teach a cover lesson in a classroom I was struck by how little freedom the teacher had to move around and how easy it was for pupils to ‘hide’ what they were doing.

Teachers who explain the seating plan is so they can get to know the names of the children might have a point, it was always a struggle to get to know everyone’s name, especially as, in the drama room, the little actors were always changing their names – to fit with the character they were playing. Nightmare. But getting to know the name isn’t about them sitting in the same place and reading it off a plan pinned to a teacher’s desk – it is about remembering who they are… making an effort. Difficult, much easier to call every kid ‘darling’ but that was a step too ‘dramary’ for me… so i’d just point and shout: “You…!” Although I would alternate between choosing groups and pairs and allowing friendship groups and pairs mostly it was done by chance – who was near who after another activity. Final groups for a long term group project were always done in negotiation between the pupils and me.

Later I purchased some ‘seminar chairs’ for moments of writing and a white board on wheels; I positioned both the chairs and white board in different areas of the room depending on whim. In the end, habit meant this became a usual place. And in our sixth form ‘seminar’ room, the seats faced a board with the students backs to the windows. Made sense in so many ways.

It is interesting how our views are shaped and exposed in such unguarded moments as planning a classroom layout and/or writing a seating plan. The teacher who tweeted the ‘view’ from her classroom is most probably an excellent teacher, with a fixed whiteboard, with an excellent point of view, and her classroom layout might express her darker purpose… teaching and learning are important acts that need focus and concentration… on the subject being taught.

 

Creating a Classroom Culture: The ‘Centre’

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Every subject is different, it has its own rhythms and constraints around which a positive classroom culture can be created. Getting changed for PE, putting on lab coats, getting out exercise books and pens, all these seemingly mundane rituals are an essential part of creating a positive working atmosphere.

In the drama room I have no chairs, there are no ‘set’ places for a child to sit, they can run free, make a lot of noise and get away with doing anything they want because, if challenged, they can say: ‘But, we was only acting sir…!’

The drama classroom is thus a terrifying place for the non-specialist cover teacher to venture into and deliver a lesson because all the more usual paraphernalia of the classroom culture are missing. Chaos, far from being hidden away, is in the ascendancy.

This is why, to me, discipline is an essential component of a classroom culture. It’s the same in every class, of course, and the discipline that works best for me is that which is drawn from and refers to the nature of the subject being taught as well as that of the class being taught, the school in which the lesson takes place and the character of the teacher teaching it.

As a drama teacher, the first concept I teach a class is ‘how to centre’. Specifically, how to be quiet, how to be still, and how to obey commands. This, I suggest, is the most important state to conquer. Students have to stand in a space, equidistant from each other, from walls etc. with their arms by their side, feet shoulder-width apart, back, neck, head straight and eyes closed. And, before you ask, this is adapted for individual students who are physically unable to do it. They breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. I then do some other physical exercises and when I say ‘centre’ they have to adopt the ‘centred’ position within 10, 5, then 3 seconds.

This physical focal point is the heart of the classroom culture. Once mastered they learn how to move into other states, how a slight change of the foot or arm, a change in where the ‘centre of gravity in a character’ might be. They see how important the neutral position is, in order ‘to act’, ‘to do’, they need to start from neutral.

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In other lessons I teach in classrooms, I use the same idea, to create pause, focus, reflection. An expectation of individual attention to themselves, I call it ‘sit down, shut up, eyes down, read…’ (or write). It doesn’t matter what it’s called. The point is to have a place where all know there is silence, stillness, reflection, and it feels calmer. This can be the normal state for most of the work in a classroom, but, importantly, it is not a punishment state. This is an essential part of the ritual and discipline of the teaching of the subject and it is present from day one. ‘When I say: ‘——————‘, you do ‘———————-‘. And, later, once mastered, I pick up on their reading or writing. They get to learn that it is important that they do it, because I will question them on it; if writing, it is important they do it, because I will read out what they’ve written. (Not all, of course, but always one, two or more.)

If it takes a minute, five minutes, a whole lesson or term, this is the most important lesson to get across, because from here all other positive elements of a flourishing classroom culture can flow.

Of course, it’s not the only part. It’s, literally, just the start.

Proper Acting for Proper Teachers

Here are the slides from my talk at the ResearchEd English and MFL conference on Saturday 1st April, at the University Examination Schools:

Proper Acting for Proper Teachers PDF

A jaunt through some essential drama teaching

I presented a session on the ‘rules’ needed to make a play work in the classroom or on the stage. These ‘rules’ are the rules that repertory theatre companies used to put on a new play, every week, without the need of a director. Answering questions such as: Where should Macbeth enter from? How about the three witches? Where on the stage should Hamlet do a soliloquy? How do you make iambic pentameter sound interesting even if you’ve no idea what the hell is being said? How does an actor tell the audience all they need to know about a character in the first ten seconds of their performance? Otherwise known as:

Proper acting for proper teachers.