An NIE researcher is passionate about helping pupils develop and hone their language skills by applying drama techniques in the English Language classroom.
Imagine: A Japanese woman walks into a room of 40 reporters who are eager to meet her. She tells them she is a survivor of the 2011 tsunami in Japan. She acknowledges that they may want more details and invites them to ask questions that she will answer to the best of her ability. Multiple hands are raised in the air as the reporters indicate they have something to ask.
This press conference took place during an English lesson in a primary school. And the “Japanese woman” was none other than the teacher, who was using drama to help facilitate language development and encourage students to think about what it means to be a “good” citizen.
Using Drama the Right Way
An NIE research project has shown that more and more teachers are turning to using drama in the classroom.
“While it was clear that people were using drama, the research survey found that the majority of them had little or no drama experience,” notes NIE researcher Dr Prudence Wales, the Principal Investigator of the research project.
Are teachers seizing the full advantages that drama can offer learning? It was found that many teachers were using drama only as a 5- or 10-minute activity in a 1-hour class. But research has shown that for drama to truly enrich students’ learning, it needs to be a well-integrated and immersive experience.
This project began after Prudence and her colleague Dr Jane Gilmer had been conducting in-service courses on drama techniques for teachers.
“From there, we gathered those teachers who wanted to be mentored,” Prudence shares. They then started an intervention programme that would help them scaffold ways to infuse drama into their lessons.
Teachers need to be able to move in and out of the drama as they weave the world of the classroom and world of the drama together.
– Prudence Wales, Visual and Performing Arts Academic Group
Prudence and Jane first talked with teachers about their individual needs and desires for incorporating drama into their lessons. These could be how they wanted to use drama, what they wanted to use it for and what they wanted their students to learn.
The duo also observed the participating teachers’ lessons before the intervention, after which, they worked closely with the teachers to create lesson plans that integrated drama to facilitate specific English-Language outcomes. The teachers then tried out their plans in the classroom as Prudence or Jane watched quietly from the wings.
“After that, we interviewed them on what they thought they had done well and where they thought they could improve, what they noticed about the students and what their fears were,” says Prudence.
One example of a lesson plan that a teacher and researcher came up with together was on natural disasters and how students should respond to them. This was inspired by a directive from the school.
Teachers tended to use PowerPoint slides when it comes to teaching this topic. To further engage the students, Prudence and the teacher explored ways they could make the learning effective and fun at the same time.
“The purpose was to get pupils to think about how they should behave during a natural disaster,” shares Prudence, “and to inform pupils what it means to work communally in a disaster.”
That is how the idea of a Japanese tsunami survivor addressing reporters in a press conference came about.
“It gave the pupils the power to question because the teacher was no longer the teacher,” explains Prudence. “She was someone who was happy to answer their questions.” It also gave them the opportunity to hone their spoken English skills when they posed questions aloud.
But Prudence noticed something that surprised her – an experienced teacher of 30 years was nervous to be in role. “She was nervous about giving up ‘control’ of the classroom, and how the pupils might see her.”
However, the teacher went ahead and took on the role. “The pupils were totally engaged with her while she was in role. They obviously knew it was her and there were the initial giggles, but they bought into it (the fiction of the drama) —they asked her questions.” Some of them even praised the teacher for being a good actor!
It gave the pupils the power to question because the teacher was no longer the teacher.
– Prudence on how drama was used to engage pupils for a lesson on natural disasters.
Confident and Reflective Practitioners
Eventually, when the teachers felt confident enough to run the class independently, Prudence and Jane “let go” of them.
“We wanted the teachers to feel that they could plan the lessons on their own,” Prudence shares. “During the entire process, we also encouraged them to be reflective practitioners.”
To use drama effectively, she feels that one has to constantly reflect on their actions, even when they are in action. When teachers use drama in the classroom, they have to be able to think on their feet. They have to simultaneously manage the fictional world of the drama they created and the real world of the classroom they inhabit.
This, says Prudence, involves not only reflecting after class but in each and every moment of the lesson as they unfold in the real and fictional worlds.
“There is artistry to teaching in drama and working with drama,” she adds. “Teachers need to be able to move in and out of the drama as they weave the world of the classroom and world of the drama together.”
Prudence has found the whole process of working with teachers “fascinating”. “We noticed a huge difference in their ability,” she notes. “When they were mentored and had someone to talk to about what they were doing, it clearly helped.”
Some of the teachers she worked with shared the same concern – unpredictable classroom dynamics – but Prudence says that their collaboration has helped the teachers handle them with more confidence.
And just like herself, the teachers also loved the overall drama experience. “I think many of them felt that they have learned a lot. They really found it to be a positive experience. Certainly, they talk about how they would continue using drama!”