George Lucas Educational Foundation

How Drama can be a positive influence in the classroom

How Drama can be a positive influence in the classroom

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When engaged in an interesting hobby or activity, many students react in a positive way to their enviroment. Drama teaches self control and how to control ones emotion or at times explore that emotion to get to the root of the real problem. When students are in a situation where they feel they can be free and allow themselves the room to express themselves, they are calmer in certain situaitons and react differently in a way they might have not in the past.

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S.Brown's picture

Drama and all art forms makes the student more aware of their surroundings and themselves. They have a deeper appreciation for learning on a new level. They often don't realize that they are being changed until the change occurs and they are ususlly proud of that change.

Kathy Hoover's picture
Kathy Hoover
Seventh grade Language Arts teacher for Reynoldsburg City Schools, Ohio

I've been working on using "dramatic inquiry" in my classroom this past year, and the experience is revolutionizing for students AND the teacher! It is challenging and takes time to learn how to implement, but the challenge is exciting . . . even exhilarating! The KEY is to start small and try something different each day as you build community in your classroom. See the OSU Arts Initiative (that's Ohio State University) for information about our DYNAMIC program in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, England. A great resource is "Action Strategies for Deepening Comprehension" by Jeffrey D. Wilhelm (Scholastic Professional Books).

Paula Collins's picture

I teach students on the autism spectrum at a high school in East Harlem. We successfully staged excerpts from musical, The Wiz, and then an adaptation of the movie, Night at the Museum. Amazingly, students who formerly did not speak (nonverbal) were inspired to make utterances, or even to join in the singing. This sends a very powerful message about the need for arts in special education.

Christine Termini Passarella's picture
Christine Termini Passarella
Founder of The Kids for Coltrane Project in Education

Bravo Paula!! The work you are doing is vital. I can envision your brilliant shows. You are offering incredible learning experiences to your students. The whole process of creating the shows is now in tapestry of their lives. You are to be commended, and my hope is more and more special educators infuse the arts into their teaching. We also need the support of administrators in this area! It would be great if you could share more details about the learning process as you create your next production...Looking forward to learning more from you in the future.

Eric Levin's picture
Eric Levin
Director of Theatre Education at Southern Oregon State University

Paula, I love your post. My son is a spectrum student. I have taught creative drama to classroom teachers at a former job and am trying to implement it in this university. Training teachers to integrate drama, music, dance and visual art into curricular delivery is vital. I am kind of an old fogy but have used McCaslin's "Creative Drama in the Classroom and Beyond." Also anything by Brian Way or Dorothy Heathcoate.

Bouchaib's picture

Hello everyone,

Good teachers seem to know instinctively how to use performance skills in the classroom to gain and hold students' interest.
There seems to be general agreement among teachers that in order to continue raising academic standards we need to constantly examine and explore our methods of teaching.
If you are lucky enough to have that rare opportunity to observe other teachers' lessons at your school, you might notice that one or two classroom 'performances' stand out. Why? What is it that makes them different? Is it luck? Is it talent? Is it training? Is it experience? Is it some kind of intangible 'presence'?
Some teachers do have similar qualities to good actors and are totally convincing in what they do. Effective teachers seem to know instinctively how to use performance skills to gain and hold students' interest. They also seem aware of the impact that dramatic techniques can have upon students and are always looking for opportunities to incorporate these into their lessons.
Perhaps it is time for us all to adopt a variety of drama skills to win the attention and interest of our students, to convey information effectively to our diverse and demanding 'audience'. These skills might include the use of body language and voice, role-playing and improvisation.
Body language
All teachers can use appropriate body language to create the desired atmosphere within their classrooms, for example:
* Exaggerating movements when explaining something to the whole class. This should capture and hold the students' attention and can be used to emphasise important points.
* Walking towards the person who is talking, even if it is only one or two steps. This can have an incredibly positive effect on individuals, boosting self-esteem by physically demonstrating an interest in what they say.
* Responding by smiling and nodding when a student is talking.
* Keeping eye contact with the student who is talking and showing enthusiasm with facial expressions.
* Walking around the room during a discussion so that the whole class feels involved.
* Avoiding 'closed' body language (such as folding arms) and physical signals that can distract from the learning process, for example: constantly checking the time or looking at paperwork that has nothing to do with the lesson.
It is easy to forget that students absorb more information from what they physically see than from what they actually hear. It is also important to remember that nonverbal communication is generally thought to be more 'honest' than verbal communication; if your body language is positive then students are more likely to trust you.
Use of voice
Like good actors, teachers need to use their voices appropriately in a variety of situations, such as narrating a story or giving a character a distinctive accent (see Role-playing below). Effective teachers incorporate variations in vocal pitch and deliberately raise or lower their voice in order to make a point or simply to communicate more effectively.
I have always had a problem with my voice. It is naturally low and monotonous, not the kind of voice that will naturally grab the students' attention. So I have spent a great deal of time working on ways to vary the pitch and to make it sound more enthusiastic and interesting.
I found the following particularly useful:
* Reading poetry aloud. This is particularly helpful because poetry requires greater vocal inflection for its meaning to become clear.
* Varying the speed and tone of my voice in conversation and listening to myself on a tape recorder. (This is the hardest part as we all hate hearing what our own voices actually sound like.)
* Using these recordings to recognise personal speech characteristics that might distract from the learning process and attempting to overcome these impediments.The voice exercises in Cicely Berry's book Voice & the Actor are particularly useful for this
Many teachers injure their voices by trying to compete with the sounds of students in and out of the classroom. We need to learn to pay attention to the signals that our voices send us so that we can take the necessary steps to avoid damaging one of our most important teaching tools.
How many of us have sore throats by the end of every November? Is this an occupational hazard or can we do something about it?
We need to think ahead and to learn to change certain behaviours which might cause serious damage, such as shouting over thirty students every lesson to try to get them to be quiet!
Wherever possible save your voice, I always find dropping a heavy file on the table helps to quieten down the majority of classes. Drinking lots of fluid is vital when caring for your voice and once again Cicely Berry's book includes much sensible advice.
You can also find useful relaxation and voice exercises at Peter Lathan's excellent School Show Page.
The most obvious role that we take on every day is that of the teacher. Like most of us, I can play the 'cross' teacher, the 'disappointed' teacher and the 'concerned' teacher, if I feel that these roles are appropriate in any given situation.
There are, however, many other roles that we are able to play and many other situations when adopting a role in the classroom may be of use, for example:
* Narrating a story or playing a character within a story when reading to students will obviously interest them more than a 'straight' reading.
* Using role-playing techniques in order to attract and hold students' attention.
* To convey information, to stimulate discussion and to better communicate with students.
* In many subjects, role-playing can be used to develop empathy and to enliven discussion. For instance, taking the role of a historical figure and being 'hotseated' by the students.
Great actors improvise so impressively that it is virtually impossible to tell that they are improvising. Similarly, effective teachers can improvise so well that they always appear to know exactly what they are doing and everything seems to be carefully planned and well thought-out.
These teachers will often bring exciting ideas into the classroom in stimulating and original ways; they will use humour to help establish a rapport with their students, as well as to diffuse situations and to deal with difficult moments.
Good classroom improvisation, however, does not mean having to be outrageously funny or wild, it simply means being capable of appearing natural and confident in every situation.
I believe that improvisation is one of the most important skills for a teacher to learn. If you can learn to improvise convincingly, you will put students at ease and encourage them to take risks, improving your classroom 'performance' tenfold.
For the best ideas on learning how to be spontaneous and how to improvise, get hold of a copy of ex-teacher Keith Johnstone's book Impro. I think that it is one of the most important and influential books ever written and I recommend it unreservedly.

Berry C (1973) Voice and the Actor London: Harrap
Hodgson J (ed) (1972) The Uses of Drama London: Methuen
Johnstone K (1981) Impro London: Methuen
Pisk L (1975) The Actor and his Body London: Harrap
James Hanley is head of drama at a London comprehensive school. Before becoming a teacher, he worked in children's homes and hostels across London as well as running drama workshops for children and adults with disabilities.

Eric Levin's picture
Eric Levin
Director of Theatre Education at Southern Oregon State University

I agree with this post completely. However, one must realize that the skills discussed are describing honest delivery and believability. Altering one's classroom performance style to appear honest is less effective than being honest.

The "performance" of the teacher is important, but use of drama within the curriculum as a tool for delivering content through creative dramatics is a set of skills that can be learned by anyone. It is a method by which students can begin to incorporate performance skills, such as described in the previous post, into their communication tools. But more importantly is allows any content area to offer multiple modalities (kinithetic, interpersonal etc) for effective teaching. These are two very different uses of drama within the classroom.

Lizanne Wilson's picture
Lizanne Wilson
Drama Specialist at Baker Demonstration School, Wilmette, Illinois

Drama changes lives. I've seen it dozens of times.

For sixteen years, I have integrated drama into the classroom with each K-8 classroom teacher in my school of 325 children. I work in a progressive private school in the Midwest. Each classroom teacher and I teach collaboratively on integrated units. Rotating through the classes in small "residencies," I work with 2-5's or middle school students for 10-12 weeks at a time with the teacher in the room. It took me years to understand that process drama and creative drama can be taught in a way that children learn the tools and techniques of the art as well as the traditional curriculum.

We just finished performing 7 classroom productions of an original musical based on the Demeter and Persephone myth. The classroom teacher wrote the play because her kids were passionate about mythology. That same classroom teacher, the music teacher and I worked to support each other as the children learned the material: the mythology and the script and lyrics. Our students accomplished things they thought impossible. We helped them to achieve their goals by breaking down the process into age-appropriate steps. I read the script to them and they repeated each line as we blocked the scenes. It sounds tedious, but it wasn't. As I read, I demonstrated things I hoped to see: vocal variety, energy, understanding of the actor's place in the story, pacing etc...Little by little, the students gained confidence. They were thrilled when a fifth grade mom designed and made simple costume sheaths that could be used by all seven "casts" of the play. The seven different classroom performances were like each class; some were highly polished and sone were very informal with lots of gentle prompting from the teacher in the front row. While the children performed their unique versions of the play, we were teaching our parents too look beyond shiny product. I could have made a highly polished production, but instead, we all shepherded our children to do the hard work of creating a play that was theirs.

Many of us involved--students and teachers-- experienced the magic that can occur when school and art act as a mutual catalyst for learning. When we asked the students to help explain the extraordinary learning that had occurred to grown-ups, one of our second graders replied, "It's simple, you get the part, you do the play and then you are never the same!" Touche.

I have spent my life on this work, but I think any classroom teacher can do a piece of what we do every day with drama in our school. By breaking down the massive concept of "drama in school" into step-by-step tools and techniques, then adding a little dose of courage, teachers can use drama in their classrooms every day. Most teachers use something from the "drama toolbox" right now. They just don't call it drama. I earned my stripes with my faculty by teaching. As time passed, children learned and teachers discovered the multi-faceted power of drama in education. The kids are the biggest help. The stories and emotion they take home every day to their families can be extraordinary: Joy in learning outside one's comfort zone, exilaration being free to express ideas and opinions, confidence from solving problems on their own and understanding that their voices matter.

This work is my life's work. Every day I am grateful to work with young artists, encouraging them to learn to change the world. Drama rocks and anyone who has experienced it as teacher or student understands that on a visceral level.

So glad to be in a discussion about this.

Allen Berg's picture
Allen Berg
curriculum and projects learning centers

Dear Colleagues,

The Design Nominees for the Academy Awards were announced this week...and it provides teachers with specific examples of "Arts Best Practices" to present and discuss with students and colleagues.

Professional Practitioners of Arts Excellence offer real life examples and role models for students to learn from... and it can enhance the the "Visual Arts Literacy" of everyone who watches movies...

Let the Red Carpet (and the voting debate :-) get ready to roll...

Allen Berg

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