Upon reflection, I recently discovered that the challenges I faced at the beginning of my career as a classroom teacher ultimately prepared me to become the Teaching Artist I am today. It was during my first teaching post as a drama specialist at a high school in the North of England. I had just earned my post-graduate certificate in education and I was eager to embark on my new, shiny profession – you see I was going to change young people’s lives… I know you have read this somewhere before.
Growing up in the local area, I knew that this particular school had a certain reputation and I quickly learned that my predecessor had not been able to establish a solid drama curriculum during her tenure. Sadly, the subject had fallen into the category otherwise known to the students as the “fool around” class. During my observation month, a period where new teachers were expected to observe and become familiar with the day to day running of the school, it was made clear to me by many students and even some teachers that the subject of drama was not taken seriously in that school.
In the United Kingdom it is compulsory for all students in grades five through ten to have one period of drama per week. For some students this was a joy, for others reading plays and performing endless scene and characters studies was a bitter pill to swallow. And to top it off, here I was a young, enthusiastic new teacher who wanted to take away their “easy A” class and replace it with a subject that required them to participate, engage and “get on their feet.”
My first step was to ask the school janitor to board up the windows of the classroom I had been allocated. I needed to create a studio environment, one where no outsiders could peer in. I was also fully aware that my room was the direct route to where the older students would hang out to smoke cigarettes during their break. (The administration seemed to turn a blind eye as it often kept the older, more challenging students in school). I wanted to create a space where my students had ownership over their work and know that what happened inside our space had value and meant something.
My second step was to remove all the chairs. This may seem dramatic but I knew that once they sat down, getting these kids to their feet was like pushing a dead weight up a steep hill – I needed to breathe energy and life into this room! And finally, the most important step was to rewrite the curriculum and introduce a series of units that were based around the pedagogy of Process Drama.
Process Drama is a teaching concept pioneered in the 1960s by Dorothy Heathcote, Brian Way and Gavin Bolton. Over the years it has developed and evolved through the work of many leading practitioners such as Cecily O’Neil and Jonothan Neelands. Process Drama explores a problem or theme through the use of drama and often requires the teacher or facilitator to work in-role with their students to build a specific imaginative world. It often involves the whole class working with the teacher to explore an “issue” that is relevant to the students age group such as bullying, peer pressure or perhaps an environmental or ethical problem which needs to be solved.
These topics are examined through imaginary characters and scenarios, and the teacher’s primary goal is to artfully embed dramatic tension and reach a specific outcome. In one unit, I introduced the character of “Sam” and explained that Sam is a member of our class who had not been attending school recently. The class got to decide Sam’s gender, age, appearance and general background through activities such role-on-wall, prop exploration and hot seating. Using artifacts such as letters, photos, excerpts of poetry, train and concert ticket stubs they were able to create a complete character profile of Sam and through role-play explore possible reasons why she had not been attending school.
One particular class decided that Sam was a girl who was being bullied and they went into role as the people in her life, for example her friends, parents, siblings and teachers. By examining this imaginary character’s “issues,” students were compelled to think beyond their own points of view and investigate different theories for why she was being bullied and what actions she and the community around her could take to help. Each class was completely unique in their decision-making and as a facilitator I had to allow them to lead the drama to its final outcome.
Although it took some time and was not without hiccups, my innovations were welcomed and supported by the administration in my school and I was eventually able to change the opinion of those students and teachers who felt that drama was a waste of time. I found I was able to engage those students who in other academic subjects had perhaps felt lost and let down by the school environment, while energizing my young thespians through this unique approach to characters study and creative play.
As my first year came to an end, I was truly sad to leave my post as my partner and I decided to relocate and begin our lives together in a new city. Very different from that of the small Northern town I was leaving, I was heading for the Big Apple. New challenges awaited me and, like many who had come before me, it was time to adapt, acclimatize and discover that there were other opportunities that lay before me…