A strange thing happened this year. Our students were so dramatic-and by that we mean we started using drama as a way to help teach, review and reinforce our learning in every subject area. The kids loved it-even the shy and quiet ones.
We didn’t really add drama intentionally at first, but it turned out to be the best thing we could have done. Our students were allowed to pick any way they wanted to teach the class some information we had learned in geography. One of the groups of students asked if they could do a play. We agreed and the play was short, sweet and very effective. More importantly, we realized we were missing out on a huge opportunity with the rest of our students.
We did some research into how we could start adding some drama into our classroom. Our room is fairly small, so we needed a way to rearrange the room quickly. We taught the students to move all the furniture to one side so we had a big open space and started exploring different activities.
The first year we explored drama we used a few random activities. It was fun, but it didn’t quite have a complete scope and sequence that we envisioned. So, over the summer we tweaked our plans and tried again the next year.
Create a physical space for drama.
We arranged our classroom so it was easy to slide all the desks and tables to the sides of the room leaving a large, open space in the middle of the room for our drama activities. Students would often sit on the desks and tables as an audience, but having a large space in the middle of the room meant we could create all kinds of things. Students had a safe space to move around without worrying too much about knocking things over.
Creating a large enough space where your class can stand in a circle will help with some of the activities. Teach your students to move the furniture quickly and safely the first time you do it. This way they will improve and get faster as you go, saving as much time as possible for each activity.
If moving furniture isn’t an option, try your school library. There’s often a story corner and it might be available during different times of the day so you can borrow the space.
The gymnasium can be an option if you have a flexible schedule.
And don’t forget about the outdoors. Using your school field or tarmac area is a great big open space. Using an outdoor space also encourages students to speak up loudly as their oices don’t carry as well outdoors.
Create a safe emotional space.
Explain that drama is meant to be a way to act in a new ways, listen to new ideas and explore without fear of being laughed at (unless that is the goal).
Have students come up with their drama expectations together. A general rule we use is that we always thank the actor for trying out something, taking a chance or sharing their thoughts-whether or not it works out.
Lead by example. Show your students that everyone makes mistakes, but can still have fun. Everyone is a little bit scared to try things, but still takes a deep breath and tries it.
Allow students to pass. Don’t add to anxiety by forcing anything. Encourage, but don’t require until your students are ready. In our experience the shyest students will come around when they are ready.
If you have a student not ready for speaking in front of the class, give them a job where they can still be part of the action, like backstage or directing.
If you have a student who speaks well, but is nervous about movement on stage, give them a part like the narrator, where they don’t have to “act” too much.
Have regular conversations about how it went after each activity. What would be fun to try next time? What worked well? What can be improved? Focus on the skills instead of criticizing individuals.
Teach the drama basics.
Teach your students basic voice projection (without yelling). Teach students to speak loudly and clearly facing the audience (unless it’s intentionally meant to be masking something). Practice a stage whisper, where it sounds like a whisper, but it’s loud enough to be heard across the room. Sometimes students don’t understand how their voices carry or do not carry, so practice speaking across the room as part of your drama lessons.
Teach students how to face the audience properly. Always stand no more than forty-five degrees facing away from the audience (unless it’s intentional). No one wants to see your butt (unless that’s part of the play). Explain that students are not actually speaking to the other actors on the stage, but instead they are speaking to the audience. Talk about soap opera acting, where the actors never seem to look at each other. It’s over dramatic, but they’ll get the idea. (Think of Joey on Friends and his smell the fart acting).
Teach your students the different areas of the stage: stage left, stage right, downstage, upstage and the apron or backstage. We just mimed the stage we were using as we didn’t have a formal stage. For a little while we marked these out with labels to practice until we got the hang of the terms.
Instead of starting with scripts right away, start with stories they know. We used fairy tales. They recreated these in a very small scale just to experiment. We gave students the story. They read it, prepared a version of their play, practiced and performed all within about an hour and a half. It was meant to be a quick activity. We didn’t start including props or costumes until much later. Simple retelling is a great way to start telling stories.
Another activity that doesn’t need costumes or props is drama circles. Students each have a card with a prompt to act out. Each card prompts another card until the whole circle has performed. We wrote a few of these to cover content in our social studies program, but the students were much more interested in acting things out instead of reading a textbook.
If you’re looking to try a few of our drama circles you can find them in our store.
They are also available in a bundle.
As the year progressed and we got deeper into our content, we added drama as a way for students to express their learning. Some students chose to make posters or slide shows, but more and more students chose to perform the information for us. We used it in almost every subject area. Students performed stories they’d read and written. They retold history. They acted out important events and even tried out dances from different cultural groups.
Break Up With a Book: This activity gets your whole class to read and perform a book in a morning. Take a novel that you want to read with your class. Evenly divide the number of chapters with the number of groups. Ideal groups have four to five students. Each group gets a chapter or two to read. They can share read, pair read or read it independently depending on the number of copies. Once it’s read, students create a dramatization for their chapters. Have the students perform the entire book from beginning to end.
To maximize this activity check in with groups while their creating their dramatizations to make sure the important content from the book is included.
Create and Opening and Closing Ritual: Create something with your class that always signals that the actors are ready to begin. We started our classes with a group handshake. Group members joined the circle crossing their arms in front of themselves and then joining hands with the people standing beside them. We lightly wiggled hands until everyone was in the circle and once everyone joins up we shake hands and shout, “Let’s play!”
Our closing ritual was a circle, but instead of shaking hands we patted each other on the back and shared a compliment with that person, then we switched directions and gave a compliment and a pat to the other person.
Of course we spoke to our students about respectful touching and the chance to opt out. Students who don’t want to touch just stand in the middle of the circle and say all the words or compliments with us.
Teaching Drama Changed Our Students.
Before, during and after each drama activity we gave students immediate feedback and encouraged experimentation. Our students surprised us. The typically quiet and shy students had a time to shine. The typical goof balls who always thrived on attention had a productive and positive way to get it out of their systems. The typically disinterested students found a new way to learn and the rule followers had to learn to think outside the box.
And while all the content and learning was great, there was something more important that happened in our classroom. It was very gradual, so we didn’t notice it right away, but people who only saw our students occasionally noticed all the growth our students were making.
Students became more fluent readers and because they were reading with intonation and expression, their comprehension improved too. Their writing improved as they got better at communicating. Scripts were being handed in weekly by students who barely wrote anything before. Students who were usually shy or afraid to take learning risks publicly started taking chances, speaking up more in group situations and becoming leaders in our classroom and school. The confidence level of all of our students rose significantly.
The kids were happy. Attendance rates improved and fewer kids were late to school because they knew we’d be starting with a quick drama activity most mornings. They wanted the “good parts” so they stayed on their best behavior so we could have more drama time.
These aren’t things measured in test results, but the overall ability of most of our students improved with the drama in the classroom. We had such an enjoyable year that we’ve made it our mission to talk to any teacher that will listen to include drama in their classrooms. We started a drama club in our school and had to start a second group because there were so many students who wanted to be involved.
Are you looking for even more ways to add drama. Check out another blog post called Ways to Teach Drama in Your Classroom.
What are your thoughts? Would you consider adding a little drama to your classroom? Join the fun! Leave us your thoughts or questions in the comments below.