Studying Drama Changes Lives

My entry on the Edutopia website discussion group on drama in education.

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 children learn the tools and techniques of the art as well as the traditional curriculum through  drama.

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. Students appreciated 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 some 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 to 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 are extraordinary: joy in learning outside one’s comfort zone, exhilaration at 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 is a revolutionary and magnificent tool in the classroom— and anyone who has experienced it as teacher or student understands that on a visceral level.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s