Schoolzone: Using drama skills in the classroom

Using drama skills in the classroom

By James Hanley

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.

Role-playing
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.

Improvisation
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.


References

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.

 

 

 

 

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