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Creative Dramatics in the Classroom

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For many years Creative Dramatics was a requirement for teacher certification at the University of Washington and in many other universities throughout the country. Budget cuts resulted in the demise of this program (along with many of the other arts); however, its value is still apparent. It is well recognized that this technique is a valuable way to bring almost any subject to life, facilitate learning, and create the conditions for memorable learning experiences. In addition, it offers rich opportunities for self-expression and the development of creative thinking.

In order to prepare students for engaging in this process, it is useful to have them gain confidence by becoming various characters as a group, or participating in group pantomimes, such as different kinds of trees moving in the wind. A useful warm-up might be the creation of a living machine, as Viola Spolin describes in her book Theatre Games. Half the class could take the roles of observers. The teacher might become a piston moving up and down and encouraging the participating students, one at a time, to add on to the machine by becoming another moving part, each attaching to another through arms or legs making different kinds of motions, and even making appropriate noises. The piston might speed up the machine, going faster and faster, then gradually slow it down until it stops, freezing in place at the end. The teacher might then ask the observers what this machine might be making or suggest names for the machine. Clearly there are no right or wrong answers and much opportunity for imaginative thinking. Then the other half of the class becomes the machine, this time with one of the students as the central piston, and those in the first group become the observers. This kind of activity helps the students learn to work collaboratively and builds their confidence in creative play.

Another preliminary activity for early elementary children might be the following: The teacher reads mysteriously Walter de la Mare's poem, Someone.

Someone came knocking
At my wee, small door;
Someone came knocking,
I'm sure, sure, sure.
I listened, I opened,
I looked to left and right,
But naught there was a-stirring
In the still, dark night.
Only the busy beetle
Tap-tapping in the wall,
Only from the forest
The screech-owl's call,
Only the cricket whistling
While the dewdrops fall,
So I know not who came knocking,
At all, at all, at all.

The teacher might ask for volunteers to make the sounds of the busy beetle, others the screech-owl, and others dewdrops, while she/he reads the poem again. "Who do you suppose lives in that wee, small house? Who might come knocking so late at night?" In answer to the teacher's questions, the children may suggest people, animals, things like wind. The teacher together with the children might pantomime each of these characters as a group activity. Then, as confidence builds, a story might develop with a single volunteer in the house answering the door to another child's knocking as one of the suggested characters. Depending on the age of the children, there is a further possibility of inventing an interesting story from the poem, planning and playing it out, following with an evaluation by the audience of students, then a replaying.

After confidence builds in the group, there are some useful ways to assure the success of such creative play. Begin with a strong motivation, then a lively and active presentation of the story or other material to be enacted. Review the content involving the students in retelling it, then guide a planning process including assignment or volunteering of roles. Then may come the enacting or playing of the story, evaluating the performance, and playing it again incorporating the suggestions for improvement.

There are endless opportunities for bringing any subject to life through drama. Historical scenes may be enacted; scientific or mathematical processes, including story problems, may be demonstrated; stories or poems may be dramatized, all making learning real and memorable. In a language arts class, for example, the students might be studying the prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. They might each choose a character by drawing slips of paper from a medieval hat. Joining with several others, each group might then plan a scene that would make use of the information about each of the characters. Or let us say the class is studying poetry. In pairs, one student might be a news reporter and the other a poet. The reporter might be interviewing Maya Angelou, or Carl Sandburg, or Emily Dickinson. Both students would need to know about the period and place in which the poets lived, both would need to know about the poet's life, and both would need to be familiar with a number of poems. The benefit of such study is that it requires much deeper reading and understanding than from just writing a report or answering questions on a test. Even more important, when a student has actually "been" a poet or a character from Chaucer, there is greater interest, motivation, and understanding involved.

It is also possible for creative dramatics to be an important element in other kinds of active learning. Let us say that the topic is a historical event, such as the American Civil War. What motivation might we use to interest students in this topic? Perhaps a discussion of a current war within factions of a country such as Afghanistan? A snippet of a movie about the Civil War? A song? A poem? The lesson itself might be a presentation using slides or Power Point, along with assigned reading with questions to guide the reading. The review might be in the form of an enactment of some event, or students discussing key issues in pairs or groups of people who might have lived at that time and are discussing the war in someone's home. Or it might be in the form of a group creating concept maps or flow charts showing connections between events, or letters written home by an imagined soldier or officer. Notice that active review not only consolidates the learning, but also is a way of evaluating if students have really understood. Following the review, students might then have an opportunity to apply the learning by teaching it to someone else or another class, by writing a story or report, or by writing and performing a play or song.

Does it take more time to teach in this way? Yes, but the learning stays learned! Exploring topics to be learned in depth pays great dividends in terms of developing interest and motivation, as well as giving students opportunities to learn in ways that accommodate individual strengths and abilities. These outcomes or too often sacrificed in the process of covering increasing amounts of material. Even occasional use of these strategies will be of great value. You will find more detailed explanations of the processes mentioned above in the Building's Tool Room, as well as in many other areas of The Building.

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Dee Dickinson

Dee Dickinson is CEO/Founder of New Horizons for Learning . She has taught on all levels, formerly directed a creative arts school for children, and produced several series on educational television as well as nine international conferences on education. Email: building@newhorizons.org.
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