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A Golden Moment In Drama Teaching

Can you remember times in your teaching career that, no matter how seemingly insignificant they appeared at the time, were actually defining moments of your profession?

Recently, I was home for several weeks with a bad back complaint (don’t even ask me about the morphine I was prescribed!) and left with little option but to leave a Year 10 Drama class with theory for four lessons in a row. Granted, this was an advanced stream of students doing a Year 11 unit of study, but they were 15/16 year-old students, nevertheless.

You might say I left them in the deep end when you see what they were asked to do in my absence:

In groups of four, research different aspects of Expressionism:

  1. Expressionism as a movement in the visual arts (painting, films etc)
  2. Expressionism as a movement in the theatre
  3. Well-known plays and playwrights of the Expressionist movement
  4. Playwriting, acting and staging techniques common to Expressionist plays

Use a combination of Google, Yahoo Search and Bing, write up all information in your own words. Each group must then teach each of the other three groups their research area, also being taught three other areas from classmates. All information is then written on poster paper, placed on the classroom walls and copied down by everyone for an upcoming theory test.

Students then did the same with Theatre of the Absurd, with the four areas of research on this topic being:

  1. Theatre of the Absurd (theatre movement)
  2. Existentialism and its relationship with the Theatre of the Absurd
  3. Waiting for Godot (play)
  4. Playwriting, acting and staging techniques common to Theatre of the Absurd plays

This of course is utilising the jigsaw technique in learning where in theory (and hopefully in practice, too) students are empowered by teaching each other, along the lines of constructivism.

But wow! When I returned from sick leave thinking I should never have left a group of 16 year olds with such a difficult task as this, I was blown away. Poster after poster detailed in the students’ own words various aspects of two of the most difficult theatre movements to understand from 20th century theatre.

It all came about when I decided to teach part of my course the wrong way around! Frightened with the prospect of even an advanced group of students being put off with loads of theory in the first half of a semester course, I decided to jump into reading and workshopping plays and script excerpts belonging to Realism, Naturalism, Expressionism and Absurdism. So much so, I’m certain some of my students thought every movement in 20th century theatre was an “ism”! (most of them are, aren’t they?)

I trudged through some theory on the important differences between Realism and Naturalism and the origins of these movements in European theatre, all the while forgetting these girls were Year 10s and not a 2nd year university class. They weren’t exactly thrilled with hearing about the likes of Emile Zola and Henrik Ibsen, but carried on, anyway. So (while I was on sick leave) leaving them to learn their own theory on Expressionism and Absurdism in the theatre was in many ways preposterous.

The work this group of 15 girls did on these two movements was akin to or better than I would have expected from a Year 12 Drama class. I literally couldn’t believe my eyes.

From this experience I was pleasantly reminded reminded of the following in Drama/Theatre teaching:

  1. don’t kid yourself, you learn something new every day and you don’t know everything in your subject area
  2. never underestimate the power of a teenager who is engaged in their learning
  3. if you set up the right atmosphere/culture in advance, some of your students’ best work will occur when you’re not even in the classroom to be fully responsible for it
  4. you have to live with No.3, above, and move on…
  5. cherish these moments and don’t forget them, because they remind us of the power and beauty of our profession

For me, this experience was gold. There simply is no other word to describe it.

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6 Responses

  1. Justin Cash says:

    Whoa. Had my solos yesterday. Can’t believe it, my students were excited and smiling before they went into the exam room … along the lines of whatever their grade is, they’ve spent four months of their life putting this solo together and godammit they’re going to enjoy performing it to the examiners. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters, hey? To see our students perform something they are truly proud of creating, regardless of their grade. In regards to VCE Drama study review Michael, my hunch is we may not see any major changes given the circumstances, as you say.

  2. Michael says:

    Had our exam on Thursday of last week. Students seemed happy.
    Cashy…. any word out of the review of VCE drama. Will they bother making many major changes, keeping in mind that the National Curriculum is just around the corner.

  3. Justin Cash says:

    We’re doing our showcase this coming Monday 11th. Keeping it pretty low key this year. Solo exam on Thursday 14th for me.

  4. Borbs says:

    We’re late this year Cashy. 27th. We just had our second feedback session last night. We’re spending the next 2-3 weeks refining and drilling. I’m considering running a final showcase closer to the actual performance date to help them peak at the right time. Are you guys doing a showcase? Ah, we had one of your Year 11 girls coming to the feedback session last night to support her friend at HT, which was very very nice of her … I’m sorry I forgot her name. Lots of fine tuning to be done though … but I’m seeing the light at the end of the tunnel! All the best with the exam preparations!

  5. Justin Cash says:

    Thanks Borbs. Have you had your Yr 12 solo exams yet?

  6. Borbs says:

    Great post! Hope your back gets better though mate. Sounds nasty. All the best for the recovery!

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