Culture in the Classroom

I was recently asked at a Drama professional learning seminar with fellow teachers, if I had any tricks up my sleeve, or tips for success?

My response: create the appropriate culture in the Drama classroom. I firmly believe if, as teacher, you can create the right culture in your teaching and learning environment, then the sky’s the limit in terms of what your students can achieve.

I was reminded by it yesterday in a Year 9 Drama class (14 year-old girls), when in a unit on comedy, the students performed a simple satirical sketch of various workplaces or environments (McDonalds restaurant, a family reunion, a train station, the beach etc) focusing on demonstrating one-dimensional stereotypical characters via the four expressive skills of voice, movement, facial expressions and gesture. It was, in reality, fairly simple stuff. I even told the class in advance that I was super-busy and wasn’t quite ready to move on to the next topic (slapstick and farce) until next week, so there was a big neon sign saying ‘filler material’ hanging from the ceiling of the classroom! I also made it clear we were not assessing these improvised skits and that they were simply extended exercises.

Such is my students’ love for Drama, they arrived to this class yesterday with about half a dozen individuals nervously unsure as to whether the skit was assessable or not (they’d forgotten), not because they weren’t prepared, but rather because they wanted to do well if I were grading the piece.

Then between each group’s performance, we analyzed verbally and critically evaluated the pieces. They were performances way beyond my expectations in terms of quality of thought, structure and acting skills. Definitely not indicative of the 45 minutes over a couple of lessons they’d had to prepare them.

A visiting student teacher in her 2nd year of university studying education and performing arts, asked me afterwards ‘how do you get this sort of standard from a Year 9 class?’. ‘Culture’ was my answer. All you have to do is create the right culture and the students will hit it right back at you with material beyond their ‘perceived ability’.

I always create a positive culture, as we all know negativity should have no place in a Drama classroom. I am inspired by a fellow colleague who is a university lecturer in Drama. I have been a student myself in one of her classes over the years, and even when an essay is weeks overdue or a piece of work I have submitted has completely missed the mark, her positive comments as feedback make me feel worthwhile. She has this knack of creating such a vibe of positivity, no matter what the situation. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a skill.

So, I always try to turn everything into a positive. Recently a few of my Year 11 students got a ‘D’ on their first written assessment. But even a ‘D’ can be turned into a positive at parent teacher night. And so it must be for all those students who fall in the middle range with ‘C”s and ‘C+’s’ in practical work in Drama classes. There has to be a real and achievable goal for them to strive for next time, otherwise why would they ever continue with your subject?

Of course, if you’re a regular reader of The Drama Teacher, you’ll know I’ve blogged before about passion. Our passion as drama educators must be evident and genuine in order for our students to succeed in a positive atmosphere.

It may sound arrogant or egotistical, but where I teach, Drama is no ‘bludge subject’. That’ not a fluke, by the way. That’s a culture that took time to create and nurture. There is no doubt teacher knowledge (and skill) is important in any discipline, but if the culture is right, students are not only inspired by their Drama teacher, but by fellow students as well.

I know there’s thousands of Drama teachers out there who consider some of their groups of students as ‘extended families’ from time to time. Why? Because they have created a culture of caring in their classroom. A culture of respect. A culture of artistic discipline and individual responsibility. A culture that breeds positive energy. And all this adds up to a culture that produces excellence … and accepts nothing less.

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