Keeping Drama Popular

One of the greatest challenges for any high school Drama teacher is how to keep the subject popular. Often Drama is one of the most liked subjects in the junior school, but then gradually fades into a study that barely meets minimum class numbers in the senior school. The question is why?

Culture: Every teaching department at school has their own culture and Drama is no exception. To keep Drama healthy, a culture of respect and academic excellence is necessary. Drama must not be seen as a soft subject where easy grades are awarded and little or no work is perceived to be done. Similarly, we must avoid taking the fun out of Drama by going too far in the opposite direction. Balance is the key. A positive culture in Drama is also essential. Students will avoid studying Drama wherever possible if they do not respect the teachers, the subject or the learning program. We sometimes forget that smart students talk to other students who have previously studied our subject. They receive “reviews” about Drama in the corridor, on the train, and at lunch. If a Drama department does not have a culture that the student body approves of, then they will vote with their feet and few will undertake the study at the pointy end of high school.

Peer Pressure: While I may have been teaching in girls’ education for the past thirteen years, before this I have taught at coeducational and boys schools. Plus, I was a student at two Catholic boys schools, myself. Studying Drama can sometimes be a tough gig, particularly if you’re a boy. Unfortunately, peer pressure is still alive and well. Straight boys are often labelled gay by their peers if they study Drama. When Drama ceases to be compulsory (if it is) in the junior school, many boys think very carefully about the possible social consequences of choosing Drama in middle school and senior school. Consequently, this can be a reason why Drama numbers dwindle in the senior years. One of the best high school musical casting decisions I have done was placing the captain of the senior school football team in a show. I couldn’t believe my eyes when he appeared at an audition, all revved up with hidden talent. So I cast him as the Sergeant of Police in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. The entire football team bought front row tickets in the dress circle of our high school theatre. They then proceeded to hang their hand-painted banner over the edge so their friend could see it when singing. Stage lights and audience darkness meant he couldn’t see a thing, but this didn’t dampen their enthusiasm. They came to support their mate. Wow, did we break a few stereotypes that evening! I use this as my best example for boys who love Drama. Follow your passion and don’t give a damn about what others may think about your choices in education.

Traditional vs Non-traditional: I can’t stand it when people (often fellow teachers) refer to subjects like English and Mathematics as academic. All subjects are academic or they wouldn’t be on the school curriculum. Often these people do not mean to offend, but when saying this to me they are referring to Drama as being non-academic and making a difference between one subject and another. In a good teaching and learning program, Drama is just as rigorous and challenging as any other subject at school. Because it involves creativity and use of the imagination does not make it any less academic. The problem here lies with the fact that our school systems are not set up to measure creativity in a standardised testing manner, so somewhere along the line Drama loses credibility as a result. While Science and Mathematics have been around for centuries, newer subjects on the school curriculum sometimes have a tough ride. Here in Australia, Drama has been on the school curriculum for about 45 years, the first decade or so as part of the English program. Because Drama is not a more traditional subject such as Science, students often have a hard time convincing their parents of its worth when they wish to pursue it in the senior school. All of a sudden a subject like Drama is seen as less important to a student’s career path post-compulsory education than the so-called “bread and butter” subjects. “Education” is the keyword here. We need to educate parents more about the value and importance of Drama in high school. We need to clearly articulate the benefits of our discipline at school showcases, parent-teacher evenings etc. We need to actively promote drama education to our school community through newsletters and school websites. At the end of the day, we teach a subject that lends itself to promotion, and this is where we need to take the lead over our colleagues. But so many students have difficult discussions with their parents over wanting to take on Drama as a subject in the senior school. I believe the perception of Drama as a subject in high school is changing in a positive way, but being a newer, less-traditional subject in The Arts is just one of the reasons why keeping Drama popular in the senior school can be a genuine challenge.

Feel free to share your own experiences in the comments section, below.

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6 Responses

  1. Grace Berne says:

    Your story about the football captain really resonated with me as I recently had a very similar experience. I carefully cast a few of the bigger roles in the whole school production (P-12) to a few of the ‘cool cats’ after a lot of encouragement and the promise of being remembered for years to come. Talk about creating a buzz that filtered through the whole school. Needless to say and undoubtedly bias but, PRODUCTION OF THE YEAR. Fast forward to November with a whole school Christmas concert looming and the same students wanting no part in it, it’s like blood from a stone (sigh). If only they could remember the good times and bright lights of the 900 seat theatre rather then thinking about performing in the court yard on a possible sticking hot day in December.

    • Isn’t it interesting Grace how some students remember school productions for years to come, while others very quickly erase from their memory the joys of being in a school show. It is also true some students are happy to be in anything (no matter what you’re producing!), while others are quite choosy with what they are prepared to be involved in. Looks like peer pressure got to the ‘cool cats’ in your example.

  2. Susan Drozd says:

    This is a very valuable discussion. It is a fact that students will take my classes based upon whether it is “too hard or not.” To this, I say, do you want to learn or not. Most kids quickly discover what type of teacher I am once they finally sign up for the class – but word of mouth (just like for a show) can bring or take away an audience. I think the key is an open discussion – – the first day of EVERY new class – I talk to the students about why they took the class, why they may not have taken the class and what they had heard. I share truth and dispel rumors. Then I do the very same thing with the parents. When a parent comes to me and says, ” I don’t understand why my child has a B-…it’s just drama,” we have a long discussion about what “just drama” is. I share all of the things you all have been discussing. We have to keep talking about it – or, as you said, it becomes a soft subject and anything to do with theatre -when done well – is neither soft nor easy. It has taken a few years but now there is a culture at my school that has been created and that now has the students saying, “The classes are tough because she demands excellence (if you are willing to put in the work – you will be rewarded), you will learn a lot, you will have a fun time, and never forget the adventures that arose.”

    Thank you for this great post! I really appreciate the discussion.

  3. Tracey Rule- Grech says:

    Thanks so much for discussing this topic. I’m reminded how important it is to make connections with the skills learned in drama and how they are transferable to so many other vocations. The hard part is getting staff, parents and students to see it!!!

  4. David Ellis says:

    It is also about creating a culture not only in the Drama classroom, but throughout the school. I created a Drama club which has been enormously valuable in raising the profile of Drama. When it comes to VCE, it is also important to articulate to middle years students some of the advantages to doing Drama in VCE. Things like, Drama supports English in really helping students understand about the creation of characters and their use to develop tension within a text. Also, many schools study plays in English and Literature and therefore Drama students already have a distinct advantage. Another point, which I have found is attractive to students taking on Drama, is that it gets you to use different parts of your brain and potentially provides a break from endless streams of sit down, read a lot, and then write a lot. You think differently, you work differently and can be renewed when it comes to your other subjects. Most of all, teachers who are absolutely in love with Drama inspire students to be in love with Drama.

  5. Maree Milne says:

    Well said, and I completely agree. I was finding it tough for year 9 students to continue on into Year 10 and further. This year, I have tried to adapt a career focus for my units. For example; in Term One we do a character and voice unit, and a Speech Pathologist comes in. Term Two we direct a Children’s Theatre play so a teacher speaks to them about using drama in a classroom. Term Three is documentary theatre and we speak to journalists, while term four they plan their own show (this year it is a murder mystery night) and we have visits from Event Planners. Hopefully I could see an impact in my class numbers.

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