In these days of final year examinations and national testing, it is very easy to be over-concerned with what happens at the pointy end of our students’ education. Right or wrong, we create course content and present teaching and learning programs aimed at allowing final year students to successfully pass state or national examinations in our subject disciplines.
What concerns me with studies in drama and theatre, is that like learning a musical instrument, studying the craft of acting can take years of tuition learning the necessary skills. In senior drama classes it is often the subtleties and nuances of a student actor that make the difference between an average performer and a stunning one. These advanced skills, along with more basic performance skills, aren’t learned in the final year of high school … they are taught and carefully nurtured in junior drama classes years before.
Using a high school drama or theatre program as an example, one can create several years of curriculum from the ground up. Here in Melbourne, Australia, I start with a foundation Year 7 Drama course, keeping in mind the wide range of skills in this discipline students possess from various primary feeder schools. The Year 8 Drama curriculum builds on the skills learned in Year 7, with a few more challenges, but nothing extraordinarily difficult or threatening. These two year levels are broad teaching and learning programs, skimming the surface of many topics areas, most covered fairly briefly. Year 9 Drama starts to specialise, because in my school, this is where Drama becomes a non-compulsory elective subject for the first time. Once Year 10 Drama rolls in, as the teacher I am acutely aware of preparing many of my students for senior Drama courses, so the activities and skill sets of my Year 10 pupils must reflect this.
But you can also build six years of Drama curriculum from the top down. Starting with the end results needed in final-year internal and external assessment in Drama, each year below Year 12 can have activities in the program that prepare students for the work in their final year. If a student must perform a monologue for examination assessment in Year 12, then a monologue in a Year 11 course the year before is a “must” and probably in Year 10 as well if you can squeeze it in.
Bu the skills for any form of final year performance assessment in a drama or theatre program at high school should stem from activities in junior drama classes. No student arrives at Year 12 with amazing skills out of nowhere. Every one of my Year 12 Drama students each year have gained their skills many years before, enjoying the fun of junior drama classes, participating in more challenging and specific activities and performances in middle school drama programs in the intermediate years, then striving for success and the refinement of their skills in senior high school drama classes.
Finally, continuity is paramount. Ask any teacher who has a haphazard teaching program in drama, sometimes through no fault of their own, and you’ll hear all about frustration. Wherever possible, schools need to have the availability of some form of drama or theatre program at all levels. Students who study drama at Years 7 and 8, but have no choice to undertake it at Years 9 or 10, but then find it available to them again in Years 11 or 12, suffer from an inconsistency in skills because they have to pick up from one or two years prior with their studies in this discipline.
Whatever the teaching program, over the years I have been left with no doubt about the importance of junior drama in a high school curriculum. My experience has told me a strong junior drama program is essential for success at the senior end of high school and that a good junior drama teacher is gold!