The use of Drama within a variety of subjects
to deepen the learning experience
Focus: School Years
Topic: Professional Collaboration
Royal Blind School
0131 667 1100
The Royal Blind School, Edinburgh makes provision for primary and secondary stage pupils who are blind or have a severe visual impairment. Many also have substantial learning difficulties. Every pupil at every stage in the school has drama class at least once a week making it a vital part of the curriculum. Drama provides the creative forum in which pupils are able to build their confidence, find avenues of self-expression and boost self-esteem. For blind and visually impaired children it develops their emotional intelligence and helps them to understand the physical expression, which we take for granted in a sighted world. When I began teaching in the RBS I was the first drama teacher to have been appointed there; I was full of good intentions and preconceived ideas, which I quickly had to modify. It soon became evident to me that Drama is much more than a subject on the curriculum, it is a method...a KEY learning tool to be used across the curriculum to help pupils make sense of their lives and gain an understanding of themselves and others.
Blind and visually impaired children acquire skills later than sighted children. This "developmental lag" means that they walk later, they talk later, they respond more slowly to the world around them and their points of reference are different. It has been suggested that blind children exhibit little creativity and imagination and that when they play they engage themselves in repetitive rather than innovative play. They will practice well-learned activities like opening and closing doors and relive certain experiences over and over again through play. It is true that when blind children first come to school their ability to pretend and imagine, tell stories and take part in role-play has not been developed to the extent of sighted children. This does not mean that they are not creative. Children who are still trying to make sense of their own world have difficulty imagining themselves in another role and in a different context. My problem was - how to use Drama and the natural creativity of children to bridge the gap created by the developmental lag.
There are tried and tested strategies in Drama teaching but it must be said that Drama is essentially a visual art form. Movement, mime and non-verbal communication are central to that form. The challenge for me was how to adapt these strategies and make them accessible for blind pupils. One of the most basic drama conventions is "Teacher-in Role". Quite simply the teacher enters into a role to encourage the appropriate dramatic response from the pupils. At a basic level the children are encouraged to pretend, but within the clear structures of the dramatic content. Many of the younger children need to experiment with "pretend" and initially have difficulty in accepting an adult going into role. For blind children this going into "role" has to be further enriched by finding ways of making the experience multi-sensory. For example, a story might involve a character called Mary - I would get the children to examine the contents of "Mary's" handbag. They would help to dress "Mary" in a shawl and a hat - material objects. And more importantly, Mary would move to the area of the room where the "hot seat" is located. Once in the “hot seat” you become the character. Only when each child is aware of what Mary is wearing, what she has in her bag etc can the exercise continue. It may take weeks, months and as I experienced in one case, just over a year for some of the children to accept this convention.
Now, I can come out of role and the children will retell what has happened with the character as if I had not been in the room. Gradually, the characters can become more extreme and varied. Once the children are secure in the structure, they really enjoy having an encounter with a wicked landlord who has a big stick and a foul temper. In the early days, this would have induced tears! Or the character may need help, putting the pupils in a higher-status position. They must use their knowledge and experience to solve a problem and help the character that may be worse off than themselves. The pupils can explore a range of issues or historical themes this way. Through characterisation they learn to empathise with others, a key element of drama.
The process of learning through being involved is further enhanced by the teacher entering into the improvisation and interacting with the young people involved. The teacher can stir up and disturb expectations or stale views and pinpoint aspects of the situation, which the pupils may not have considered. The teacher can often introduce an element of conflict that the pupils need to sort out.
The “hot seat” area in the classroom is the place where you become a character and remain in that character until moving out of the area. This device is used with all age groups and can be adapted to any situation. For blind children it is important to remember that there is no eye contact, no body language, no gestures which children can recognise as a readiness or acceptance of role-play. It has to be a physical change. The important thing is the actual movement from one area to another, in effect, stepping physically into role and touching the material objects that are related to that role. For example, "The Selfish Giant” might sit up a ladder in the hot seat area to give the impression of height - the voice from above! A chair might be covered in fur for the king’s throne, or an old, tattered, smelly coat spread on the floor might represent the "space" of a homeless person.
If pupils can learn these skills at age 4 or 5, then as they go through primary and into secondary, their imaginative and communicative skills will become more sophisticated. By accepting the hot seat convention, the pupils can take control of the drama. They can organise the questions themselves and produce some very powerful work. One of the most emotionally charged classes I have witnessed involved an imaginary character called "Tracy" who was having all sorts of problems at home and school. She had an inability to communicate, didn’t have many friends and didn’t trust adults. We had been involved in an exploration of this character’s life for some weeks. The girl who took the role of “Tracy” was herself having problems and wasn’t coming to school much; however, she insisted that she be Tracy. Quite naturally the pupils questioning Tracy took on the role of authority figures trying to help. Sympathetic questions began, “I know you find this difficult Tracy but can you tell us...?", or "Take your time to answer this...?", or "We can only help if you tell us...?". The character of Tracy was monosyllabic and tearful. Once out of the hot seat, however, the girl was immediately chatty, cheerful and wanted to discuss what it was like being Tracy.
The "hot seat” furnishes the pupils with a safe context in which to explore a variety of issues and emotions. It provides distance. It enables them to empathise with the feeling without necessarily engaging in the emotion. Trying these things out in a symbolic way and practising in a safe situation equips pupils to integrate socially and develop a better understanding of the world.
When I first began teaching blind children I believed that movement would be more restricted than in a drama class in a mainstream school. I soon realised that my pupils were capable and willing to participate and experiment in all elements of movement as a form of communication. Movement activities can be introduced through character; considering what gestures and physical expressions they may have, how they move and why. So much of our facial expression and body language is learned through sight that this is an ongoing process where precise descriptions of positions and gestures and the reasons for them are vital. Pupils can feel one another's faces and discuss what looks good to the audience and what feels good to the actor. They can discuss hunched shoulders and a bent back and discuss what this says about the man. They become aware of the importance of levels, body language, expression, symbol and awareness of audience. This understandably takes a longer time than with a sighted group but when each pupil knows what they are doing at each moment and they are equipped with this "vocabulary of movement", this is hugely beneficial to blind and visually impaired pupils in the classroom and beyond.
Once pupils are secure in their own dramatic movement they must engage imaginatively with their surroundings. Any way of making this multi-sensory will sharpen the drama and the learning.
For example, if a scene takes place in a WW2 air raid shelter, we may construct some sort of shelter in the classroom. It may not be authentic but it gives the pupils the experience of restricted movement and being unable to have the freedom to walk anywhere! Then they can begin to imagine the reality of history.
Another way of restricting movement is by using light. When working on the idea of being imprisoned and solitude, a group first performed scenes fenced in by chairs to signify the prison cell. We discovered quite by accident that the use of one single spotlight provided the same effect. Pupils could feel the heat from this light and that pool of light became the cell. They could not move outside it. Dramatic for the audience to watch and exciting for the pupils involved.
Another class were working on the idea of a shipwreck. Through improvisation their characters had established close personal relationships, which were intertwined through various stories. These people were to be torn apart as some escaped on a small lifeboat and some were left to drown on the larger vessel. There is a metal safety railing along the edge of the stage at the RBS, which is there for safety reasons during rehearsals but comes down during performances. It served well as the railing of the doomed boat. It meant that some of the pupils sitting on the stage could have their faces pressed up against the railings with arms stretched through desperately trying to reach those on the floor - in a life raft! We were trying to create a very real sense of being constrained by barriers. Physical distance is important, these different levels added to the dramatic experience of being just out of reach and unable to help. At the end of this movement sequence, I "thought-tapped" the characters. This is a convention where by simply touching the characters shoulder, you can hear their thought at that very moment.
Listen to some of the results - audiotape
These characters had established histories, relationships, ambitions and dreams and in this key moment, we hear their final thoughts and regrets.
I use this thought tapping convention a lot especially in movement work. Whether on a farm, part of a fishing community or indeed guests at Macbeth's banquet, it gives the pupils a connection with one another. They cannot use the usual cues but allowing them to express their thoughts and feelings in this way encourages a sense of security and maintains the unity of the drama.
Another useful strategy is the "stairway of thought". This can be employed if the character has a major decision to make. It can involve 4 pupils or 24 pupils. I have used this device in the context of a well-known legend about a mermaid. It tells the story of a mermaid who was lured by a young fisherman from her natural environment to the human world. She bore him three children and they appeared to live happily together until she was able to break the spell. She now had a choice: return to her faery kin abandoning her husband and children, or stay with her earthy family and forget where she came from. This is a difficult choice for the children to make, as there is no clear answer. I ask the pupils to stand on each step of a stairway. As the mermaid goes upstairs to bed that night, she is confused and can't make up her mind. Each pupil speaks the thought of the mermaid as she passes him or her on the step. "Stay on the land because your family need you!". "Go back to the sea because your mother cries for you every night!". At the top of the stairs, the mermaid must make her choice. Pupils with very limited communication skills get completely involved in this scene as they can empathise with the mermaid and, interestingly, I have never had a class who all made the same choice. The response is always mixed.
I am always impressed by the pupil’s commitment and enthusiasm for drama - an enthusiasm that sometimes carries me to unexpected places. Often we use audiotape as a "sound photograph" to recreate and record pupil's experiences. When we look at a holiday photograph, we appreciate the aesthetics of the picture but more importantly, the image stimulates the memory of being in that warm, exotic location. Taped material can provide similar reminders of physical experiences reinforcing the dramatic memory of the pupils. Film is the natural progression from these foundations. One particular class developed an entire terms work on film studies, writing, performing in and directing original screenplays.
A group of senior pupils worked on Bram Stokers "Dracula". We used drama and music to explore techniques and develop conventions. Both were key to setting the scene and building atmosphere and tension within the drama. In the absence of eye contact, sound is an effective cue for the pupils with a number of codes and cues hidden in it.
The scene, which seemed to grab the pupils attention surprisingly contained very little dialogue and hinged on the timing of the movement. It was Jonathan Harker's first night at Castle Dracula. He was alone in his room, shaving in front of a small mirror. To ominous music, Dracula appears and slowly approaches. As the music reaches a crescendo, he lays a hand on Jonathan’s shoulder. Shocked, Jonathan cuts himself and Dracula moves towards the blood until he spots the cross around Jonathan’s neck. Only then does he speak.
This is a very visual scene and the pupils first improvise it on stage using music as a spatial cue with Dracula trailing the curtain from one side to the other. It worked well but we needed something more.
We decided to perform the scene "on location" and film the results. The school attic is everything you might imagine an old Victorian attic to be! Holes in the floor, peeling walls, plaster missing from the ceiling, creaky floorboards, dusty, dank smell and very atmospheric. The pupils explored these new surroundings and then we began to film. A visual piece of drama, recorded on a visual medium was a total success, reinforcing for the pupils the dramatic memory of the experience.
I have only touched on how drama and learning through imagined experiences can equip pupils with a whole range of skills. Drama develops the imagination’s ability to construct unfamiliar situations and contexts. It demands a response to these "make believe" situations as if they were actually happening. The participants are challenged to extend their abilities to provide creative solutions to problems, to imagine different alternatives, to see a world beyond their own limitations. The drama process enables young people to develop an emotional intelligence. This is vital for many of our pupils who have learning difficulties, which make it difficult for them to understand or express their emotions. Through drama they can experience the feeling without necessarily engaging with the emotion. This encourages them to explore, understand and express their feelings and their developing view of human experience, and, very importantly, enables them to empathise with others.
I have made my own discoveries through teaching drama at the RBS. The big one is that, having a disability does not limit creativity. On the contrary, it pushes forward the creative boundaries. It has forced me to adapt and find new forms of expression; it has challenged me to move beyond my ideas of boundaries. To enable each pupil to use their abilities imaginatively, creatively and with enjoyment to their full potential is my goal.
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