Friday, 29 November 2013

All the World's A Stage - Anna Wilson

I have been thinking a lot recently about the importance of drama in English teaching. It was reading Polly Toynbee in the Guardian a few weeks back which sparked off this particular train of thought. The thrust of her article was about what the delightful Mr Gove plans for the future of our children's education, but about halfway in she makes specific points about the value of drama in schools.

'Gove pretends it's for schools to choose – but drama, dance, art and now literature will slip away. Confident top schools may keep these subjects, but average schools, under intense pressure to perform in core EBacc exams, will let the rest slide.'

It is easy to see how, facing such pressures, schools may be forced to relegate drama to 'club' status rather than keeping it in with the main-stream timetable. But what a shortsighted view. Drama is invaluable to a child's development - indeed, I would go so far as to say it is a natural part of a child's development and surely a step on the way to producing a confident reader.

Sit and watch a young child at play, and what is he or she doing if not acting out stories? Play is drama for the young child. It is how he or she explores the world around, tries out different scenarios, puts him or herself in another's shoes. And it is intrinsically bound up with storytelling.

When I go into schools to talk about writing, I do a lot of 'acting out' of the various scenes in my life which have wound their way into stories. I could simply stand in front of a school assembly and tell them 'this happened, and then this and then this', but in acting out how my tortoise must have felt when my dad glued a length of fishing line to its shell to 'stop it escaping', I think the story has more impact than my simply telling it. It allows the audience to put themselves in the place of the poor tortoise who had no say in my dad's crazy plan. And it makes the kids laugh. And remember my talk. One teacher emailed me after an event to tell me that the children were acting out my stories in the playground later that day.

Toynbee again:

'What is "low value" about drama? […] Ability to speak out, perform and pretend is essential for most jobs, from estate agent upwards. Employers complain that young people mumble, slouch and don't look them in the eye, prizing the "soft skills" that elite schools teach through drama and debating. Emotionally, drama teaches children lacking in empathy to put themselves into others' shoes, to express fears. But ever fewer schools employ specialist drama teachers: English teachers may or may not have an aptitude. Shakespeare is on the curriculum, no longer to be examined, but dead on the page without performance to breathe life and sense into it.'

'Dead on the page'. Is this how we want future generations to think of writing? Boring, dull, immovable, immutable shapes on the page? That was my own experience as a pupil in an old-fashioned grammar school, whose teaching methods had not changed since the 1950s; a decade Gove so keenly looks back to as a model for future generations' education.

We studied Macbeth for two years in the run-up to O-level English and he and the rest of the cast remained mummified on the page for me to the point where I gave up reading and dropped English like a hot potato as soon as I could. How differently I would have felt had I had the teacher my son had four years ago - a woman who is as passionate about drama as she is about reading and writing, and who had my son dress up as one of the witches and learn the cauldron scene in Act 4, scene 1 with his friends. He was only eight years old at the time, but he understood Macbeth's motivations and emotions so much better than I did at twice his age.

So drama is a 'soft skill' is it? I would argue that Gove might do a lot better in his own line of work if he went along to a couple of plays or even took part in one. He might at least learn a bit of empathy, if nothing else. Or is that wishful thinking?

Anna Wilson


Sue Bursztynski said...

We performed Shakespeare as part of the university English course I did - if you took part, you were spared the writing of one essay. I, of course, was Third Citizen(Coriolanus) and Mopsa the shepherdess in The Winter's Tale - a LOT more fun than writing an essay. :) My school is a disadvantaged school and some years ago a lady from the Bell Shakespware Company watched a program called Shakespeare On The Estates and set up a similar program for students like ours. Over two years, our students rehearsed scenes from Macbeth and Hamlet, did workshops in movement, fighting and such, then borrowed costumes from the company and filmed them. It was brilliant and she even discovered a gifted actor - some of the teachers raised the money to send him to a holiday workshop. I bet those kids never again thought Shakespeare was dull!

The poor man would have been horrified to think people were pulling his plays apart - they were an afternoon's entertainment for the crowds, never meant to be studied as they are.

Penny Dolan said...

Well said, Anna!