Using Drama in the Classroom

Newcastle University

Image by blenky64 via Flickr

Voula Foscolo-Avis is one of those precious rarities that is the experienced, passionate (and I don’t think she’ll mind me saying this) eccentric Drama teacher. She currently teaches the use of Drama in English to Newcastle University’s Secondary English PGCE students as well as lecturing on voice and presentation skills to trainee teachers from all disciplines. She offers workshops on using drama in the teaching of all subjects to staff in schools and universities across the North East. She kindly agreed to chat to me about some of her views and experience in using drama in the classroom for this post.

Throughout our conversation, Voula expressed a fear that the eccentric, “rogue” teachers are becoming a dying breed in an age where education is becoming more and more focused on ‘box-ticking’ and assessment. However, Voula didn’t originally want to be a teacher. She admitted, “I really wanted to be an actress, and at drama school they told me I wasn’t the right type – not tall enough, not pretty enough, so I decided to become a Teacher of Drama because that was what I loved.”

After getting involved in youth theatre work she went on to teach in secondary schools and over the years was appointed head of two drama departments in comprehensive schools. Drama school taught her not to teach, but to perform and so she developed her own teaching style and techniques and describes herself as a “self-taught” teacher. “One of the best compliments I ever got was from two University Lecturers – great practitioners – from a Diploma course at Durham and a Masters at Newcastle University. They said that they saw me as an intuitive teacher: that I’d learned to listen, to look, to identify non-verbal signals from my pupils and to adapt what I was doing in the moment so that my teaching became more useful to my pupils and more successful.”

A champion of taking risks with the goal of finding what works for students, Voula described the key qualities of exceptional teachers to be “rather rough qualities of doing things your way, going for it and being able to justify your methodology to those who want to observe you with a ‘ticky-box’.” She went on to say, “I think that that kind of rough quality is tremendous. Good teachers have courage: they are able to experiment with activities and then stop and ask pupils to tell me them if it’s working and if not, why not?”

Voula illustrated this with an example of an exercise she has enjoyed trying out with pupils that quite frankly, would strike fear into the hearts of many secondary school teachers. “I’ve done experiments where pupils have woken up from a deep sleep to find that they are in a world with no adults. In that situation, a lot of lads become rouges and renegades, and the girls and some of the boys sit down and discuss laws and behavioural systems and the whole tussle that they come up with is what it is to be human.”

“It’s just an experiment. All I’ve demanded is that the work has quality and depth of thought, and that the pupils can justify what they’re saying, why they’re saying it, and if and how they’re dealing with the outcome. All teachers need to have moments or days or lessons where they go with the flow, have moments of joy, and a time when they can experiment. Only when you break the mould do you realise that strength of understanding.”

While many educators may agree with this in theory, there is an undeniable reluctance among staff to include drama in their lessons. I asked Voula why she thinks this could be, and what she would say to encourage those who are reluctant.

“I think the reluctance comes from the idea that children are going to be free to move around and to make noise and they worry about control. And actually, drama lessons, if they are well-constructed, are the most controlled of all lessons. Give very strict time goals and strict ideas about what the questions are that the students should be asking. There is no reason to worry. Teachers need to try and learn and be aware that there is a certain kind of noise that is chaotic, and another kind of noise that is constructive, and to know the difference is the mark of a very good teacher.”

“So my advice to teachers who fear drama is to set up only five minutes or ten minutes of a lesson, where for example, a character who has great power can enter into a classroom, can look around very deliberately, can pick up a crown and put that on their head very deliberately, and have the rest of the pupils respond and analyse the effect of power, considering the statement: ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. If you’re studying Macbeth, that is the absolute question the students should be exploring. If you’re focused, that will last longer than your notes to them about Macbeth. Such a short piece of work is not dangerous, you don’t lose control, and as confidence grows you can do more active work. To tell a class what you understand or for them to see it on a video does not do the job because the pupils are not involved actively, spiritually and mentally. Through drama, they are practical participants.”

Another valuable ‘top tip for using drama in the classroom’ consists of forgetting the word ‘drama’. “For many children and for a lot of teachers the word ‘drama’ means ‘acting’, which means performing to amuse and titillate an audience. Drama in education is practise for life. I owe that phrase to Gavin Volton who taught for many years at Durham University. It gives children an opportunity to involve themselves safely and at a slight distance with issues that are important. They can step in and out and experience a kind of life, explore moral and practical issues, and test out their theories and ideas, and I often find that testing these ideas leads pupils to question an assumption. Dorothy Hethgate from Newcastle University said, “The question for drama is: how should man live?” All of drama is answering this question, tousling with this question.”

As mentioned at the beginning of this post, Voula teaches the use of drama in all curriculum areas from Science, to History, to Foreign Languages to enhance learning. “It’s the old adage of what you hear you forget, what you see you remember, what you do, you understand. And if at all levels from primary upward, the most important thing is that pupils understand, there is no way of getting to that level other than doing participative work. The memory from the muscle and the brain is deeper when you are actively learning.”

It is the aim of this blog to document my professional research into different areas of teaching, learning from the experts in the hope that my readers will come along on this learning journey with me. At the end of our discussion, I gave Voula the opportunity to add any thoughts. It had been a pleasure to talk to such an inspirational, opinionated educator.

“My one concern is that people like me are fast retiring or losing influence and that people who are coming into this profession are overly concerned with passing exams and being seen to tick boxes rather than with understanding this wonderful of all art forms. It is ancient, it is wonderful. The Greeks saw it as a tremendous experience: they paid for their slaves to go to the theatre and to see the most wonderful plays, to see that drama can be a cathartic experience. It’s so important to our humanity and yet, now in education we’ve lowered it to the expectations of, ‘Can you sing in time and dance in time?’ I’m sorry, but drama is much more than that.”