I received the email below from someone who loves the website and I thought it would be a great starting point for my next blog post.
“I stumbled across your website www.drama-teaching.com, and I must say it's a gold mine! I am a veteran elementary school teacher in Georgia, and am now going to be teaching drama this upcoming fall. It has been a long time dream of mine to merge my first love (drama) with my second love (teaching), so this is an awesome opportunity. My only true fear is where to begin. There is no real curriculum for teaching drama, so I am confused as to where to begin and how to steer my instruction. There are no lesson plans, curriculum maps, or anything. I would really appreciate any guidance or help that you can offer.
Thank you so much for your time!”
My area of expertise in drama is really from Middle School up but I did teach elementary/primary level students for 3 years at Nanjing International School in China. I must say that I did so initially with a little trepidation, being without prior experience with this level, but what a joy it turned out to be to teach students from KG to Grade 5! (I also taught grade 6 to 10 there) I found myself drawing on my performance skills more than I ever had before. They just loved it and responded with great joy and laughter when I engaged them, in character, in a spontaneous role play or burst into a song or lead them in some creative movement or dance. There are also many challenges of course.
Here are what I believe to be the keys to successful drama teaching at elementary level.
1) Don’t be concerned about curriculum maps or complex lesson plans. Be responsible, be accountable, be dedicated and creative but don’t try to make drama at this level what it should never be. The focus must be experiential not developmental. Not that you have no expectation of students developing skills but that the most important thing is to immerse them in new and exciting experiences that trigger imagination and give place to creative role-play. Leave the development of skills to teachers at a higher level, when students, who have gone through the process of immersion in drama activities are ready for it.
2) You must tread carefully at the beginning with any age group because you have no idea what their prior experience is. In the West children most likely have already experienced play centred Kindergarten, or Pre-school activities that include some form of role-play; drama simply becomes and extension of it. Children from other cultures however may have little or no exposure to this. Begin your whole program and every class, always, with non-threatening activities ( a range of well chosen games or simple improvisation games such as “What’s my job?” or “What Instrument am I Playing?”)
3) Plan thoughtfully and carefully but be prepared to abandon the plan completely when ‘gut-level’ spontaneity gets hold of you. My most successful classes at every level have been those ‘magical’ times when something just happened and the students and I got caught up in the moment and let the spontaneous energy and creativity carry us along.
4) One of the most valuable things you can do is to connect the drama activities thematically and logically to whatever unit of work students are engaged in other class activities. In the PYP school that I taught in all class activities, in every subject area, for a specific period of time, are centred on a unit of inquiry which explores and answers some of the ‘big’ questions associated with that area of inquiry. Students need to discover at an early age the benefit of role-playing and creative problem solving in order to understand things in a different and unique way.
5) At elementary level avoid showing or telling students what to do. Ask lots of open ended questions. E.g. “How are we going to find our way out of this terrible place?”, “What do we need to do to solve the riddle above the doorway and open the door to the treasure that is inside?” “Who can show me how to operate this laser gun?”
6) At elementary level focus on ‘fun’ first and foremost; but in any situation hold these two contradictory thoughts in your mind and find the balance between the two:
1) Children are capable of achieving a much higher standard of performance than we think.
2) Don’t ‘inoculate’ students against drama by pushing them to leave their comfort zone too soon
N.B. Real ‘fun’ does not come from the absence of challenge and risk, it is often the outcome of overcoming personal resistance and exploring the unexplored and doing something new.
7) The most successful drama lesson at any level involves what I call ‘organised chaos’. This oxymoron describes that often ‘knife point’ balance is the most difficult thing to achieve. It is really scary at first but once confidence is gained a good drama teacher can skilfully take control and shape creative chaos into productive outcomes. The secret is knowing how much control to relinquish at any point in time and how to regain control when it is needed. For a more elaborate understanding of what I am talking about, download and read my e-book “Organised Chaos: A Very Practical Guide to Drama Teaching”.
Although the e-book is not specifically written for drama at the elementary level there are some excellent fundamentals to be gained from reading it. You could also read past blog posts and the web-pages on “Using Classroom Games to Achieve Your Aims” and “Improvisation the Foundation of Drama Work”
My last piece of advice is not to stress about it. You may imagine that to have a clear detailed program and sequential lesson plans, mapping things out for a whole semester or year, is the best thing to do; but don’t waste your time. Work ‘with’ the children, don’t try to make them conform to your plan. Start at the beginning with a few exciting and stimulating activities and plot a course as you go; learning from what you observe and what the students give you. Dorothy Heathcote was the outstanding example of this approach but you don’t have to be a Dorothy Heathcote to use her basic approach of letting the students direct the action with their ideas. Remember the old saying, “There is nothing to fear, except fear itself”! Trust in your own ability to use the students ideas to plot a course into the unknown! What an adventure!