The Best Drama Classes Run Themselves

I have come to the conclusion over many years of teaching that the best drama classes run themselves.

I had a magic moment in a drama class this morning where I stepped back and witnessed my senior class of 21 students in five groups happily undertaking an activity all by themselves. At first glance this doesn’t seem like anything special, but in a way it was.

I had a similar moment at the other end of the curriculum with a group of Year 7s last week. So this proves age and maturity has nothing to do with it. The senior drama class is full of 17-18 year olds, while the Year 7s are only 12 years old. They’ve only been in high school for a month now and with few exceptions, had never been in a drama class at primary school. Heck, they didn’t even know how to rehearse a play script two weeks ago, yet here they were running a class on their own like pros.

This situation merely confirms engagement is crucial in a drama class. Whatever the age or experience of your students, engaging them with an activity they can grab hold of is essential. It also confirms how vital it is for educators to observe our own practice and critically reflect on it if we can.

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When I become invisible in my own drama classes, I know something good is going on. It is at these moments that as drama teachers, we should literally take a few steps back in the classroom and really consume what is going on around us. Do your students seem happy? Are they animated and lively? Are they on track and focused with the work you set them? Do they seem engaged in the learning activity?

If not, then take stock and determine what isn’t working properly? On many occasions I have directly asked my own students what isn’t working in an activity that I clearly set them fifteen minutes earlier. If I can’t discover it for myself, how will I find out if I don’t ask the students, and if i don’t discover what is going wrong, then how will I improve the quality of my teaching in the future (or next time I run the same activity)?

We never stop learning in teaching and this is very true for drama. In a less traditional subject such as ours with less structure (boundaries, desks, text books etc) than some other subjects at school, we are sometimes at a higher risk of the teaching and learning being successful. But you don’t need to be a gambler to know that high risk often means a high return and when a drama class is running like clockwork, the rewards for the teacher (and our students, of course) can be great, indeed.

So next time you find yourself quietly standing in the corner of your own drama class, observe and enjoy the moment. Chances are, it is one of your best drama classes running all by itself, while you suddenly become invisible to your students around you who by now have quite happily forgotten you are even in the room.

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4 Responses

  1. Judith Herbig says:

    I so agree with you on this matter! I so often want to control and shape every little thing my Drama learners do but when I (often in exasperation!) “give up” – they surprise me working on their own and like you say if they are engaged with the work, they become quite innovative and creative. I suppose most Drama teachers are strong and dynamic, but we have to learn to trust that what we’ve taught our learners will eventually sink in and they will shine and show us that they can do wonderful work.

  2. AJ says:

    I agree entirely! Fortunately, the Drama curriculum can easily become flexible to students’ own interests and passions, and can be student-led. Many theorists are proposing that ‘all’ education should be student-driven, and that many current models of education are now outdated. Check out the wonderful work of Sugata Mitra, shared via TED Talks, including ‘Build a School in the Cloud’ – http://on.ted.come/dRVB – and ideas on student organised learning environments (SOLE), and flipped classrooms.

  3. D. Lee says:

    That is so scary, but would love if I saw it happen. I teach K-5 Drama and they talk, talk, talk, talk, talk and not on task. Any advice? I’m a first year teacher with my degree in Theatre, so I’m definitely dealing with on the job training and trying to add more rigor into the class. AS you said in another post, they already see my class as nothing more than recess- how do I reel them all in when they know my grade won’t make or break them?

    • Justin Cash says:

      With K–5, from the student’s perspective having fun is No.1 in a drama/theatre class. Your students need to genuinely enjoy the activities you undertake with them and I’m sure they already do. You may just need to tweak a few things to get what you are after. From the teacher’s perspective, having a tight structure is No.1 with this age group. As a general rule with drama teaching, the younger the students the greater the potential for chaos to occur in the classroom, unless your lessons are tightly structured.

      My advice would be to ensure you plan each lesson in advance and even have times allotted for the different activities in each session or class. Keep your age group’s short attention span at the forefront of all that you do in drama. They need to keep doing new tasks on a regular basis. I can let a Year 12 group work on their own on a drama task for 80 minutes, but with Year 3 students working independently for any length of time may be difficult, so you may find your lessons very teacher-oriented. Structure and fun in drama can happily work together.

      Also, don’t be too hard on yourself. As you said you are a first year teacher with a degree in theatre and at this stage in your career, teaching drama to any age group can be a challenge, much less students in K–5. Set clear rules with your students about talking and going off task when they are not meant to. When possible, stop talking as the teacher or stop a task from progressing when the students talk when you are etc. When they see the fun drama activity not going ahead because of their actions, hopefully they may also see there are consequences.

      In terms of content, don’t let them think of your class as nothing more than recess. Give them activities to do in drama that they can’t (and won’t) do anywhere else. Make drama unique for them so that like my Year 7s (the youngest group I teach atm) they love coming to drama mostly because what we do in drama is like nothing else they experience at school. Some of mine would even say drama is more fun than going to recess! There are days I can’t get rid of them to go out to lunch! You can do this, too.

      Rigour tip: avoid just playing drama games (or playing them too much), but play some games along with making up short dramas of their own, perhaps some script work, fun with costumes, sound effects, multimedia (today’s kids are wired up with technology skills at such a young age), even ask them what THEY would like to do in drama if you can. Harness their interests and even their talking ability (that is no doubt doing your head in) to your advantage in the classroom. Also, have an end result for some of their activities which gives them a goal to work towards, such as an end of term performance one evening before their parents of a drama play they prepared in class.

      Final tip: politely tell your students YOU are the boss and when things get tough in the classroom remind yourself you are in control, not them.

      Hope some of this helps. Good luck with it!

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