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An Open Letter to Your Inner-Dramatist: Let Them Get out of Their Seats (Just Once)

March, 2008
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Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I will remember. Involve me and I will understand. – Confuciushundley 2

As Manager of the Performing Arts Center and a Stagecraft teacher, my day has the potential to take me into a variety of fields outside the  realm of education: public relations, accountancy, interior design, carpentry and depending on the severity of the injury, even medicine. I relish it; the day is never boring and always challenging.

  But one role I served in this week that I especially enjoyed was that of workshop leader in what I consider to be one of the better organized professional development (PD) events I have been a part of in an international school setting. The variety and quality of workshops offered Monday proved PD days can mean much more than just slideshows and finger sandwiches.

  The workshop I conducted, Untying the Body: Incorporating Drama in the Classroom, saw a diverse group of participants from each of the three schools on the Puxi campus. I was reassured by this because sometimes we confuse drama with theater and feel that the practice is best left to the stage and to professionals in the field.

  On the contrary, there is room for drama in every classroom and in every curriculum; it is one of the most effective means of offering a transformative learning experience for the student, and I do not only say this as a trained drama teacher, but also as a one-time apathetic teenager who to this day, over twenty years later, can still recite the lines he wrote about the Vietnam draft for a skit performed in American History. As a student, I was of the belief that if the teacher gives you permission to get out of your seat, you take it, no questions asked.

  Are students today really any different? I think not.

  Why get students out of their seats?

DSCF0300  To begin, incorporating drama-related activities into the traditional classroom stimulates creativity in problem solving. For example, through drama, students, if only for a few moments, are able to become another, explore new roles and experiment with personal choices and solutions to very real problems in a safe atmosphere, where actions and consequences can be examined and discussed. Consequently, the classroom becomes alive with acts of cognition conducted by more confident, empathetic and emotionally secure students who inevitably have had their perceptions of themselves and of the world broadened in the process. These are essential accomplishments for our students at Shanghai American School (SAS), who one day are expected to become active contributors to the global society in which we all live.

  Another reason to incorporate drama in the classroom is because it strengthens in students the ability to communicate. It instills in them the ability to speak in public and be persuasive in both their written and oral arguments, and while these particular practices might be considered solo acts, classroom drama is rarely conducted without emphasis placed on the importance of the ensemble. Group-devising projects are invaluable for students at all levels who want and need to take ownership of the curriculum. In doing so, students practice self-control, discipline and teamwork as they cooperate, listen and contribute. No other art form than drama is more truly collaborative.

  Drama reinforces content

  While what I write may be fairly obvious to teachers of English, history and ESOL as well as all those who have experimented with role-playing in the classroom, I want to emphasize that drama activities are a highly effective method of reinforcing your material, no matter the course. Increasingly, I have seen drama activities incorporated effectively in the math and science curricula by teachers exploring methods of instruction that encourage active learning, intellectual understanding and retention of the material at hand.

  Part of the reason all this is at the forefront of my mind is the fact that I recently discovered that Brazilian theater director Augusto Boal, one of the first to successfully bridge the two fields of drama and education, has just been nominated for the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in this area. Through his drama work in Latin America during the 1970s, he gave a voice to the economically, politically and educationally oppressed in a variety of countries by incorporating the philosophy of an educator by the name of Paulo Freire.

  I conclude this letter by appealing to the performer inherently found within all teachers. Consider it: we market and hype our lessons with colorful bulletin boards as if they are Broadway placards; we research, prepare and deliver lectures and lessons with the passion of Richard Burton and Liz Taylor combined and then wait for the reviews, sometimes offered to us in person, sometimes via test scores, and now ever-increasingly through the computer. I, for one, am all for passing this classroom performance component on to the student, and I believe so too are those teachers who were in my workshop.

  If you were unable to attend it (or Glen Blair’s in Pudong), not to worry; I’ll make copies of my materials and soon after hopefully see you signing your class up to use the PAC. Until then I will leave you with the words of Paulo Freire, written sometime ago, but perhaps in some ways even more relevant today.

  Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation in the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.

By Doug Hundley, Theater Director, Shanghai American School

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