gender politics, drama and the boring organisational bits of teaching

This post is written by Chris Hall.

I’d last been to Ricards Lodge decades ago, when my old grammar school was closed and incorporated into the borough’s new girls’ comprehensive. I was 17 then, in Year 13, doing my A levels. I’d enjoyed being at my old school but I don’t remember feeling particularly upset or disrupted by the move to Ricards. Our teachers obviously did a good job, and we weren’t of an age to be nostalgic. We got on with things in the new setting and were mostly concerned about what was coming next – university in my case, thanks to teachers who believed in girls’ education and a university grant system that encouraged social mobility.

So I was tuned in to thinking about the politics of girls’ education as I waited in reception. Malala smiled down at me from a poster on the wall as I watched a stream of girls (and a few boys, from a much later, sixth form, merger) negotiate the morning routines.

Ric image in reception

The focus of my visit was Drama. Back in the day, we read plays in English lessons but Drama – if it involved moving out of your seat – was an exclusively extracurricular affair, an optional extra, a polite refinement. So it was interesting to see at first hand how much things had changed.

Drama is thoroughly embedded in the everyday life of Ricards: in the formal curriculum, through public performances of school plays and musicals, in the displays and invitations to extracurricular visits, in the schools’ collaborations with local and national theatre companies, in the conversations I overheard between teachers and students…

Ric PA display

Jack and Sarah, two of the lead drama teachers, explained to me the way they managed the GCSE and BTEC Drama options to allow students to follow their preferences for studying technical or design aspects of theatre, or to focus more on devising, acting and textual analysis. I observed classes working on costume and set design for the play that actors in another class were rehearsing, and then saw the classes excitedly bringing their work together. I heard about the way the curricular work fed the extracurricular performances; how visits to particular shows, and work experience backstage, inspired creative ideas that the girls brought into their designs and performances. I saw Year 9 girls finishing off a unit of work on women and comedy. They were taking it in turns to act out the birth scene from Gargantua,in which a surreally enormous but reluctant baby is being induced to enter the world and end his mother’s two-year pregnancy. The girls (and their heavily pregnant teacher) found it hilarious. Through comedy, they were learning to be at ease with their bodies, to understand something about the absurd, to work together to explore emotions. And they were also thoroughly enjoying an ordinary day at school.

Observing this, I was struck by the teachers’ commitment to orchestrating timings and syllabus requirements to bring together the curricular, the extracurricular and the cross- curricular. This is the unglamorous, behind-the-scenes kind of work of planning meetings and timetabling, particularly frustrating at the moment with all the changes to the syllabuses and assessment criteria. Managing it well is a high level professional skill. Done properly it energises students to bring ideas together, to explore perspectives and make meanings that are important to them and to their lives beyond school. Two quotations from a conversation with the Year 13 drama students give some insights into what a difference this makes.  It was a privilege to see how things had moved on.

We started homelessness. That was our devised [drama piece for the exam]. We were learning about it, you have to talk about it. In Sociology, you talk about issues in society, you talk about homelessness being an issue, that it’s the individual’s fault. But you come to Drama, you do the research and you form these characters. We wrote these characters ourselves. You come up with a backstory, you come up with how it is going to end, how it is going to begin and you realise these are real people. It brings it a lot closer to home, which is easy if you just need to learn it and write it for an exam, but when you’re doing it in Drama, you become a lot more – you look at it from a completely different perspective than you would’ve done if you were just learning it like a textbook.

I am involved in political activism and I have felt that using drama has made my activism and campaigning a lot easier for me. Messages that are really hard to campaign about, you can convey that message through drama to loads of different audiences. If you campaign or have a protest about homelessness, people won’t get it. But then you have four women characters who you can relate to in some type of way that makes it a lot more accessible. For me as well, I think drama has made political activism a lot more accessible. When we look at politics and sociology and social issues, we think of it as a vague issue rather than an ‘us’ issue, but through drama you have learnt so much. We talk about these things all the time. In Drama, it’s a drama lesson, but it does help us formulate our ideas.

 

life skills through performing arts

During my time in schools around the country I have met some amazing students. When I talk about the project informally, I constantly refer to the astute, confident, organised and focused young people I have met. I feel reassured about the future from meeting them.

During my time at King Ethelberts School near Margate in Kent, I spoke to a number of Performing Arts and Drama students. All the students were confident and forthcoming, not shy of talking to me, and were full of ideas. They explained to me that Drama and Performing Arts had taught them the confidence I witnessed:

In school I definitely learn the confidence and Mr Wall and Mr Morris want you to be able to build that confidence, be able to act in front of a big audience. You take back everything you learn at school I think.

Confidence is probably my main one. I used to do musical theatre outside of school and then I came to secondary school and stopped because I was like right, now it is time to focus on school work but then I got back into it in Year 10 and I am more confident now than I was when I was doing it outside of school and I’ve only been doing it for not even a year.

But, as the students explained, the performing arts subjects did more than simply build their confidence:

It definitely helps as well. It helps you to be able to accept that sometimes things go wrong and that is okay. Like with every yes, there is like 10 nos. That is what it has taught me, to not beat myself up about something if I get it wrong because there is stuff I’ve done in performing arts that I never thought I would do and I used to always be like no I can’t do that. It has taught me that if I work on it, I will get there eventually. It is determination and commitment. It has definitely helped.

I used to go to drama club in Year 7, 8 and 9 and I have got involved in presentation afternoon, some showcases. But I think they have been nice to help me build up to being able to be confident in performing arts lessons and not just sit there quietly because it helped me make a lot of friends. I am friends with everyone in there but I didn’t speak to half of the girls in there last year and I just think it brings everyone together and it is quite nice.

This self-awareness, and resilience to the potential harshness of the world was surprising to find in such young people.

 I think it is important that people are able to accept that not being the best at everything is okay. And there are some things that you’re not going to be good at but there are also things that you will be better than anyone else at which I think is important to know that everybody has a thing and a pathway set for them and people might not just have found it yet.

I think just be confident in yourself. That is all you can really do.

Finally, one student explained how her experience of performing arts subjects had influenced what she potentially wanted to do with her life.

I would like to teach some sort of performing arts or drama because I like being able to share what I know with other people because when I was younger I would constantly doubt myself so it would be nice to teach kids what I’ve been through. It is okay, you are good. You are amazing.

 

interpretation and creativity

During my visit to Ark St Albans Academy in Birmingham, I spoke to a number of student studying English Literature. English is sometimes a ‘hidden’ creative subject because of its status amongst the ‘core’ subjects at GCSE. People take English seriously, that is, it is viewed as more academic than creative. During my time traveling around the country visiting schools, I have found this attitude fascinating, because for me, English has always been fairly creative. It is about writing and reading, both creative pursuits in my book. At St Albans, I encountered a number of students who clearly felt the same way, and who felt that English was different to other more ‘academic’ subjects they were taking because it asked for interpretation and personal opinions.

It is a lot like a seminar style and I guess that allows it to be more laid back because with English, of course you have to learn things, but it is also your interpretation so it is nice to get everyone’s point of view.

It is a lot more independent. It is your interpretations. You have to work on them yourself to make your work look more outstanding.

I think, especially for people who like to be creative and independent, it is fun but you have to make sure you can justify it. 

It is very different to Maths in a sense because with Maths you have a right and wrong answer but in literature there is no right or wrong answer. It is interpretation and how you see things. So once you can justify that it is quite good.

[It is] something creative for me. Creativity is so important. The freedom… Especially in this world where they are so rigid and you have to be in a box, whether it is your gender, your race, your height, you have to be in a box. Creativity allows you to go above and beyond.

The students also spoke with affection for their English teachers, and told me how you can always tell when a teacher is passionate about their subject.

I think you can totally tell the different dynamics with teachers. One teacher is so enthusiastic. The energy! She is teaching English. She is just so enthusiastic and you can tell that she loves her subject. I think people who really enjoy their subject, you can feel it whereas I think with other subjects you have some enthusiasm but it is really set, so it is like you learn this, this, and this. I feel like because there is so much freedom in English, like with your interpretations, teachers can provide more of their own mind and it helps us be more creative with it as well.

The teachers there [in English] are so dedicated to helping us.

The 6thfrom students at St Albans explained how teacher-student relationships were one of the reasons they had chosen to stay on at the school.

That is one of the reasons why I chose to come here. We already know the teachers, they know how we operate.

They know your strengths and weaknesses. They brought you up through the academic years. They understand where your flaws are. They try and build you up with confidence, and remove those flaws and make you the best version of you as possible.

The English students at St Albans clearly appreciated the enthusiasm and dedication of their teachers, and the way this allowed them to work creatively, and express their own interpretations of different texts and ideas.

 

‘don’t be a robot…’

This post is written by Lexi Earl. 

In my recent visits to schools I have heard the phrase, ‘don’t be a robot’ or ‘the arts allow you to not be a robot’ a number of times. I have wondered about this and so I asked some of the students at Ark Helenswood in Hastings about the kinds of self-development that goes on in schools, and in particular, the kinds of opportunities creative subjects offer to this end.

The students told me:

I think as well, with Dance and Drama, they help you to build your own person. Because Dance makes you unique and different. You can do your own style. Like the choreography part of the curriculum, you can become your own person and reflect that in other things.

In Drama you’ve got to be able to stand in front of people and present it nicely instead of being all hunched up, or shut up and really quiet. You’ve got to be able to stand [up for] yourself and project, get your point across as well as you can.  

Those skills go with you for the rest of your life as well. If you go for an interview, if they can see that you’re confident it is better for them because they know that they can ask questions that need to be asked.

We’ve just done our English speeches and I think that’s helped me so much, having the confidence to know that I can speak in front of people. I can talk about something I’m passionate about, I didn’t have that added on stress. It was just ‘let’s memorise this’. I know the talking bit is okay it’s just let’s get the facts together.

 I then asked the students whether they thought this self-development needed to happen in schools. They said:

You can have so many people who have A*’s and everything, if you say I’ve done Drama performances, Dance performances and things like that, you have something about you that is different.

 You’ve got to have a character.

It’s all very robotic. It’s all very, it needs to be this, this and this. You can’t do this because it is wrong. It’s all following a strict script. That’s not what we’re made to do. We’re made to be our own person, we’re made to go off and do something that someone else hasn’t done before whereas they’re [the government]trying to make everyone the same. And that is not right!

It makes you more diverse as a character as well. If you’re doing dance and you’ve picked up a new choreography or you’re thrown into a dance that you weren’t expecting, you’ve got the skill to be able to change quickly. You can have a job that is completely not to do with Dance but you know how to deal with pressure, changing environment, learning new skills quickly.

Finally, I asked the students what they would say to people who make policy about all the ‘sameness’ that they feel is going on. They elaborated:

It’s not right!

I think the only way to get that out is to have the creative subjects, and the performing subjects. You have to do Maths and English and there is a right and a wrong way but it’s those subjects where you can build your confidence and work out who you are, they’re the subjects you need and that is what helps you then in your academic subjects. So you’re able to answer questions, interpret the text in your own way. I think if you didn’t have that at all, everyone would think the same.

The subjects are a relief as well. If you do so many academic subjects, just one creative subject can take you away from everything. If you enjoy that subject so much you just get immersed in it. It’s so much easier to drop everything. Schools tell us, don’t get over stressed, but once you’ve got that added pressure that they do bash into you out of good nature, it becomes very hard to do that.

Niall Whitehead, Head of Performing Arts, explained to me about why the school was so committed to the arts (particularly in the current climate), and why he is focused on turning the school into a community space for the arts.

We are in an area which is one of the poorest parts of the south east and over a third of our students are disadvantaged so wellbeing is vital and I do see that the arts play a major role in this. In all our learning and all the work that we do we are pushing skills onto the kids but along with that we are always aware that we provide an element of social and emotional capability for these students. I know these words get bandied about an awful lot but it is important that they do learn that sense of communication and collaboration and resilience that the arts can deliver. So it is twofold: it’s the idea that wellbeing is always there as a subtext to the arts that we provide and, of course, there is the skills of the arts themselves and a lot of our students are passionate about it as are we but it’s just about making sure that it still has a high profile and is still important.

Ark Helenswood is committed to providing opportunities for their girls that allows them to develop their own personalities, confidence and communication skills.

 

understanding relationships through movement

This post is written by Lexi Earl.

During my visit to St Mary’s College in Hull, I had the opportunity to observe a Year 13 Performing Arts class. This group of Year 13s are studying BTec Performing Arts and their course is made up of drama, dance and singing classes. Many want to go on to pursue careers in the performing arts, including doing musical theater. In this particular class, the teacher was using movement to help students understand The Crucible, the new text they were studying.

The class begins with a warm-up, “to get rid of the giggles”, and then the students watch a video of a group of people moving without ever breaking contact. In the video, people come in and out of the sequence but always take hold of someone’s hand before joining. The transitions are really smooth. It looks like a dance. The actors are always in contact as they move. There are hugs, forehead touches, holding each other in a head lock. When the video finished, the teacher asks the students to guess the types of relationships that might have been in the scene. “We learnt a lot by looking at contact. Lots of elements can come from movement or choreography,” the teacher explains when they are finished discussing the various relationships they saw.

 

The class then divided into groups and started to come up with their own sequences. The only instruction the teacher gave is that the contact should be between friends or family – so closer contact than greeting a stranger say – and that each person in the group should be involved in two movements.

In one group, two girls start with a hug and then others come and transition the hug into a different form. Now there is a new hug formed. There is a building of sequences. “At the moment, this doesn’t have a story, it is just movements, choreography,” the teacher tells them. The students move around in their groups, creating transitions from one pose to another. The teacher watches and gives advice, suggests things – Are you going to… Just watch that… Maybe you could… Then she tells them to think about transitioning out as well as into the pose. What happens when you leave? The students do the sequences multiple times until they are fluid, including their entrances and exits.

“We have to bring this back and think about how we can use this in The Crucible”, the teacher prompts. She explains that one of the play’s main themes is power and manipulation. In this time period, women were subordinate to men. ‘Goody’ meant good wife. Abigail is unmarried but had an affair with a married man. She wants the students to assign a character to each person but to do this randomly. “Don’t change the choreography”, she instructs. She explains to the students that embraces can change depending on strength and posture. The characters they need to assign are: Abigail, Proctor, Elizabeth, Mary W, Parris/Danforth. “Embraces might become something else”, the teacher advises. The groups reconvene and choose characters. They now practice the transitions and movements as their characters. The teacher talks to them as they move through the transitions, asking about how their characters now affect these movements.

“How does Elizabeth feel about Parris?” the teacher asks one group. “Be a bit more on-looking so we get a sense of who you are observing and why,” she tells another. “Don’t be frightened to push these characters a bit more, slow things down”, the teacher advises the class.

After they have had an opportunity to rehearse in their new characters, we watch the two groups in turn. The teacher asks them to go through the sequence twice. Afterwards, the students guess who was which character. “How did you decide?” the teacher asks. “Facial expressions”, “movements”, “who took control at the end”, the students answer. “You did a forceful embrace and it was really quick. He was impartial. It was like you needed support,” one student observes.

The teacher explained to me that the purpose of this class was to allow students to understand complex relationships and the complexity of the play, without being overwhelmed by the text. It was very interesting to see how the movements morphed to reflect different relationships, even though they had been randomly designed in the beginning. With each performance it was easy to spot characters through their movements or facial expressions. The lesson made me think about how we use such knowledge in real life, reading people – their expressions, their movements, their body language – in order to understand them. Drama is a way to learn this knowledge.

 

visiting artists, sharing life lessons

This post is written by Lexi Earl.

Many of the schools we visit invite artists, performers, touring companies, and other creative people in to talk to students, demonstrate techniques, run workshops, or perform plays. These types of experiences offer wonderful opportunities for the young people to see what it is like to ‘do’ a particular job in the world, and to get first hand stories of how people end up where they do.

During my visit to Uxbridge High School in Uxbridge, near London, I spoke to some Year 10 Drama students who articulated what these types of opportunities meant for them personally. Uxbridge High works in partnership with Intermission Theatre and the RSC. These companies often visit the school to run workshops or put on performances. Uxbridge also takes students out to see West End theatre shows, local theatre productions, or to visit London galleries and museums.

The students talked about how they benefitted from trips to museums, galleries or theatres.

I think Drama and Performing Arts at this school really opens a lot of doors for us and let’s us go on trips. And with Art as well, they went to the Natural History Museum and they studied that in their curriculum. They do do a lot of trips for us so we can see how this could be us one day.

And you work on it as well. It’s not like you just go to a trip and forget about it a week later. You could still go on about it in a year’s time and do work that would help you in the future.

Lion King was the first official play that most of us saw. Because it was so grand it was really amazing and it showed everyone that Drama is a big thing. And it is valued in society. You see so many people who were coming and watching. It is valued and it is not something that is thrown to the corner. It was something that really inspired us because we could see how [through] doing Drama at school what you can become and the possibilities that can happen.

Then the students explained how something different occurs when an adult other than a teacher tells them about their own life experiences, and explains how they ended up in the creative industries.

When it is from someone who has actually been through it and does it now you get the push where you’re like ‘oh, so I could actually genuinely do that myself’, without having a teacher say it to you.

For me, [it is] their stories. They usually tell us about how they might’ve had a difficult life before, something like that so it gives us hope rather than from your teacher because it is your teacher’s job to give you hope. When you hear it from people who don’t really mean anything to you and they tell you about where they were before and where they are now and how Drama has helped them get through so many things, it does inspire us and it gives us hope and it encourages us to carry on.

The students at Uxbridge highlighted how vital it is for young people to be exposed to others working in the arts and creative industries, and just how much influence these encounters can have on young people in schools.

 

 

what kind of pirate are you?

This post is written by Lexi Earl.

Late last year, I had the opportunity to see Coriolanus at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It was a spectacular performance, and I was completely immersed in the story and the characters. I found myself paying particular attention to the fight scenes. I watched as the actors moved together in the fight, as a dance. One actor moved, the other responded. This obviously happened very quickly and with much violence, but it was mesmerizing. I noticed how the sounds of smacking and slapping happened, and the way the actors’ feet moved in sequence with the other.

I can only pin my sudden awareness of the fight choreography to my visit in the same week to Welcombe Hills School. Welcombe Hills is a special school, and while I was visiting, the Key Stage 3 pupils were learning about Peter Pan. The school is putting on a production of Peter later this year (in aid of Great Ormond Street Hospital) and the pupils I observed were learning about fight scenes. Rather than Roman generals fighting with their fists, these would be pirates and lost boys clashing with swords. Jo Bradley, the Drama teacher, and Cassie Gibb, the Drama teaching assistant, were schooling the pupils on the details of fight choreography.

Cassie explained to the pupils, “as actors, you need to think of a fight like a dance. No one is going to be surprised; it is choreographed. A sword fight is action, reaction.”

To begin, Jo and Cassie illustrated the physical movements they wanted the pupils to learn – moving backwards and forwards in response to the person facing you, and swooshing your arms around to chop off someone’s head. “It’s got to come as if it is slicing his head off,” Cassie explained to some pupils.

The students got to practice in pairs during class. First they concentrated on getting their feet to move easily forwards and backwards in reaction to their partner. One foot stayed cemented and unmoving while the other moved in response, some pupils naturally leaning back as their opponent tried to stab them in the stomach. Some students giggled as they got their bodies to react, others made swooshing, swishing noises of a sword cutting through the air.

The class then shared their work with each other, each pair taking a turn to demonstrate their movements. “That’s tiptoeing,” Cassie said to one pair who hadn’t quite gotten the foot movement down yet. “What kind of pirate are you?” she asked amusedly.

Next they practiced thrusting the sword forward to stab their opponent in the stomach, still trying to get their foot movement correct. Once they had both their feet and the two different arm movements sorted, they were asked to choreograph their own fight scene in pairs. They could choose whatever sequence they wished to do. “For example, you can go head head middle head,” Cassie explained. The pupils had to do five different actions from the two different sword movements. “This is a fight sequence,” Cassie explained, “swing to the head and duck, step forwards and thrust the sword forward, the other steps backwards. Work out how the fight is going to end.”

The children were given time to work out their fights, moving around the room and discussing their strategies in pairs. Then they were all invited to show their fights to the group. Each fight was different, and there was much enjoyment and laughter as they worked. Many fights ended in a death scene, the injured party falling dramatically (and often heavily) to the floor.

When everyone had demonstrated their work, Jo asked how fighting relates to the story of Peter Pan. “The pirates and lost boys fight,” a student explained. When I later saw the actors on the stage fighting, I saw how the basics that were being taught to the students applied to the professional stage.