The Question Is – Is Drama The Answer?
Teachers are constantly on the look out for new approaches to engage children with their learning, to put across information in an original way or to tackle challenging topics. We all know that pupils learn well when they are enjoying what they are doing, when they are stimulated and active, when they can get out from behind their desks! Used well, drama, singing and music have the potential to revolutionise learning, not to mention adding interest and (potentially) respite for the busy, multi-tasking teacher. Not only can drama and music help children to develop the ‘soft skills’ so vital to their own development and so valued by others, but they can also help with the learning of facts, dates, formulae, calculations, names, events, places, reading, spelling, vocabulary, even foreign languages. And, lest we forget, the ability to sing, act and play are also wonderful skills in their own right: enriching, enjoyable, even cathartic, regardless of all the other benefits we might attach to them.
So, how do you go about creating a classroom environment in which learning through drama, music and singing becomes as commonplace as copying out spellings or completing a worksheet?
A Cunning Plan
It all begins with the planning, when the teacher considers the topic to be covered and the skills to be learned or practised. Weaving in innovative ideas to punctuate the scheme of work is a sure-fire way to avoid the material being dry, the lessons uninspiring and the behaviour distracted. And the more you do it, the quicker the ideas will come and the easier the application will be with the children. So, whether you are exploring Ancient Egypt, rivers of the world, the names of the countries in Europe, the colours in the colour wheel, the nine times table or the spelling of the word ‘mischievous’, there are abundant strategies and approaches which will help to bring the topic to life.
Here’s a few examples to get the cogs turning:
Spell That Tune
In the songs ‘Believe In Me’ (from the school musical ‘Pantastic’) and ‘Build A Friendship’ (from the school musical ‘Kitty Whittington’), the individual letters of ‘Believe’ and ‘Friendship’ are set to music and become immediately memorable after only a few listens. Think also about how much easier it is to remember the alphabet because of the well-known tune to which it is set, or the days of the week because of Happy Days! This approach is tried and tested, and need not be confined to tricky words – after all, there are infinite tunes out there, either pre-existing or that can be made up by the pupils. It’s a technique which can be applied to learning in other areas too: the sequence of the planets, the wives of Henry VIII (not to mention their fates!), the changing state of water, the different types of rock. In the song ‘The Barmy Embalmer’ (from the school musical ‘Who’s Your Mummy?’), the entire embalming process is set to music, providing a clear, informative yet entertaining guide to the process. Allowing children the chance to perform this song whilst acting it out is a guaranteed way of helping them to learn what goes on in this most intriguing (but unusual) of practices. Why not ask the pupils to write and perform something similar about the water cycle, the life-cycle of a butterfly, or the ingredients and method for making a cake?
A Song Is A Poem
Poetry is much-loved by many, but certainly not by all. But a song is merely a poem set to music. Take ‘Full To The Brim’ (first verse and chorus below) from the school musical ‘Kitty Whittington’:
Take a look inside our palace,
What a treasure trove awaits.
Ev’ry chamber has a chalice
And a plethora of plates.
How the ceilings seem to glisten,
Well they’re diamonds you see.
And if you really listen,
You can hear our bonhomie.
We’re full to the brim,
Whatever you choose to bring,
We really don’t need another thing.
It’s gotta stop.
To put it blunt we’re chock-a-block.
Bursting at the royal seams,
Bulging at the royal beams.
Full to the brim.
The song provides an engaging and entertaining opportunity to explore rhyme scheme, structure, metre, imagery, vocabulary, register, narrative voice and characterisation. But the key difference is that they also get to sing it! The addition of music makes such a difference and is striking in its impact. A starting point like this can immediately capture pupils’ interest, help them to engage with the techniques of analysis, but could also fire up their imagination too when it comes to exploring an actual poem. Would, for example, setting the poem to a tune, dividing it amongst a group, adding percussion and performing it, increase overall understanding and enjoyment of the study of poetry? Or, when writing their own poem employing the learned techniques, would knowing that they will go on to set it to music enhance their efforts?
Just Be It
Most of us will know ‘personification’ as a literary technique, but it works really well as a drama technique too. The characteristics of a motte and bailey castle will be immediately more memorable if children have themselves become part of the structure, forming the keep, mound, ditch and palisade. The different components of air will be far better understood if a whole class is divided up proportionally to represent nitrogen, oxygen, water vapour, carbon dioxide and argon. Remembering how many sides a dodecahedron has will be easier if the children themselves have formed and counted off its twelve sides. This dynamic approach to learning is likely to have a more lasting effect because the process itself will be seen as more exciting.
A Story Makes A Memory
Children love stories, providing them with a window to the world, so much of which they have yet to experience. And they are very good at remembering them too. Perhaps because children’s stories tend to have a straightforward sequence, a range of locations, a mix of memorable characters and plenty of excitement. So what better way to help them learn a series of ideas, theories or formulae than to embed them within a story? This could be a story told by a teacher, or a story created by the children themselves, either individually, in pairs or in groups. Learning the Kings and Queens of England (so useful for pub quizzes!) becomes far more memorable when children bump into Victoria in the park before going to tea with their grandfather, Edward, to see his seven new kittens, the fifth largest of which, George, you get to take to your house, Number 8, Edward Street.
Why Talk About PSHE When You Can Sing It?
One particular subject area perfect for exploration through music and drama is PSHE. Songs are a great way in to an issue or topic, and generally lead to better engagement and understanding. ‘Living In Harmony’ (from the school musical ‘Wiz Wham Alakazam’) is a wonderful celebration of the differences between people and why our differences actually makes things better for everyone: ‘Compromise’ (sung by the ‘Pushmi-Pullyu’ in the school musical ‘Doctor Dolittle And The Monkey Mayhem’) will generate plenty of discussion about how difficult it can be to make concessions, but how vital and rewarding it is to do so. ‘Higher and Higher’ (from the school musical ‘Pantastic’) considers how we need to confront our fears, be brave and take that difficult first step. And it is not just the songs that afford a way in to these areas, but the scripts themselves. Children love the chance to act things out, even if it is just a short scene. Take a look at The School Musicals Company website to browse script samples.
And Finally …
What better way to embrace drama, music and singing as a key part of your approach than to build it into your actual classroom. Make a storytelling corner or tepee, construct a small raised platform for performing, collect hand-me-downs and cast-offs for ad hoc costuming and even consider adding a wireless microphone to your budget request this year! It’s all about creating a fun, dynamic, innovative, experiential space in which children are stimulated, excited and ready to learn.