Put your children on the stage! Drama at Clifton Preparatory School

| March 29, 2019 | 0 Comments


The purpose of my article is twofold.
Firstly, I wish to share a unique experience I have had working with young people, wherein I realised that children have the power to be partners in their own learning. Secondly, I have discovered how drama can facilitate the development of four vital skills which equip children for success, and I am sure other schools may wish to replicate or adapt my idea.
I am relatively new to primary school education, having worked at Clifton Preparatory School (CPS) in Nottingham Road, KwaZulu-Natal, for just under three years. My prior experience is largely with high school students, who can elect to take drama as a subject. Immediately following my arrival at CPS, I often asked myself these questions: Why make drama compulsory for all children? What is my role as a drama teacher? My ‘go-to’ answer has always been: To instill confidence! Giving children an opportunity to stand up in front of their peers and perform confidently is surely an incredible gift to that child. Logic dictates that possessing the ability to speak in front of others should inspire children to trust their own voices and ideas. Confidence is a powerful concept and was at the forefront of my thinking in answering questions about the value of drama. Little did I realise that other powerful concepts – critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication – would empower my students even further.

“A magical thing happens when you give children ownership of their work: you can’t get them off the stage!”

The context
Prior to my employment at CPS, my experience of teaching primary school children was limited to teaching English, in the East, to very young children for whom English is a second, or even third language. Needless to say, this experience differs somewhat from introducing primary school learners to drama. I felt anxious about the new direction my teaching career was taking. Once I began to familiarise myself with my role, I soon realised what a privilege it is to design one’s own curriculum and to work with energetic performers who are not afraid to experiment. I was still finding my feet in 2018, when I walked into my then head of department’s (HOD) class with ‘the bare bones’ of a concept for the Grade 4 and 5 play. My idea was this: with five very basic scripts (all animal-themed moral tales), Marileen Botha and I could create a kind of ‘play-medley’ adding our own music and setting it in the CPS environment.
“What do you think?” I asked Mrs. Botha, who being the passionate and intelligent mentor she is, turned to me with this simple response: “The children can do it! They can build on the script, direct themselves and make choices about set and props. They can do it!” I did not realise the impact this idea would have on the children themselves, and on my own thinking about the role drama can play in developing essential skills in young people.

The idea
In order to implement our idea, we divided the children into groups and hosted ‘typical’ auditions, after which the children were cast as characters in mini-plays (maximum two pages per story). Although I cast the children, I did not ‘direct’ them, as my discussion of the process will demonstrate.
Their scripts were deliberately basic. The children were instructed to work as a group and direct their own plays. Brainstorming together, they had to flesh out the script to make it relatable for the audience. The children had to choose their own costumes, set (from a basic collection already ‘in stock’) and music, which would be performed and sung by a Grade 4 class.
This idea differs vastly from other productions I have put on at CPS, the biggest difference being the word “I” in that sentence. I usually choose the play (a full-length play of 45 minutes to an hour), create the set, get the costumes sorted and block the stage movements etc. However, in this instance, the children would direct themselves. Fortunately, most children are fearless when it comes to trying new things and this particular Grade 4 & 5 group embraced this project with enthusiasm. They were on board from the moment we introduced the plan and were also very proud of being the first students to get the opportunity to participate so actively in every aspect of the production. They even came up with a name for the event: “When nature calls you to the stage”.

The epiphany
Viktor Kurz, principal of CPS, often shares inspiring stories with his staff during our weekly meetings. Several weeks into our rehearsals, he spoke about an article containing “the 4 Cs”. According to the study mentioned therein, four of the most important skills needed for today’s child to excel when reaching the workplace are: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication.
Critical thinking not only allows one to solve problems but is vital because the process that leads to the solution is as valuable as the end product. Through experiencing doubt, or by investigating a problem, children can discover an answer for themselves. By default, they also learn that having a problem in the first place is okay, and that a solution lies within them.

• Creativity is not a new, but an essential part of the arts. If a child can think of perspectives about, and solutions to, a problem, they have a much better chance of reaching the most successful outcome. They will learn this lesson: “If at first you don’t succeed, think outside the box, and try again”.

• Collaboration might be an obvious skill, but can be, in my experience, surprisingly challenging for small children. Not only do you need to work with people who have different ideas and different ways of expressing those ideas, but you have to have a clear goal in common. Once the goal is in place, it becomes much easier to work towards it – together.

• Communication is the skill that enables you to clearly convey your ideas, as quickly as possible. In a largely text- based society, which often lacks tone, this skill is vital; especially in order for the other three skills mentioned above to be successfully implemented.

Mr. Kurz encouraged us to consider ways in which we could emphasize these skills in our classes. On hearing this Mrs. Botha and I gave each other a secret grin… jackpot! We both immediately felt that the processes we were utilising in our grades 4 and 5 production rehearsals connected seamlessly with these important concepts.

The process
The production process was definitely a challenging process for both teachers and children.
The children really had to think from the perspective of the audience. They had to consider what message they want to leave the audience with; a concept that usually falls on the director/teacher (a stressful, but necessary burden to ensure an enjoyable and successful production).
On a practical level, careful planning was needed so that we used our time effectively. We had two hours a week, split into four 30-minute slots. I drew up a rotational timetable: one play on stage, one play in the music room and the rest outside working by themselves. They would rotate every 30 minutes.
Naturally, as teachers, we were concerned about whether the children would work while left unsupervised. As rehearsals progressed we discovered that greater freedom enabled the children to work even harder. They knew they would have to demonstrate their progress in the following class. The rehearsals took on the kind of structure more frequently seen in drama classes at tertiary institution, where the performers would have a showing, get feedback and be expected to have worked on that feedback by the next rehearsal.
A magical thing happens when you give children ownership of their work: you can’t get them off the stage! The level of commitment and focus from these children was astounding. When calling the next group for their ‘stage time’, I would see groups fully engaged with each other and coming up with solutions to their problems. The process was not without its challenges, however. One group in particular found it difficult at times to manage conflicting ideas. This group comprised individuals with strong personalities and a few voices that sometimes ‘got lost’. The ‘c-word’ that helped overcome this obstacle is of course, communication. Several times we sat together, everyone sharing their ideas, sharing their feelings about this process and eventually reaching a compromise for the greater good of the production.

The big challenge
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the script was to enliven the roles of those children cast as narrators. The children had to decide on a context wherein these narrators could be part of the story, instead of neutral outsiders describing the events. Utilising their critical thinking skills, the children found solutions to this predicament. “The Bad Kangaroo”, for example, tells the story of a kangaroo that sets off fireworks during an assembly (by no means his first prank at school). The principal phones the parents in desperation to arrange for a home visit to talk about their son. Upon his arrival, the principal is met with thumbtacks on his chair, spit balls being thrown at him by Mother Kangaroo and shaving cream in his hat! The lesson? The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. This particular group saw its narrators as nosy neighbors gossiping about “those bad kangaroos”. In the end, the audience was in stitches over these old neighbors with their ‘in-my-day’ mentality. It was remarkable to see creativity in action: the original plays had very few lines for these narrators – they were essentially minor characters with no personality. By implementing a different perspective, the children transformed these narrators into real characters and a highlight of the evening.
On the night of the performance, each cast was supported by a stage manager who ensured that all sets were ready before each play was performed. The whole stage floor was covered with masking tape, marked in different colours for different plays and indicating the exact spot the set had to be before the groups could start their show. The audience got to see these set changes (which happened in less than a minute) and this transparency ended up being a visual representation of the children working together on their production – real visible evidence of collaboration!

The outcome
The dynamism and mood during rehearsals gave Mrs. Botha and me a sense that the project was working well. One can seldom tell – until the first public performance is over – whether the performance is really going to be a ‘hit’ or an unmitigated disaster. Also, we remained nervous about the experimental nature of the work. Would the children trust their decisions and competence in front of a live audience? Would the parents enjoy shorter skits and more experimental work? Would the moral centre of the plays be apparent? Our fears were groundless, however, as on opening night, an incredible symphony of skills (collaboration, critical thinking, communication and creativity) came together in a really visible and convincing way. The five plays ran more smoothly than we could ever have imagined. The children took charge of their set changes effortlessly. Collaboration was evident in the way the children performed in order to convey the lessons of their stories. Both performances were very well received by the audience and we gratefully received many complimentary observations from happy, proud parents in the wake of the performances.

Meeting in the middle
Not only were these performances an opportunity for the children to practice four critical skills, they also demonstrated a genuine meeting point: the teacher’s initial idea with the children’s vision. This unique process ultimately led to over 30 directors, actors, costume co-ordinators, musical directors, choreographers and backstage crew, all working together to entertain and educate the audience. Looking back, this is a production I am deeply proud of, it is also one that has challenged me most. Aside from revealing drama as a space in which important skills can be practiced, a powerful lesson I have taken from this, personally, and one I hope to share with other young teachers, is that of rising to the challenge of trying something new.

1. https://www.aeseducation.com/careercenter21/what-are-the-4-cs-of-21st- century-skills

Category: Autumn 2019

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