Lucy is a Second in charge of the English department at a leading secondary girls’ independent school in West London. She carried out this school-based research in 2014, in the spring term of her third year of teaching, focusing on her Year 8 class of thirty learners. Lucy wanted to explore how in-role drama activities, particularly writing in role, could be used in the classroom to support and develop students’ understanding and writing in English, principally with Year 8’s study of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Lucy became intrigued with the concept of ‘role’ and the type of learning that takes place when students are immersed in dramatic activity and thus set out to examine the potential benefits and advantages of in-role work in the study of literature.
In the current educational climate which threatens the position of drama as a subject within English studies as well as a subject in its own right, I felt my investigation into the value of role play to the development of writing and to learning more generally, was an important and timely one. My interest in the connections between drama and writing stemmed from my own school memories of writing in role in English lessons. The liberation from more traditional essay-based activities brought a sense of pleasure and stimulation, a sense of ‘creating’ something as well as responding to the literary text being explored. This interest in drama and active approaches to the study of literary texts and to writing formed an integral part of my teaching practice since my PGCE year, in which I was encouraged to use writing in role as a ‘way into’ a text. As an NQT I became fascinated by the type of learning that goes on when students inhabit a fictional role and the power of role to invest learners with a sense of agency, enabling them to ‘speak about the world of the text from within it’ (O’Neill and Rogers 1994: 51). From my experiences in the classroom I had come to believe that being in role frees students – encouraging them to gain confidence with experimenting linguistically, fostering empathy for, and developing understanding of, complex literary characters as well as supporting understanding of historical periods, cultures or genres with which they may be unfamiliar. In order to gain insights that could improve my own professional practice, in this research I set out to explore the benefits of in-role work: does it increase students’ engagement and are there implications for writing?
The research was conducted in a high-achieving inner-London all girls’ selective school in which creative approaches to learning are championed and teaching resources are plentiful. Within my department drama based tasks are embraced at the discretion of individual English teachers yet most end-of-unit written assessments at Key Stage 3 have an analytical focus; as is so often the case, the demands of assessment higher up at Key Stage 4 have shaped our practice. Fiona Richards-Kamal (2008) argues that the ‘culture of reading and writing to fulfil exam criteria has all but destroyed opportunities for creative engagement with texts’ (Richards-Kamal 2008: 68), addressing the dichotomy of creativity versus criticality. I wanted to explore how more creative forms, such as writing in role, could also be classed as critical as they promote opportunities for learners to stand back from their own writing and think explicitly about their choices in its construction.
The research was conducted with my Year 8 class of 30 mixed ability students whom I taught three times per week, with activities being based on the play being studied that term, Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. I experimented with in-role strategies including role-play and hot-seating as well as short, focused in-role writing tasks such as diary entries in role as different characters, an interview with Demetrius, a job application in role as Puck, a lonely hearts advertisement placed by Helena and scripting a custody battle between Oberon and Titania. Ultimately, the class also wrote a lengthier piece in role as either Helena or Hermia at two different stages from the play. I collected a range of samples of students’ written work, both in and out of role. These samples were then closely analysed to evaluate holistically the semantic, figurative, rhetorical and structural features of a student’s writing so as to explore the possible effect of role on their written language. In-role work produced by Esther and Bianca were exceptionally rich data sources, revealing echoes of Shakespeare’s text in the writing as the learners moved out their ‘home style’ and into ‘new areas of language’ (Barrs and Cork 2001: 210).
Students were asked to complete both an initial and post-unit questionnaire, as well as anonymous self-summaries of the in-role work produced. In order to triangulate this data, interviews were held with Year 8 students and my English Department colleagues. Additionally, an online survey was completed by Humanities teachers from various departments across the school in an attempt to discover whether in-role activities were being used beyond English and for what purposes. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that writing in role was being used relatively regularly in other subjects and in far more inventive ways than I could have imagined.
I soon realised there was a clear link between being in role and play and therefore Vygotsky’s social-constructivist (1976, 1978) theories of play became central to my research. By engaging in in-role activities, adolescent students inhabit an imaginary world similar to that of much younger children in play. In this imaginary world, a child is able to enter what Vygotsky terms a ‘zone of proximal development’ which allows them to learn ‘a head above’ themselves (Vygotsky 1978: 74). Booth (1994) advocates this potential for role to propel development and accelerate understanding in his assertion that ‘thinking in-role’ as another allows students to move into unknown areas, developing and testing hypotheses through imaginary problem solving activity. Comments from students both in interview and from the questionnaires prompted me to contemplate the ‘protective’ nature that role provides. I proposed that being in role enables fictional material to be distanced and therefore seem less intimidating; offering a level of ‘protection’ that consequently fosters students’ confidence and enjoyment.
I found my investigation so absorbing that it was often difficult to stay within the boundaries of the report. However, as the shaping of the new curriculum takes place it is imperative that I continue to uphold the value of incorporating a range of in-role activities to the new schemes of work being planned by my department. I propose that, where possible, teachers should plan time for students to create shared imagined worlds through role and to return to these in and through their writing. Teachers and students should try to view drama as ‘a form of shared cultural activity’ (Neelands 1992: 4), playing their way ahead together and using role as a scaffold for deep, rich learning about literature.
Lucy’s full report can be read here: Lucy_Wheeler_-_PBE_Report_-_Full_Version_-_PDF_Format
Barrs, M. and Cork, V. (2001) The Reader in the Writer, London: Centre for Language in Primary Education.
Booth, D. (1994) Story Drama: Reading, Writing and Roleplaying Across the Curriculum, Ontario: Pembroke Publishers.
Kamal-Richards, F. (2008) ‘Personal and Critical? Exam criteria, engagement with texts and real readers’ responses’, English in Education, 42:1, pp.53-69.
Neelands, J. (1992) Learning Through Imagined Experience, London: Hodder and Stoughton.
O’Neill, C. and Rogers, T. (1994) ‘Drama and Literary Response: Prying Open the Text’, English in Australia, 108, June, pp. 47-51.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1976) ‘Play and its Role in the Mental Development of the Child’, in Bruner, J.S., Jolly, A. and Sylva, K. (eds.) Play: Its Role in Development and Evolution, New York: Penguin.
Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in society: The development of higher mental processes, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.