What is writing? What is drama? Is there any correlation between the two in terms of individual progress and attainment? These are some of the key questions that influenced this research project, performed and researched by Natasha Cornwell. Natasha is the Teaching and Learning Leader for key stage 3 English at a secondary school academy in Essex. This responsibility invites her to explore ways to enrich the current KS3 curriculum, addressing national expectations and working towards whole-school targets. Her research project was carried out in 2016 with one of her year 8 English classes. It was her ambition to determine whether facilitating drama activities, prior to extended writing tasks, would have any impact upon her students’ writing skills. This was accomplished by comparing written work that took place prior to any drama activities, to written work that took place after drama. She then went on to evaluate samples of work in detail, analysing evidence of the progress, in terms of the school’s assessment criteria, national curriculum expectations and, more interestingly, personal progress which is often too intangible to measure.
In addition to my role as KS3 Teaching and Learning Leader, I am also a qualified drama teacher and also teaches this as a separate subject in my school. My interest in the relationship between drama and English stems from this affiliation with, and respect for, both departments; the link between these two subjects continues to be of great interest to me and makes up a large proportion of my continuous professional development.
As a qualified English and drama teacher, and someone who appreciates the benefits of both subjects in relation to a child’s educational experience and progress, selecting my focus for my research project was simple. I knew I wanted explore the different ways in which drama in the English classroom could promote written skills. I am fortunate in that I work in a school that embraces different teaching styles and encourages its teachers to ‘take risks’ with their lessons, exploring methods and means that work for their students. This is even further endorsed when a teacher is seeking new ways to work towards whole-school target improvements: such as finding new ways to motivate students to participate in extended writing tasks.
What did I do?
In my experience in the classroom so far, I had often seen evidence that writing was thought to be nothing more than a ‘chore’. Its reception was usually met with reluctance and resilience, especially if students were asked to write more than a few lines. With this in mind, I decided to explore whether introducing writing tasks, through the facilitation of a whole-class, extended drama activity first, would change the way students felt.
During one term, we were studying the well-known novel Stone Cold. I took a sample of pupils’ written work from the start of the term, in which students were asked to write a diary entry of a homeless person. I then ran a whole-class drama activity, which also utilised Heathcote’s Teacher-in-Role (TiR) strategy. During the half hour exercise (the contents, script and outcomes of which is explained in detail in the dissertation) students were loosely put into the role of homeless teenagers living on the streets of London. During the experience, they engaged with different characters (such as policemen and passers-by, through the TiR), different experiences (such as bad weather and having to move location) and had to decide how to react to different scenarios that were narrated to them (such as a fellow homeless person stealing their money). Straight after the exercise ended, I engaged in a ten minute dialogue with the class, asking them what they thought of the experience and their opinions of it, before allowing them to move straight into the written task: a second diary entry of a homeless person. Again, I collected samples of this, to compare to the original writing from beforehand.
What did I find out?
My analysis of my data was structured around the following headings:
1) What are the difficulties for students when approaching/undertaking the process of writing?
2) What does post-drama writing look like?
3) How do my students feel about drama and do they believe it has any impact on their written work?
4) Do my findings support or oppose my theory that drama has a place within the English writing pedagogy?
5) How might my findings impact my teaching? Do my findings suggest that English (or other subject area) teachers should make changes when approaching writing tasks?
While a summary of my findings will not do justice to the various conclusions my data led me too, I can confirm that, after the drama activity, there were no groans when students were asked to write an extended piece of work; there was only excitable conversation followed by a seemingly, satisfied silence, and then excitable whispers of sharing work. There were no indications of annoyance or irritation; all pens appeared to fly across the page in a never-before seen, enthusiastic pace. When it came to analysing their work, the data – while limited and subjective – suggested that drama is a very personal experience for students and that its implementation has individual results in relation to writing. I saw evidence of drama encouraging students to use more advanced vocabulary, embed a wider range of language techniques, experiment with pace through sentence structures, increase confidence, expand affective ability and motivate ownership and creativity. While all of the above were not evident for every child, I could infer that each student personally used the drama, either directly, or indirectly, to make personal progress. A small percentage of this progress is visible to the school through the assessment criteria and sadly, this is often the only progress that students and parents are made aware of with regards to writing skills.
Molly’s diary writing before the drama activity (left), and after (right)
How have things changed and how will I teach differently now?
The range of effects of drama on students’ writing has been illuminating, though some were expected to some degree. What was unforeseen is how this research has made me look at and read their work differently. It ultimately shifted my views on the entire process of writing, chiefly how acknowledging only the final product is inept. It is clear how all elements of the writing process, including collaborative activities and/or discussions, play a part in what is produced. In this respect, I want to continue to develop my own practice to ensure I take this into consideration. The main implications for this are regarding planning and assessments: perhaps I, and other teachers, need to ensure that we are encouraging progress on a range of scales, not just looking for ‘measurable outcomes’ on the assessment criteria. Students deserve recognition and celebration for their own, unique achievements too, and therefore require us to give them means and methods to access them.
Since the completion of my study, I have ran a whole-school CPD (continuous professional development) session to share my study and findings with my colleagues. My work was received with curiosity and interest in the application of drama before writing, and many left claiming they were considering new ways to ‘ease’ students into extended writing tasks. Ultimately, this is my hope: that they, and other teachers of secondary school level, will find something of value in my methods and results, and will feel encouraged to explore the use of drama within their own teaching, in a bid to develop and improve writing opportunities for their students.
Natasha’s full dissertation can be read, here: n-cornwell-rpbe-dissertation-2016