Nick Bentley is a Lead Practitioner for Access & Inclusion and Drama at an all-girls Secondary School in East London. In the spring term of 2017 he conducted an investigation into the use of drama in teaching William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and examined the impact of this on five students in a Year Nine “Nurture Group” class targeted at teaching Literacy and Social Skills. Drawing upon data including a teacher journal, excerpts of student writing and the reflective comments of teaching assistants, the investigation concluded that drama can complement young people’s reading, writing, oral communication and social skills, and contribute to giving them a voice.
As an eleven year old, trying to negotiate a wide variety of issues that eleven year olds tend to face, drama seemed to be the perfect thing for me. I was the shortest boy in my form class; I was, tragically, atrocious at PE, and I was frequently “accused” of being “gay,” whilst grappling with the fact that this probably was the case. I was urgently trying to forge my own sense of identity. Through lessons and extracurricular drama, however, I was provided with the opportunity to be unapologetically loud and confident. Here, I could get my voice heard.
Reflecting on my work with my Year 9 “Nurture Group” class, I sought to consider our use drama to explore Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. My research question was: What happens when we use drama? I sought to answer this question by investigating the learning experiences of my class, collecting data through my own teacher journal, excerpts of student work, and teaching assistant journals.
To begin our work on Romeo and Juliet we used drama to go back in time and to explore Verona. I dressed up as my alter-ego, Mr Bongley (an explorer) and the rest of the class joined me in-role to also become explorers, walking around Verona to get a sense of what it was like. We began by walking around the city:
This initial learning activity seems to have facilitated the group’s excited engagement the story; it was the first moment where the learners were able to demonstrate a sense of independence and confidence.
A few lessons down the line, we role-played part of the Capulets’ party. This was an enjoyable part of the lesson; we all got to do some terrible dancing and there was much laughter, before I stopped them and we heard the next part of the story: Romeo and his friends came to the party, and Tybalt was very surprised. I thought we should hot-seat Tybalt, so I began asking if anyone wished to play him. Before I had finished asking the question, I had a response:
Fateha seemed to be developing an impressive amount of confidence, willingly participating within the world of the drama and involving herself in the performance. Her eager adoption of the role of Tybalt, and clear understanding of his viewpoint – “It’s so bad” and “I hate you!”- indicating Tybalt’s disapproval of the lovers’ romance, and a good understanding of this from Fateha’s perspective.
We went on to conduct an in-role writing activity to explore a sense of the role of Romeo. Fateha’s writing indicated a keenness to use impressive adjectives:
Her expressive use of language in the drama world seems to have translated into her writing; she is happy to include words such as “melancholy,” “adore” and “banished,” but also her practical drama, exploring Tybalt, comes through in her writing as Romeo: in the final sentence of her paragraph we can see that Tybalt has returned! This seems to indicate Fateha’s significant interest in the role of Tybalt, and a clear reading of the furious relationship between Tybalt and Romeo.
After watching the teaching assistants speak lines from the play and having had the opportunity to write about their ideas in relation to the scene, the students used role-play to explore this moment. Janet and Runa began by role-playing this scene, and their commitment seems to indicate a deep sense of confidence relating to several of the skills being examined as part of this investigation:
Runa’s highly physicalized response to the scene indicates her wholehearted commitment in addition to a radical re-imagining of it. Far from accepting Lord Capulet’s tyrannical cruelty, Runa-Juliet has turned it on its head, by offering a loud and furious rejection of it. This is entirely consistent with the plot of the play – Juliet does not marry Paris – but Runa moves away from productions of Romeo and Juliet which foreground Juliet’s fragility, instead offering her as an independent, resilient young woman.
In contrast to some of the more submissive conceptions of Juliet we had explored, Runa recast her as a powerful young woman, endowed with deep confidence.
It could be argued that this mirrors her own growing confidence:
In addition to these reflections in my teacher journal, Sally Jones’ notes seem to underline the positive impact of using drama in our lessons:
I think using drama had a big impact on all the girls, in a number of ways. Their confidence was really improved, particularly when presenting to the rest of the class. There were a few girls (Clara, Runa) who, at the start of the year, were a bit shy about presenting, and now leap at any opportunity! I think all of their verbal skills have improved enormously. (Teaching Assistant Journal Excerpt)
These comments on the growing confidence of our students, are hugely pleasing, and indicate a sense of the benefits of our drama work. Aware as I am that such reactions from staff fail to evidence a watertight connection between drama and my students’ personal growth, as a reflection on the work of our students during the first half term of this scheme of learning, it was highly pleasing to note their increased sense of presence.
I would like to return to one of my original assertions; that in my own personal experience of drama in secondary school I was able to “get my voice heard.” Through their own use of drama, my students have been loud, quiet, playful, joyful and innovative throughout the entire investigation, and have readily and generously shared their ideas about the play through drama, writing and conversations. Given all this, it seems clear that drama really has served as a way, for these young women, to get their voices heard.
Read Nick’s full study here: Final Submission Nicholas Bentley RPBE Report