Studies have shown a strong connection between regular drama in the classroom and enhanced skills such as reading readiness, story understanding, reading achievement, oral language development, vocabulary, and writing.
We will look at some classroom drama activities that facilitate learning in these areas.
This exercise helps students see pictures in their minds as they read.
Read any story or section of a story. Then ask the class to imagine that they are standing in the middle of that scene and to describe in great detail what they see in their imagination in every direction. Ask the group or bring up one or two students at a time to help you create the imaginary environment. Completely describe one direction at a time until you have done all four directions, plus above and below. Draw out more and more details through questions: “What is over here next to the tree? Describe the building to me. Are the windows clean or dirty? Can you see anything through them? What can you see? What else?. . . ”
Any choice is fine as long as students can justify the choice within the context of the given circumstances of the story, historical period, etc. If some student wants a dinosaur or rocket ship in every scene, explain that theatre is a group art form and some individual choices, no matter how cool, have to be overridden in favor of what will help the group accomplish their task. You can always create a prehistoric or moonscape environment another day!
After you have a detailed imaginary environment created, ask the class to move around in the environment and let themselves really see what is there. Ask them to touch the imaginary items but not to actually touch real thing in the room. (Move your hand right above the floor to feel the pebbles in the road. Don’t actually touch the floor tiles.) Ask them to interact with the environment in some way. Either coach them through it in a kind of narrative pantomime: “You try to pick up a stone, but it’s heavier than you think. It takes two hands. You have to get your weight under it . . .” Or coach them to individually discover something new in the environment and interact with it.”
Note that interacting with an imaginary environment is pantomime and feels like “pretend” to students. Students up to 5th or 6th grade take to it very well. Older students are often very uncomfortable with pantomime unless it’s in the context of a game (such as Charades) or comedy improv or unless they understand that this is an exercise done by professional actors and are willing to buy in to working seriously on acting skills. For older students, I’m likely to have them create the environment and stop there or move to devising scenes or tableaux in that environment.
Persuasive Improv from a Character’s Standpoint:
Improvisation has been shown to improve vocabulary and oral language development and can help with writing fluency. Here is an activity I did with High School Students who were studying A Rasin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry:
Have students read a section of literature. Review the historical, social, political context for the work. Place two chairs in front of the class and ask two volunteer students to come up and each take on the role of one of two specified characters in the story. Set up a scenario and and ask them each to try to persuade the other to opposite courses of action.
For example, In the “Raisin in the Sun” lesson, we used the characters of Lena (Mama) and Ruth and the scenes relating to buying the house in the white neighborhood. We read primary source materials about social conditions and violence related to housing integration in the 50’s in Chicago. We discussed character motivations in that context and the context of the play. Then we asked the student taking the role of Ruth to try to persuade the student taking the role of Lena not to give up on the house and asked “Lena” to persuade “Ruth” that this is impossible and that they must give up their dream and stay in the apartment. We asked them to incorporate anything they knew about the characters or the historical period to make their argument for the character.
The pair of students begins improvising in character. They may not give in. They must keep trying to convince their partner. Tactics don’t have to come from the play, but should be consistent with the characters.
When a student in the audience wants to go into the scene and try a new tactic, she raises her hand and the teacher signals her to go in. Alternately, the teacher may raise his hand as a signal that someone should volunteer or may call on someone to go up or may even take a turn himself.
The new actor will now tag one of the two original scene partners out, take his place, and continue the persuasive dialogue as that person’s character.
If an actor is stumped, she can choose someone to play her subconscious to “sit on her shoulder” (stand behind her) and feed her lines.
The exercise continues with audience members successively tagging one of the partners out and taking that actor’s place to try a new tactic.
Next, the class will optionally break into pairs representing Ruth and Lena and have each pair simultaneously improvise the same argument, applying as many tactics as possible. The teacher should call, “switch” several times and students should switch characters and continue to press the position of the character they are playing.
Finally, the students will write a persuasive letter in character. In our case, the students, all in character as Ruth, wrote a letter to Lena to leave on her bed that night (adjusting the plot of the play slightly to imagine a scenario where the movers would not come until the next day and where Lena was planning to call in the morning to cancel the moving and the purchase of the house, giving up her down payment).