Students in a recent drama residency in Bardstown, KY used role-drama and sociodrama to explore the social and historical context for a range of characters based on African American historical figures living from the 18th century to the present.
Role Drama in the classroom is described in detail in the book, Role Drama by Tarlington/Verriour. Role drama is the British way of doing theatre in education, and is particularly applicable to integrating theatre into other subject matter.
The Sociodrama warm-up Sociogram is explained in the book, Who’s in Your Shoes? by Patricia Sternberg and Antonia Garcia. Sociodrama games are especially useful for social studies, language arts, health, practical living, and behavior skills.
We wrote a timeline on the board, marking off century and half-century marks from mid-1700’s to present. We reviewed and added important historical dates in American/African American history (Civil war and emancipation, southern sharecropping, industrialization, Great Migration, great depression, civil rights movement, other wars, etc.). We reviewed and added key developments in technology, forms of communication, and transportation. Then we drew an imaginary line from one end of the room to the other and designated one end as 1750 and the other as the present and asked students to place themselves along the line in the order in which they (as their character) were born. To accomplish this task, characters had to ask each other when they were born. If students were unable to do this for their characters, we stopped and discussed the timeline again, if necessary, asking for a show of hands: “Who lived during the period of slavery before Emancipation? . . . during the turn of the century (late 1800’s and early 1900’s)? . . . from the 1920’s through the Civil Rights Movement? . . . after the Civil Rights Movement?” If necessary, we created a different timeline and asked students to place themselves along the line based on when they as actors were born. Once they understood the concept, we applied it to their characters.
Spectogram warm-ups to explore historical context and character choices:
After students understood their character’s place on the timeline, we asked students to stand in a circle. Any student at random could step into the circle and speak as their character, saying, “I remember . . .” or “I know about. . .” followed by a historic event, form of transportation, social condition, etc. At that point, any character for whom this statement was also true could join the first character by taking a step into the center. Then after a moment, they stepped back to the circle and another character stepped forward with a statement. If students became confused, we stopped to discuss the historical context. The game continued as long as students were interested and learning.
On another day, we reviewed the historical timeline and then created a spectogram in which students had to make creative choices for their characters based on their research on the character and knowledge of the time period. Again, they stood in a circle, but this time characters stepped forward and said, “I want . . .” or “I think . . . ” or “I need . . .” We told students it was OK to make up details for their character, but they should try to imagine what their character would say based on what they know to be true. We allowed students to make any creative choice for their character, but we sometimes stopped and asked the group to help justify student choices (ie. What would Harriet Tubman have normally eaten for breakfast? Where did her food come from? Where might she have heard of or seen a pineapple? Did they have airplanes bringing food from exotic places back then? How long did it take to travel across the ocean by ship? etc.”)
Character Monologues based on Props (Historical Artifacts):
We displayed props representing a range of time periods (old book, baseball, apron, hat, cell phone, antique tool or key, vhs tape or record, newspaper, etc.) Then we asked a volunteer student to select a prop, stand, introduce herself as her character, and tell an imaginary story as her character about how she got the item and why it is her most precious possession. After the story, other students asked questions and she answered, adding additional imaginary detail. She returned the prop, and another student chose a prop to tell a story about. If two students chose the same prop, they had the challenge of creating a completely different story than the previous student.
Role Drama: a Panel of Expert Characters:
Role dramas usually involve drama activities which are integrated into the classroom over the course of weeks or even months, but the principles can be applied to any activity where the teacher takes on a role with the students. In this case, the teacher assumes the role of MC or talk show host to guide the activity. Read how we applied this same activity to science. Here are instructions for the exercise we did in Bardstown:
Set up 4 chairs in the front of the room.
Choose 4 volunteers representing characters from a range of historical periods to sit in the chairs. Seat them in order of earliest time period to latest.
As the teacher, assume the part of a meeting facilitator at a conference of experts meeting by time travel in the present.
Lay out the props. Allow panelists choose props for their characters—based on their time period. (you might include enough props for audience members to do the same.) Explain that the props may jog their thoughts and inspire them to give useful input from their time period or life experience.
Ask panelists to introduce themselves and tell their great accomplishments and when those took place.
Teacher announce the problem (devise any problem based on the learning objectives desired):
“I called you all here to this community meeting to discuss a situation we are seeking a solution to. Thank you for traveling here to 2012 from your various periods of history to help us solve this problem. With so many great minds in one room, I’m sure we will generate some great ideas! The problem we are facing is a great many young people in our community who feel they don’t have choices in life – like no matter what they do, nothing in their life is going to change – that they’re going to end up with the same life their parents and grandparents had, no matter what they want. They feel they can’t stand up for themselves and get what they need. To illustrate this, I’d like to read you a letter I recently received from a young person in the community:
(Read from a separate paper.) “Dear Sir: I am 12 years old, and I am sad because my life looks kind of hopeless. I think it would be fun to be a scientist who studies animals or a person who trains dogs, but my dad says that’s just for rich people. He says I should just look around me. He says I’m not any smarter than anybody else in the family and nobody in my family gets anywhere, so I should quit thinking I’m going to be such a big deal. My step brother did have a good job, but then he got caught with some drugs and went to jail. I might end up going to jail too, because I’m a lot like my brother. What should I do? Sincerely, A normal kid.
“What would you smart people have to say to an individual like that?”
In character as the meeting facilitator, encourage panelist and audience characters to share insights from their historical period and life experience. Also pose questions students might not generate themselves. Ask for specifics. Open the floor to questions or comments from the audience historical characters (ask audience participants to introduce themselves and tell their greatest accomplishment, when that was, etc. before they ask their question or make their comment). Call all participants “maam, sir, Mr. Count Bassie”, etc. Ask if audience members agree or disagree with the panelists. Single out characters (audience or panelists) and ask about specific areas of expertise or specific life experience that may qualify them to address a certain subject that comes up. Always ask for stories from their own life and how they personally managed to accomplish the things they are suggesting.
Coach for more details and stories.
Coach participants to use their prop to help solve the problem – not distract from solving the problem (tell story about the prop that relates to solving the problem, use it to suggest or accomplish a solution, etc.)
Coach participants to stay in character, project their voice, etc.
The facilitator can encourage debate by suggesting an opinion, “Don’t you think . . . “ or even “Do you think . . . “ (for instance, one panelist in one class said he thought the boy didn’t need to think about his future right now – just focus on school and worry about the rest when he grew up. And this sparked a lively debate.)
Switch out panelists if desired.
Note: this is role drama (the British approach to Theatre in Education). As the teacher, try to stay in character and deal with issues in character (“Gentlemen, I’m sure you behave more professionally than this in your own time period. Otherwise, you would never have been able to accomplish the great things that you have. Please amend your behavior or I will be forced to eject you from this conference.”), but if you must break out of character and address students as actors or re-assume your teacher role, just explain, “I’m going to speak to you now as Ms. Smith (your name).” Or “Let me break out of character for a moment and talk to you as actors.”
Students seem to love role drama because they love being treated as adults and asked to solve adult problems in adult ways. This is, after all, why children pretend: to explore the adult world, and adult roles.