Three Ways a Little Drama Can Enhance Student Learning

It’s November, and the sweep of positive energy and eagerness that accompanies us all at the beginning of a new school year has naturally begun to fade. How do we combat the gravity of continual hard work and predictable routines in the classroom and too little sleep outside of it—that characterizes this post-honeymoon phase of the year? One way is with drama. As simple as it sounds, by incorporating dramatic play into our classes, we can tap into the energetic physical, social and creative sides of our students—and we can also boost their critical thinking and understanding of whatever academic content we are studying.

Let’s admit it. No matter how much we wish it weren’t so, most of our students’ school days are filled with two-dimensional activities-you know, the basic pencil and paper or PowerPoint and worksheet, or textbook and note-taking kind. And though these modalities can be as meaningful as any in the context of a rich curriculum, too much of the same quickly becomes tedious, and many learners disengage. Last school year, I experimented a lot with drama and found that by carving out some time for drama in each unit plan, I was able to invigorate student engagement at key moments where I may have lost students in the past. As I tried it more regularly, I noticed these activities had more academic benefits than I had anticipated. Drama may fit obviously into an English language arts curriculum, but it can bring new perspective to any subject.

Introducing a Concept or Theme

When beginning a unit, many of us ask students what they already know or think about a key concept or essential question we’ve selected, and share ideas in groups or as a whole class to stimulate their thinking. Drama can provide a fresh way to arrive at the same type of result.

This past spring, as I began a unit that centered on the theme of power, I employed a strategy I learned in an Embody Learning workshop at the School Reform Initiative conference: the silent skit. I asked students to work in small groups and create a silent skit that represented some aspect of “power”. I only gave them about five to seven minutes to prepare! Then each group shared with the class. What followed was powerful no pun intended! The skits were short, and on their own, each was fairly simple. But the collection of skits, seen one after another, revealed how complex the concept of power really is. The content the students generated through this silent exercise became useful throughout the unit. Months later, some students even built on the ideas from these skits in their final project for the unit.

I was shocked at how much changing the medium through which students articulate their thinking shifted the kinds of responses they gave, and deepened the attention they paid to one another. The silent skit could be applied as a compelling, student-driven introduction to any theme or broad concept that guides a unit in any discipline.

Bringing Text to Life

Dramatizing scenes or situations from common texts can be a great way to engage all students in reading and rereading, boost comprehension and memory, and rev up the energy in the classroom. I especially like to do this in the middle of a whole class novel study (using a whole novel approach). I devote a class period for students to prepare and share dramatizations of scenes from the novel. I put students in pairs and ask them to choose a scene both partners already have read. They then reread the scene together, assigning parts, and reading only the dialogue aloud. They read straight from the page, skipping all narration; to do this well, they must discuss how to translate narrative descriptions into physical movement and sounds. When the groups share, the text becomes three-dimensional, supporting struggling readers’ and/or English language learners’ comprehension as well as begging for discussion of the group’s interpretation of literary elements such as tone.

In subjects where novels may not be used, students can dramatize stories from other texts, such as historical documents or textbooks, or accounts of scientific or mathematical discoveries—think Benjamin Franklin and his umbrella or Archimedes in his bathtub, for example. In these cases, students can create short scripts first or develop scenes through improvisation. The process is so much fun, and the result can aid all students in understanding and remembering what they’ve read.

Making That Real-World Connection

When students talk about their most powerful learning experiences, they often describe a teacher who made the content “real” and relatable for them. On the flip side, oftentimes teachers can clearly see the relevance of the content and skills we teach in the classroom, while our students miss it entirely. One of the more interesting and effective ways to help students reflect on the connections between their learning and their lives is through dramatic play. I usually use this activity toward the end of a unit, often before a final project.

We begin with a brief journal entry. I give students a prompt or a few to choose from that require them to think of a time when whatever we are working on happened in real life. Depending on the topic, they could describe a personal experience, something they witnessed, a current event, a historical event or even an imagined event that could easily happen in the real world.

The prompt might sound like these

  • Think of a time when you and/or your community interacted with someone who was “different” in some way. What happened? Tell the story.
  • Think of a situation where measuring circumference would be important. Describe it.

Next, students meet in small groups of three or four, and each member must share his or her story or scenario. The group selects one story to dramatize, and all students must be involved in the dramatization. We have a rule that if the group acts out someone’s personal experience, then that student cannot play himself or herself. Groups can opt to write a script together first or simply create through improvisation and practice. Finally, groups share, and we debrief each piece. The debriefing can be through discussion or with students pausing to reflect in their notebooks. Participating in creating their own group’s scene, and then seeing the variety and commonalities in the other groups presentations, generates excitement and depth of understanding of the ways their learning is connected to the world in which they live.

Inserting drama into your curriculum at a key moment also can help you combat your own school fatigue

  • Dramatic play is low-prep, requiring few or no materials.
  • Dramatizations can be graded on the spot, using a simple rubric.

Sometimes, this is exactly the right thing at the right time. So the next time you find yourself dreading teaching a particular class or spending hours on a super-involved lesson plan with the sneaking suspicion that students won’t meet your effort with theirs, ask yourself if it’s a good time to pause and bring some drama into your classroom.