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April 1, 2006
Vol. 63
No. 7

The Age for Drama

Infusing drama into lessons meets 8th graders' powerful need for purpose, interaction, and safe exploration of roles.

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Around the classroom, pairs of 8th graders enact a role-play. One partner plays an interviewer with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services bureau; the other plays the role of a Cambodian refugee. The scenes are short and unscripted, and everyone in the class engages in role-playing simultaneously.
“So, why was the Khmer Rouge after you and your family?” asks Travis, in his role as an interviewer with the immigration agency, pencil poised above his notepad.
“Because my family lived in a city, because we had money, and because my father was a teacher,” explains Jillian.
“I don't understand why that would put you in danger from the Khmer,” Travis presses.
“I am Khmer! My whole family is Khmer,” replies Jillian. “So please call the enemy ‘Khmer Rouge.’ The Khmer Rouge were the Communists. They wanted to make us all peasants so they did not like people who lived in cities or were educated. They wanted to get rid of all modernness! If you send us back, they will kill us!”
As the teacher, I monitor how this drama activity is unfolding and intervene if necessary to shape an individual role-play; I do so in character as an immigration agency supervisor or messenger. As role-plays continue, I notice how well Travis and Jillian interpret their characters, taken from the novel the class is reading, and how well they use appropriate language that fits their roles. Travis, Jillian, and the other students are wholeheartedly engaged and confidently using concepts they learned from the previous day's activities and homework, such as the ideology of the Khmer Rouge and the idea of political asylum.
This snapshot of eager middle schoolers reflects one of many teaching successes I have had with instructional techniques known as action strategies (Wilhelm, 2002). Action strategies tap adolescents' prior knowledge while building important new conceptual and strategic understanding. Because drama fulfills tweens' powerful need for their learning to be purposeful, engaging, and social, tweens embrace dramatic activities.

Using Drama in a Literature Unit

Action strategies can work in any kind of unit in any subject area. As a professor at a university with professional development ties to a local middle school, I recently infused these techniques into a unit that student teachers and I created for an 8th grade English class. This middle school's student body is largely made up of lower-middle-class students, including many recent immigrants from a wide range of countries. The unit we created focused on the essential question “What is community?”, using as source material the novel Children of the River by Linda Crew.
In Children of the River, Sundara, a young Cambodian girl, is sent to the countryside to help a cousin who is having a baby. While she is away, the Khmer Rouge sweep into Phnom Penh and engage in a murderous spree. Sundara flees on a boat with her cousin's family, and after a harrowing journey, the survivors eventually escape and resettle in Oregon. The rest of the book explores issues of healing relationships, keeping the family together, and maintaining the Cambodian community in a foreign land.
Student teachers and I framed the unit as an inquiry and design project (Wilhelm & Friedemann, 1998). We wanted students to inquire into the experience of refugees in the United States and the effects of various communities (such as the school, family, church, and town) on the refugee experience. Throughout the unit, students engaged in a series of dramatic activities that led them to pose a set of interview questions for investigating political asylum claims and to create an instructional video and tip sheet for refugees. We put together a class newspaper that included a news story about major events in Cambodia, an advice column, an explanation of football and other American games and customs for the Cambodian newcomers, and a feature story about a real-life refugee.
To help students connect to the novel, the student teachers and I used action strategies to activate students' background knowledge, build new background schemas to aid their comprehension, and give them a purpose for subsequent reading. Instead of delivering a lecture introducing background information, we set up a dramatic forum. In a dramatic forum, the teacher or a student leads a discussion “in role” as a character connected to the topic being studied. Each student also adopts a particular role and responds from that role within the discussion. Through this activity, a straight information-transmission lesson is transformed into an engaging participatory discussion—a process that echoes how people learn information and address problems in life.
For this dramatic forum, I took on the role of an immigration services supervisor. I cast the students as interviewers whose job was to determine whether individual Cambodian refugees should be granted political asylum. The other teachers and I passed out a handout on the United States' criteria for political asylum and showed a PowerPoint presentation about the history of Cambodia, highlighting the situation that existed in 1975 with the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese. We brainstormed what information we would need to glean from the personal interviews, and small groups created lists of initial interview questions. For homework, students explored selected Web sites to get good background for their interviews.
Introducing background information through an engaging, realistic simulation radically changed the students' relationship to the material. One boy exclaimed, “We're not doing school; we're doing life!” The dramatic forum uncovered the real-life applications of the required curriculum in dynamic ways.
As we read further in the novel, students engaged in other creative simulations—for example, playing the role of Sundara or her aunt Soka. The class brainstormed what challenges Sundara and Soka would face in their new home in the United States, and what kinds of language, education, cultural, employment, and housing supports their church sponsors should provide. Student groups created tip sheets and short videos designed to help refugee students adjust to U.S. life. We showed these videos to the class, with class members taking on the role of refugee students, and followed up with an in-role discussion about what it's like adapting to U.S. culture.

Why Drama Strategies Work

Identity and Competency

Throughout the unit on Children of the River, students in this heterogeneously grouped class completed all the assigned reading and writing and approached classwork with enthusiasm. What explains these high levels of engagement and effort? The answer lies in how drama strategies dovetail with the cognitive and emotional needs of tweens. Erik Erickson (1963) asserted that the developmental task of adolescence is to achieve a coherent identity and to overcome role confusion. A related task is to achieve a sense of competence. To do this, kids have to explore multiple possible identities, try things out, and enjoy the “hard fun” of meaningful work.
Drama removes the risk from taking on another identity because the actor's responsibility is limited to the bounds of the role. Although scenes and dialogue are analogous to real-life situations, actors can play with possibilities and meanings, especially in spontaneous dramas. Unlike real life, drama can work like a tape recorder: Students can rewind to try things differently, fast-forward to see what the future consequences of current actions might be, or hit the pause button to freeze a current moment and study it.

Getting a Sense of Ethics

Realizing that the world is full of perspectives different from one's own—perspectives that deserve respect—offers great possibilities for developing ethical understanding (Wilhelm & Edmiston, 1998). Striving to live in more “wide-awake” ways is an important task facing adolescents. The strategies that infused our unit on Children of the River both engaged students academically and pushed them to explore ethical dilemmas faced by Cambodian refugees. When I asked students to consider ways to help the refugees adjust to life in the United States, they saw possibilities for ethical agency in their own lives.

The Age for Drama

The toy industry once considered children between birth and age 14 as its target market, but now it considers its market only children up to age 10.

—Toy Manufacturers of America Factbook

We looked at ethics through a technique called hotseating, in which students take on the role of a literary character (or even an author, a force, or an idea) to be interviewed by the whole group. We divided the class into groups that prepared to act as Sundara, Soka, or another major character. The groups filled out a sheet reviewing the assigned character's personality, major life events, and values, as well as how the character might respond to questioning. Each group then brainstormed three initial questions for its particular interviewee and rehearsed its character's responses to these questions. Because we determined that the Cambodian characters would probably be guarded in revealing their thoughts and feelings, we assigned one student as an alter ego to explain or elaborate on what the character was really thinking. Each hotseated student could call for a “lifeline,” asking his or her group for help. Thus, the group had to pay constant attention and be ready to confer and provide help.
In another variation of the hotseating technique—bad angel, good angel—half the class discussed what temptations might coax Sundara to become more Americanized and brainstormed ways to convince her to do so. The other half brainstormed ways to convince Sundara to stay on the “right path” of conformity that her aunt Soka required of her. This led to a general discussion of cultural and social influences, different definitions of right behavior, and how community can work for good, ambiguous, or bad ends. The students were thus inquiring at a deep level into the implications of the text.

Connecting Learning to Life

Young adolescents need learning to matter, as one student said, “in the here and now.” Often, the major challenge facing teachers of tweens is to motivate them by providing an immediately meaningful situation for their learning (Smith & Wilhelm, 2002, 2006). The use of drama helps create this learning-to-life connection. Creative drama strategies frame learning as a form of inquiry, connect curricular material both to students' lived realities and to broader world issues, and help students become competent in strategies of inquiry. Drama not only helps young adolescents negotiate their way through a tough passage with greater power and awareness, but also helps them develop academic and social competencies for engaging with the world.

Erickson, E. (1963). Childhood and society (2nd ed.). New York: W. W. Norton.

Smith, M., & Wilhelm, J. (2002). “Reading don't fix no Chevys”: The role of literacy in the lives of young men. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Smith, M., & Wilhelm, J. (2006). Going with the flow. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Wilhelm, J. (2002). Action strategies for deepening comprehension. New York: Scholastic.

Wilhelm, J., & Edmiston, B. (1998). Imagining to learn: Inquiry, ethics and integration through drama. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Wilhelm, J., & Friedemann, P. (1998). Hyperlearning: Where inquiry, projects and technology meet. York, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

End Notes

1 See Action Strategies for Deepening Comprehension (Wilhelm, 2002) for a review of how to use these techniques and many others.

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