BAYFEST In-School Drama Process Programs are structured as 7 to 10-week sessions, with meetings once a week (40 – 55 minutes, depending on K-12 grade level), though shorter and longer formats can be used when appropriate.
From the beginning, the BAYFEST teaching artist seeks to engage the students as “experts”; individuals who already have the knowledge and resources to develop and complete an engaging dramatic exploration and/or performance. The tone that is set from the start is one of group collaboration and inventiveness to solve a specific problem or develop a clear narrative related to a curriculum unit or challenge from the classroom teacher. This is done by asking the students questions and letting their answers lead the early sessions as completely as possible.
Examples of the kinds of questions that might be asked on the first day to get them started are:
“Does your class do or say anything special when things are getting rowdy, to get everyone quiet and focused? Can we practice that?” “Can you come up with a separate quiet signal for our sessions together?”
“Your teacher told me that you are studying about the Declaration of Independence and thought it would be fun to make a play about that. Do you guys agree? What could the play be about? What are 4 things you really want to show in the play?”
“If we split up into 4 groups, can you work together with your partners to come up with three group ideas and actions about independence and freedom, and actions that we could use to show these things?” [here they might come up with actions as diverse as abstract movements depicting “freedom”, letting a horse out of a stable, or a still tableau showing a group of free and enslaved people.]
The teaching artist will act as “scribe” to the group, writing down students’ ideas, which can be reviewed at different points in the process. But it should always seem to the class that the ideas and solutions are theirs; the best group learning in these situations comes through the ensemble-building and the self-discovery of the group’s ability to find creative solutions to collective problems.
During the first two sessions, classroom teachers are asked to let the teaching artist take control of the classroom during the session, although they are asked to observe. This is important for two reasons: it establishes the teaching artist as the ‘leader’ during the BAYFEST sessions (one who might do things somewhat differently than the classroom teacher), and it allows the class to discover for themselves new group patterns of behavior, competence, and creativity that might not be what they’re used to during normal class time. For instance, it is often the case that the most “difficult” student in class — the one who calls out inappropriately or is too physical with other students — can become a positive leader in the drama sessions. Or the student who tends to be very shy but excels in art can be asked to create pictures of different scenes that the class comes up with, and these can be used as a “story-board” for a play or video project, with the student acting as director. When this happens, the class not only has the invaluable opportunity to see their peers succeed in unexpected ways, but the classroom teacher can observe and learn strategies to more effectively engage their students.
The following example, taken from an actual series of drama sessions in a fourth-grade class at an inner-city school in Seattle, shows how this process might work in a specific situation:
The class was developing a play, based on a Social Studies unit they had been studying (the teacher also wanted to focus on collaboration, which was sometimes difficult for them). After the first couple of sessions, which included of a number of fun and physical team-building exercises, the teaching artist quickly transitioned into asking stimulating questions and making suggestions from ‘inside’ the narrative as it developed, from a character’s point of view.
The subject that the classroom teacher had proposed exploring was “hunger in drought-stricken parts of the world.” Most of the class gravitated quickly toward only playing the people who were hungry, and became rather stereotypical with their moaning, stomach-clutching portrayals. In an effort to expand their ‘field of view’, the teaching artist began to ask questions like, “Did you hear that the people who live in the next town have stored a lot of food that they grew last year? What should we do about that?”
This led to a great discussion, with some “townspeople” wanting to pursue cooperation, and others who proposed secret or aggressive action to get the other town’s food supplies. Suddenly, interesting and more complex layers of the issues surrounding the subject of drought and hunger were revealed, without imposing any sort of pre-determined script or set of ideas on the class. And alliances formed between like-minded class members who did not usually work together.
The great advantage of this way of working is that students almost always feel more empowered to develop ideas that may be a bit deeper or ‘edgier’ than they are used to. Those not yet comfortable with the performing aspects are still full contributors, easing into the drama sessions by coming up with ideas, doing research, etc. Often, this type of student can be easily transitioned to a comfort level with the performing part of it by letting them do what they do best at first.
By the end of the BAYFEST In-School Drama Process programs, we often find that students are relating to one another with more empathy, class communication is enhanced, and teachers have new tools that they can use in the classroom to assist with transitions between activities, to
bring a kinesthetic learning element into various subject-areas, and to build class cohesiveness.