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Learning in, with and through drama

Parents who enrol their children in theatre classes have many goals, and

creating the next child star is usually not among them. It's more about

having fun, building self-confidence and leaving their shyness behind.

13 September 2008| Amanda Garzia|

"A regular shot of drama can sharpen children's appreciation of themselves and others..." With his arms outstretched, miming a glide, in the style of L'Aeroplanino, I could easily imagine a younger Alan Montanaro whizzing through an open field at play. I was delighted to watch him smudge the border line behind which school heads normally set up camp to keep their distance. In a single gesture, Mr Montanaro, principal of the local branch of the Helen O'Grady Academy, explained why today, more than ever, "development through drama" the school's own motto, has so much to offer to children.

As of late, an increasing number of researchers have focused on play and storytelling as

activities by means of which a child develops, so drama is being explored by educators for its potential to stimulate and support the growth of the imagination and other skills. Mr

Montanaro recalls playing in fields opposite the house. Now, he says, drama has become

even more important to build the imagination because the fields have been replaced by

stone and more passive forms of entertainment.

On the subject of play, I asked Marika Mercieca, a principal at Stagecoach, if there is a

relationship between play as in children's play and play as in something we watch at the theatre. In her opinion, when children play they are pretending and moving away from

reality to create a story; the same happens on stage. Naturally, there are differences in the ways children and actors create a different reality, yet the link between drama, play and growth is definitely there.

While play has become more screen-based, as in TV and game console, communication has also become restricted in terms of vocal and gestural exchanges. Getting the hang of speech and learning how to read body language is harder when children have limited opportunities to connect with others in a meaningful way.

In the search for meaning, can drama, with its use of language, mime and gesture create a more rounded experience for children? Ms Mercieca agrees that the use of mime and

gestures is a plus. It helps children express themselves more freely, particularly when they do not yet feel confident enough in the area of speech. It also serves to enhance their perception of movement and use of space.

A regular slot of drama can sharpen children's "appreciation" of themselves and others, particularly when teachers value the importance of a bright disposition. This makes

education more of an adventure than a chore. Apart from having standard qualifications in the area, the people at Stagecoach also believe that a drama teacher has to be able to listen to children and understand their needs, realising that no one child is like another. One of the points stressed at Stagecoach is that the fun element has to be present at all times but not, however, at the expense of friendly discipline.

Abigail Williams, who is in charge of activities at the Curtain Raiser Academy, has worked

extensively in theatre in education. She tells me that the main thing to keep in mind, in the presence of children, is to go down to their level. This encourages mutual respect and, therefore, a feeling of ease. It promotes a fun and relaxed atmosphere in which children feel comfortable enough to explore their potential.

Ms Williams can easily appreciate the concern voiced by Curtain Raiser Academy's founder, Patrick Vella, regarding children and drama. Teaching a drama class is no mean feat and it requires special training. Drama is a journey which requires the guidance of a tour leader. As such, Mr Vella is quick to stress that drama and theatre are two different things. A gifted personality does not necessarily have the know-how to manage a drama class. Theatre commands your attention, while drama requires you to do something.

In his role as drama teacher, Mr Vella makes it a point to gauge a class's energy level and adapt accordingly. Drama games must have parameters, he says, and a safe zone that serves to keep the children emotionally safe.

When his people are asked to stage plays in schools they deal with issues like healthy eating, global warming and bullying. They offer alternate scenarios - one of the several advantages of a well-developed imagination - to what may seem like, at first, hopeless situations. This helps children understand that there is more than one solution to a problem and they can have a hand in creating a personal response to it. It is important, Ms Williams notes, for children to realise that their contribution is valued; that it is not wrong to have their own opinion. They thus come to respect diversity.

Stagecoach opened its first local school 10 years ago, literally paving the way for an

increased awareness of the ways in which drama promotes students' creativity and well-

being. The school's motto, "a training for life", is indicative of the far-reaching benefits of

drama when teachers give classes based on the foundations established by educators in the field together with their own expertise.

It is thanks to this initiative that a generation of children has benefited from the connection between drama and development.

Locally, career opportunities have greatly improved for children proving that in some areas, at least, there is a growing respect for diversity. Yet, as a nation, while we are overly

enthusiastic about the joys of having a perfect house 24/7 - something which puts parents at risk of ignoring their children's needs - we are still in awe of purely academic subjects. This does not mean, ironically, that parents do make an effort to nurture a joy of learning in children purely for the sake of it. Some parents can't wait for their children to finish secondary school and get a job. Others may be overly enthusiastic about excellence in traditional subjects. Attitudes like these tend to tip the balance against sport and drama, to name but two.

American-born teacher, Katherine Brown, in fact, emphasises how important it is to find

ways and means to create balance. I have seen the other side of things back in America, she tells me, where academic subjects really suffer because the general set-up is heavily stacked in favour of sport. She finds that her actual theatre experience, as well as her training in the Helen O'Grady system, give her a lot with which to work when she is in a formal classroom.

Mr Montanaro outlines how important a role the system can play in the development of

children. When a teacher gets full accreditation from the Academy - the end result of a

process which involves intensive training - the benefits, for the teacher and class, are

invaluable. The system is described by the Academy as just the thing to provide educators with "outstanding job satisfaction" simply because it puts a lot of faith in its teachers. It was devised by Helen O'Grady in 1979 to provide educators with a self-development programme for children through drama. At the time, Ms O'Grady was already a trained teacher, drama teacher and actress. She pooled her resources to create a sophisticated tool with which to help students enjoy life, build self-esteem and enjoy healthy interactions, whether fleeting or long-term, with other people.

This echoes, in part, the observation in Gail Godwin's novel The Odd Woman that "good

teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths theatre." A teacher can, for example,

have excellent credentials. These can, however, be overshadowed by a difficulty to deliver in class. A teacher has to connect with students. In the case of Ms Brown, who is also a teacher at San Andrea School, the "preparation" itself can be said to have incorporated a drama-like approach to education.

Hence the strong link between drama and education goes a long way. Drama, by its very

nature, Mr Montanaro explains, teaches children about life while it inspires them to take an interest in, for example, English and history. It also creates an awareness of the subtleties of psychology as they unfold in everyday life. Drama activities can be incorporated into day-to-day learning to make teaching more engaging, hedging the emphasis on what are, relatively speaking, traditional methods.

When drama, Ms Brown stresses, is "properly taught", it instills confidence in children. It allows room for improvisation in a safe environment by driving home the message that, in

this context, there is no right or wrong answer. The teacher's general attitude is key. A happy teacher who enjoys each day cannot but create an environment which stimulates better learning. This is the kind of teacher who welcomes the opinions of others in a genuine effort to mitigate the myopia which blinds adults to alternatives.

Mr Montanaro, in fact, explains that the Helen O'Grady method has been developed to

equip its teachers with a very strict curriculum which focuses around group activity in such a way that each and every student gets a chance to shine today or tomorrow. Because the classes are not so performance-based, the stress of a big end-of-year show staged for the benefit of the parents is completely eliminated. The children always come first and it shows. Mr Montanaro has seen children crying in a corner at the start of a term come out of their shell, in their own time, so much so that it gets to a point where they excitedly ask him for a line. Everybody is given the opportunity to shine because, he emphasises, if you are not king today, you will be king next week.

A Student Diversity Newsletter, circulated among students at Nazareth College in the

autumn of 2004, focused on "Growing and Learning Together as One" when it quoted,

among others, Maya Angelou. She had this to say about children, creativity and conformity: "We are all creative, but by the time we are three or four years old, someone has knocked the creativity out of us. Some people shut up the kids who tell stories. Kids dance in cribs, but someone will insist they sit still. By the time the creative people are 10 or 12, they want to be like everyone else."

In the course of childhood, children deal with reality by making routine stops in the land of make-believe. Occasionally adults cut the experience short. They expect behaviour which is a release for them, not so for their children. This is what happens when, for instance, parents demand complete silence during play.

How more profitable would it be for adults were they to stretch out their arms as if to fly, if

only for a moment, and experience the joy of drama by means of which children figure out the world?! They would, perhaps, come to better understand childhood and why bringing out the best in children requires the very best...

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