I have always enjoyed elaborate storytelling. Ask any of my friends and they will concur that I make the most out of any tale I’m spinning. I add voices, expression, and of course just a hint of spice to keep my audience interested. I so enjoyed these antics that I pursued a degree in theater post high school. My father was always confounded as to “What will you do with a theater degree?” Of course, he said it in more colorful language than I’m allowed to print here.
Well, my theater education taught me many useful skills that I’ve parlayed into a very successful career as a teacher and an educator. The ability to stand in front of a room of children or adults and hold their interest for upwards of six hours a day takes practice and the specific and articulate use of theatrical strategies. When I was teaching in the classroom, I would use many of those tools to engage my students, deepen their understanding, and in some cases, simply reduce the level of stress in the room (especially during periods of assessment).
Those tools, most generally known as creative dramatics, include the use of activities that incorporate theatrical disciplines and dramatic exploration into the educational setting to nurture students’ curiosity, thinking, and creativity. Many benefits come from using creative dramatics in the classroom, including:
- Affirming that ideas are best learned when we “play” with them
- Assisting in developing creative problem-solving strategies
- Offering opportunities to build self-confidence in front of an audience
- Promoting social and emotional development through understanding the affective nature of the curriculum
- Supporting self-regulation, task focus, and concentration
- Fostering self-esteem, self-efficacy, and self-control
- Developing the skills of communication and collaboration
- Enhancing learning through authentic exploration
- Encouraging a greater appreciation for theater and the arts
Here are a few activities you can use to incorporate creative dramatics into your classroom.
When working on a history unit, have students choose a point along a timeline and act out or narrate a significant event that happened at that time. Students should be encouraged to research not only the people of the time, but also the social nature of the time. For instance, when studying the American Revolution, a student may choose a significant female character of the time, like Esther Reed. Reed was born into status but felt it was an atrocity that our soldiers were freezing in their tents during tough winters. She decided to form the first women’s group that collected money to supply the troops with warm clothes and bedding. The student who takes on this character should research how difficult it was for women (whether from means or not) to organize and how significant it was for a woman to take action. The student could act out how she ran the first meeting, communicated her idea to other women, or sent a message to a friend back in England.
Role Play, Skits, or Plays
Similar in nature to the living timeline, these activities highlight the students’ understanding of a character in a novel or in history. Instead of just one moment in time (as in the timeline), the student must flesh out more to bring forward the three-dimensional nature of the character. Students should create a 3- to 5-minute presentation of a turning point in the character’s life, being sure to define what preceded the event and even foreshadow (predict) what may come next.
This well-used method is a way for students to either read from a script or to dramatize a piece of literature. No memorization, costumes, sets, or acting skills are required to participate in readers’ theater. As the name states, the student reads a piece of writing to the audience. You can either have students prepare a reading or simply take a section of the day’s text to dramatize. Again, this technique can bring the text alive and encourage students to “feel” the characters. You may also want to consider having students take an unscripted text and create a script (with staging directions and emotional or movement cues).
Then What Happened?
This activity can either be done orally or in writing. The teacher invents a simple beginning statement, such as “We all boarded the bus for the class field trip,” and says to the students, “Then what happened?” Students take turns calling out the next sentence to the story. Each time a student makes a statement, the teacher calls out, “Then what happened?” Continue until all students have had a chance to contribute to the story. You could have students record the statements in writing to create a fun class book to share with younger students. This could also be used in a math class when giving either a problem that needs to be solved or when trying to solve an equation (“What would we do next?”). Another modification to this activity is to have the students act out what might happen next rather than speak the words.
Creative dramatics is a useful tool in assisting students to develop their listening and speaking skills (essential in the Common Core State Standards). Students learn poise, posture, and how to think more holistically to include the affective side of content. Having effective communication skills is an ever-growing necessity for our students as they learn to collaborate with vastly diverse groups of people.
If you have other ways to use creative dramatics in your classroom, please share them in the comments!
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Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century by Richard M. Cash.
The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom: Using Improvisation to Teach Skills and Boost Learning by Katherine S. McKnight and Mary Scruggs.
See It, Be It, Write It: Using Performing Arts to Improve Writing Skills and Test Scores by Hope Sara Blecher-Sass, Ed.D., and Maryellen Moffitt.
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