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Using Drama and Stories across Curriculum


It’s early morning in the cold community hall on the edges of the ‘Twelve Toes Tops’ mountain range. The villagers are angry about the potential Coca-Cola development on their land. They have refused to accept the compulsory purchase order for their homes, and wouldn’t even budge despite the developers' promise of a lifetime supply of free Diet Coke. The chair of the meeting (me) is struggling to hold order, but suddenly, the bell rings and we have to go, we’ve lost track of time.

The reality is that ‘twelve toes tops’ is not a real place but the product of students' imagination, and that we’re not in the village hall at all but in a steamed up English classroom last period on a winter Wednesday with low set Year 9.

The kids pack up quick as a flash and funnel out, but on the way Billy, the inventor of the ‘twelve toes tops’ moniker for our mountain range (so called because there are twelve peaks and they “look like someone’s feet, sir”), stops to say; “Keep the Coca Cola man waiting, we’ll get back to him tomorrow”.

I smile satisfied; because if anyone would tell me that this tough year 9 class would go for a made up story about a mountain range, I would probably laugh. But they did go for it. And to be honest, I think they are more likely to go for THIS than the photocopied worksheet cover tasks on persuasive writing, actually.
See, as a drama teacher I’m always looking to find the story in learning, and as supply teachers we’re all looking to engage students and build rapport as quickly as possible. So when I read the cover work I often use a combination of drama and stories to engage the students, get them on my side, make the work a little more interesting, and put the learning in a real life context. And let me clarify, when I say drama, I mean; speaking and listening and imagining a bit - not making a play.

Taking inspiration from ‘Uncharted Territories’ by Hywel Roberts and Debra Kidd, I have a number of off the shelf story settings that can be applied to a range of topics and subjects.

The one I have been using the most is a mountain community. Be prepared with a whiteboard pen. Draw a wavy line (like a mountain range) on the board. Tell the students: ‘Thank you for attending the meeting at such short notice, I know some of you have travelled a long way, but there is a very important issue in our community’. You could then take the register. Mark the village hall on the map with a little box that says ‘village hall’.

‘Here’s the village hall we’re in today, here are the mountain peaks of our community’. Ask the students ‘where abouts in the hills have you travelled from today?’. Ask them to mark where they live on the map with their initials. (Good way to learn names). Tell them; ‘that’s a beautiful place to live, what’s there?’. They’ll say trees or rocks or a cave, or something amazing like ‘an old rope bridge over the valley’. If there’s some reluctance you can help them along by explaining your own ‘house’ first and talking about the ancient well that’s at the end of your garden, then add their landmarks to the map.

Some students won’t answer, some will laugh, some will be completely puzzled. Some will answer, some will love it, most of them will warm up, all of them will be intrigued.

From here depending on the nature of the class you could:

• Continue to list landmarks on the board and discuss the beauty of different locations, creating folk tale stories about places
• Ask students to draw the map in their books and label it up with geographical features
• Plot map on graph paper
• Choose one landmark and describe it using adjectives and alliteration. Or similes. Or a rhyme.
• Devise names for the mountain range and take votes
• Write a list of questions they’d like to ask me about the ‘problem issue’ we have
• Role play a news report on strange sightings seen in the forest
• Take the register

So, children are kind of onboard with this 'imaginary village' and you are 20 minutes into the lesson and have not even mentioned the worksheet. Why put the effort in doing this?

The work that’s been set for the class is persuasive writing. Students should read an article about the Nepalese Himalayas and then write an argument for or against increasing tourist trekking according to how they feel about its impact on the environment and local communities. So instead of reading about Nepal, we’re making our own community, and instead of tourists, we have Coca Cola. They want to build a factory and its plan is to do so in the middle of the village. What’s the impact?

I thought the worksheet was a little cold. Students didn't have much interest in writing about Himalayas. And I didn’t have the rapport / respect of the class to say ‘let’s just crack on’. Most of the time they don’t know me and therefore feel they don't need to do any work with me. I have to take the work set and use my professional ingenuity to bring it to life.

Stories help:

• Engage the class
• Allow students to be vocal (on your terms)
• Build rapport
• Ensure children are engaged in the work (they created it themselves so are more likely to care)
• Have fun

I give them the news about the fizzy drink factory, then hand out the worksheet for us to read through, but they have too many questions. ‘They can’t do that sir!’, ‘How much will they pay us for the land?’ ‘Why wouldn’t we let them do it? More money, jobs, and as much coke as we want!’

But we do settle down to read the worksheet and students do the work they are supposed to do; as long as I promise to decide on the name for the village and have another debate before we leave for the day.

First of all, they write a list of pros and cons, then they use a word bank to identify persuasive language. After this the students follow a letter template to the CEO of Coca-Cola explaining their position. They learn how to layout a letter, the difference between sincerely and faithfully, argument and counter argument etc. While they work I collect the potential village names and conduct the vote. ‘Twelve Toes Tops’ is decided.

After a while we share some letter extracts, some for and some against. Detailed, structured, and crucially; authentic. They actually care! During the further debate the school bell rings as we all realise we’d forgot the time.

This was English, persuasive writing. But the mountain range can be used across the curriculum. Where is your subject in a mountain range?

Some ideas:

Geography - volcanoes, erosion, deforestation, water cycle, mapping

Art - cave paintings have been found

MFL - there is a indecipherable note pinned to a tree

Music - folk songs, protest songs

Maths - angles, area, percentages, coordinates 

PE - heart rates from exercise (climbing), diet (protein rich mountain food)

Try it, before you simply tell them ‘what they’re doing today’ - tell a bit of a story - it really works.

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