Where teachers meet and learn

ETAS Journal Editors' Choice Number 29 (April 2018)

Patricia Daniels: A touch of drama: A teacher’s personal and professional reflection

ETAS Journal, Volume 35, Number 2 (Spring 2018), p. 34-35

Don’t you find that when you read through the programme for ETAS events there are just too many good workshops to choose from? Sometimes it’s clear because the topic is what you are working on at that time, or maybe something you’ve never heard of and would find interesting. But there are the others you feel would give you a different view point, or maybe new inspiration for your classes, and of course, those things you really should learn more about in our fast-changing teaching environment.

The decision is not easy. When I read Patricia Daniels’ reflection in the Voices of Experience (VoE) section of the Spring Journal, I realised I would have liked to have chosen differently and must have missed a fantastic drama workshop by Eva Göksel at the ETAS Professional Development Day in Biel in September 2017.

Patricia writes about how she once used drama in most of her teaching, especially with young children. Now, as a freelance English language teacher, she teaches largely adults with targets in the marketing or business world and little to no interest in role-plays and drama. All the same, since attending Eva’s workshop, she has found means of adapting and integrating drama activities in her classes. An example is one activity with her university students, whereby they stand in a circle, but only a specific number of them can remain standing, the rest crouch. Through non-verbal communication (eye-contact) they negotiate their positions in the group, thus giving them the opportunity to experiment with power dynamics in a safe environment.

This is just an introduction or warm-up to more drama techniques presented by Eva in her workshop and described in this article, in which Patricia elaborates with her adaptations for presentations and group awareness in non-verbal and verbal communication. So, if you too missed the workshop, here’s your chance to read about it.

Caroline Grünig

ETAS Journal Editorial Board

A touch of drama: A teacher’s personal and professional reflection

Patricia Daniels

I had not intended to take part in Eva Göksel’s drama workshop at the ETAS Professional Development Day in Biel in September 2017, but somehow, I found myself there in the afternoon with a small group of equally enthusiastic teachers. I stopped using drama years ago. It must be close to 20 years ago now. It is not that I am averse to using drama techniques in the classroom, but once I made the move to teaching Business English, English for university studies, and to working with adults in general, drama just seemed to fade away into oblivion. It did not just fall to the bottom of my teaching toolkit, it kicked its way out of the bag and stormed off in defiance. I do not know why I let it go after having had so many good times together.

I used to love using drama when I worked with young children, although, I am not really sure if I consciously categorised what I was doing with them at the time as drama. There was a lot of jumping in and out of imaginary worlds, mirroring one another’s actions, pretending to be all sorts of everyday objects, and mimicking daily tasks. It was all hands-on. If I recall correctly, I used to integrate these types of activities into my classes to get the children more emotionally involved. I wanted to let them use their bodies and their minds during language lessons rather than to morph into a part of the furniture for 60 minutes whilst I played teacher up front. Upon reflection, I feel that drama helped bring my classes to life and evoked an array of emotions that made each lesson a memorable one for me and hopefully for my students as well. It was only after participating in the drama workshop that I realised that I had in fact intuitively been integrating some drama conventions into my classes. So why did I stop?

As I am a freelance English language teacher, many of my clients come to me with very specific learning objectives. They are not always realistic, but nevertheless, they usually have clear ideas about why they want to have English lessons. It is rarely about sitting for an exam. They often need to be able to carry out certain tasks in English, and they want to learn how to do this as quickly and as authentically as possible. It might be writing an annual report, giving a marketing presentation or a product pitch, carrying out a human resource task, explaining an audit report, writing a cover letter, and so on.

So, one of the first things I do is hand my potential learners a needs analysis which also asks them about preferences for types of activities and digital tools, and how much time they can realistically devote to learning English each week. Without any sort of statistical evidence to back me up, I can assure you that drama activities and role-play always end up at the bottom of the list, or very close to it. And because of this, I think this type of response from my adult learners has acted as a sort of catalyst to push drama or anything resembling drama further away until it completely fell out of my language teaching repertoire.

Well, since attending Eva’s drama in education workshop that has all changed. In the Professional Development Day programme, it stated that the workshop was for primary school teachers, but that it was possible to modify the techniques to suit other learners. As we progressed through the diverse activities, I could indeed see the potential to adapt many of the conventions to suit my university students and my other adult learners.

With this in mind, I would like to run through a couple of the activities with you and then explain how I have adapted them to suit my higher education students. In Eva’s workshop, we commenced by standing in a circle and doing some deep breathing to get us ready to fully participate in the tasks ahead and to consciously prepare us to enter into a different world. First, we engaged in a non-verbal exercise. This was a lot of fun but required quite a bit of concentration. The idea is that whilst standing in a circle only a specified number of individuals can stand up at any one time and the others have to crouch. It forces participants to make eye contact with one another and to negotiate their position purely via non-verbal communication. When we discussed how we felt during the process I made the comment that this would be a great exercise for my students when working with topics such as teamwork and power dynamics.

Since then, I have used this with my university students to give them the opportunity to experiment with power dynamics in a safe environment. My higher education students are a very international group so, for some of them, being asked to take on a dominant role is a new and at times uncomfortable experience. Hence, this technique is proving to be a great way to let them experience power dynamics in a playful manner. Even challenging behaviours can be a learning experience for the group with this exercise. For example, if someone is not prepared to work with the group but prefers to take a dominant stance it is likely that the task will fail – thus highlighting the importance of teamwork. Therefore, I do not perceive this as a negative occurrence, but rather as an opportunity to discuss why this individual has chosen to enact such a role.

Additionally, we experimented with a drama technique that involved standing in a circle and working together to count up to 10 without any overlapping speech occurring. Once again, the task required us to observe one another carefully and to negotiate turn-taking in order to complete the task successfully. I have built this approach into lessons to reinforce and recycle grammar and specific vocabulary. For example, I place some cards in the middle of the circle with the target language or grammar point written on the cards. One student is asked to choose a card and hold it up.

Whatever is chosen needs to be integrated into a sentence correctly and then repeated several times. In concrete terms, the students add one word at a time until they have a completed sentence that is error free. Then, as with Eva’s number routine, they need to be able to recreate the sentence a few times with smooth turn taking and no overlapping speech. They then repeat the process with another card from the centre of the circle. The students laugh a lot of during these types of tasks and really make an effort to get through a round quickly and without error. I have found that this type of emotional engagement seems to act as a trigger later on when reworking or recycling the grammar or vocabulary that was targeted during these sessions.

Furthermore, another drama convention that I found useful from Eva’s workshop is mirroring the actions or pose of another person. This is a non-verbal task and requires good observational skills and concentration. I have found this useful when working on presentation techniques with my students. They are asked to either mirror my actions or one another’s. This seems to be effective when trying to break some bad habits such as swaying on the spot, hand-wringing, or facing the screen rather than the audience. Mimicking what they do in an exaggerated fashion and getting them to mirror my actions seems to help raise their awareness of gestures that are not optimal for formal presentations and gives them an opportunity to experiment with and modify them.

I also use this type of technique with students who are learning how to work in service and lay tables in lots of different formats. Laying tables, carrying trays and diverse dishes, as well as pouring wine, serving customers, and removing dishes from the table requires a lot of dexterity, knowledge, and confidence. So, in these instances, students mirror one another enacting different service tasks and at the end of the exercise they have to guess what was being mimed. The non-verbal phase is followed by a verbal phase whereby the students provide a critique of what was role-played. Any recommendations for improvement are then discussed and put into practice. 

At the conclusion of Eva’s workshop, she explained that just as we slowly entered into the world of drama we should also make a smooth exit from it. This is something that I have always done intuitively with my virtual world students and I have now taken that idea on board with my face-to-face students. I do this by reuniting them in a circle and we discuss how they experienced the activities and how they can take what they have learned and put it into practice. Then we breathe deeply a couple of times and break out of the circle.

These are just a sample of some of the techniques that we trialled during Eva’s drama workshop. They were intended for a different context on the day, but as we experimented with them I could see at the time that many of them would also be useful in my context, albeit in a modified form. This is something that we discussed as a group during the course of the workshop. I enjoyed this, as the exchange of ideas was very spontaneous and organic in the sense that thoughts were generated from experiencing the drama conventions hands-on. They came out of the moment and despite the rawness of the ideas, they were an honest response to a lived experience.

I am thrilled that I popped into Eva’s workshop as spontaneous actions can lead to exciting experiences. Drama has now not only resurfaced in my teaching toolkit but it is often at the forefront when I am designing my lessons. I have found that it helps to bring my classes alive and enables students to connect to English emotionally. They live and breathe it rather than just letting it float whimsically around them with the hope that their pores might sponge up something useful. Furthermore, due to the cultural differences in many of my classes, drama is a means of getting students to step into each other’s shoes and see the world from diverse perspectives in a safe environment. As a final word, why not experiment with some of these conventions and see what an impact drama can have on you and your learners?

More information about using drama in the language classroom can be found via the ETAS Special Interest Group for Drama and Literature, coordinated by Eva Göksel (https://www.e-tas.ch/communities/special-interest-groups/drama-and-literature).

About the Author

Patricia is part of ETAS’ Publication Team and has been teaching English as a foreign language in Switzerland for more than 20 years. She is a freelance English language teacher with a focus on Business English, and English for University Studies in the area of Tourism, Hospitality, and Business Management. She is currently a doctoral candidate and her research interests include, open education, open educational resources and open educational practices, and professional development. 

@trishiels