The Play's the Thing

Lighting the Fire of Imagination through Theatre and Drama in Ontario Schools


by Kate Lushington

Education is not filling a pail, but lighting a fire.
William Butler Yeats

Imagination is more important than knowledge.
Albert Einstein

In an age of accountability and assessment the content of pails may be a lot easier to measure than the evanescent brilliance of a flame, but most teachers agree that arts education is an important foundation for learning. In an image-laden world, even young children must decode layers of symbol and metaphor. All the arts help us do that, but the human drama of theatre offers some unique benefits, one being that it can live in the realm of the imagination - or as veteran Orangeville drama teacher and curriculum advisor Peter Moore bluntly puts it, "The nice thing about drama is that it's cheap."

For teachers struggling to fulfill curriculum expectations with reduced or reallocated resources at both elementary and secondary levels, this alone might recommend the subject, but judging by the anecdotal evidence from across the province, the value of dramatic arts in schools goes far beyond cost effectiveness.

The dramatic arts cover two important strands in Ontario schools: drama and theatre. Theatre implies production and requires an audience, while drama can be entirely oriented towards process and need never be shown beyond the classroom. As an art form theatre offers ritual, ceremony and a sense of occasion. As a process drama can strengthen self-esteem, deepen empathy and improve learning environments. Both strands are important for students to experience.

Drama integrates learning across subject boundaries, raises classroom morale, increases literacy and language comprehension, expands students' understanding of their world and keeps kids in school. It almost sounds like the claims for snake oil, but there is evidence for these claims.

Process drama can be a highly effective strategy for the delivery of core curriculum subjects. "Teachers are scrambling to teach to multiple intelligences nowadays," suggests Peter Mansell of Kitchener, a retired specialist who currently teaches drama AQs at Stratford. "Drama can be embedded with information, which then becomes part of the students' inner experience." Yet according to Jim Giles, an elementary teacher and drama enthusiast in Toronto, only pockets of teachers across the province know how to use drama in this way.

The new Ontario curriculum mandates drama as a reportable subject from Kindergarten to Grade 12. Still, it often falls by the wayside. For one thing teachers rarely have to cope with irate parents demanding to know why Johnny can't act or Mary can't create a role. And faced with increased expectations in delivering and reporting math, science and language arts, the task of delivering drama curriculum in any meaningful fashion can seem onerous indeed.

"We're playing catch-up with the curriculum, especially in Grade 6," says Donna MacNeil, a teacher in Atikokan, two hours north-west of Thunder Bay. She is glad to have had visiting artists for three years in a row, thanks to the Artists in the Schools program of the Ontario Arts Council (OAC). "They helped with our drama and it's amazing how some kids blossomed, but we don't know if we'll be able to do it next year."

"There's a lot of fear and trepidation about teaching drama, though the payoffs are huge," affirms Kathleen Gould Lundy, a drama consultant and co-ordinator for the Toronto District School Board. Where does the fear come from, and can it be alleviated for those teachers who want to experience the payoffs for themselves?

One fear factor is a lack of arts training among generalist teachers. "We had only one class at college telling us that drama was an effective teaching tool and referring us to David Booth's work on its impact on literacy," laments Steve Riddell, teacher-librarian at King Edward Public School in Toronto. The school boasts excellent music and visual-art components run by specialists, and virtually no drama. But the number of teachers taking drama AQs is climbing according to Christine Jackson, the president of the Council of Drama and Dance in Education, a province-wide organization.

In his drama courses at Stratford, Peter Mansell shows elementary teachers how drama can harness the natural process of play and how to "shape the experience so it is no longer random, so the student is constantly bumping into knowledge." In high schools, where there is increasing emphasis on group collaboration and growing concern over conflict between students, drama has been used to integrate disparate groups.

This was strikingly shown in Donna Marie Baratta's Grade 10 drama class in Thunder Bay, which attracts students who wouldn't normally socialize - mixing loners and misfits with popular leaders. One boy was having trouble remembering the story he was to tell. Of their own volition the entire class stayed an extra half hour waiting for him to finish, reassuring him until he eventually got it out. "Drama brings everyone together. They find a safe environment where there is room for emotion and you can build trust."

In rural Perth County, Eastern Ontario, Carolee Mason, a drama specialist of 27 years' experience, finds herself increasingly acting as a resource for colleagues who are impressed by a collaborative approach. They notice improvement in the students' speaking and listening skills, in their leadership and in the quality of their questions. One veteran math teacher asked Mason for activities he could use to alleviate math anxiety. "He saw a change in the classroom culture and an improved comfort level that enhanced the learning environment."

"teachers rarely have to cope with irate parents demanding to know why Johnny can't act."

Drama activities are not rocket science but they can sometimes seem arcane to an outside observer. In Ottawa, Michael Wilson gets his students at the faculty of education on their feet immediately. He divides a large class into groups of six and gets them doing counting exercises to foster group co-operation and individual concentration. "Only when they are comfortable with taking risks can they teach it themselves," he explains. Wilson is the author of a 1989 study for the Ottawa Board of Education that showed that dramatic arts involvement in secondary school made a spectacular difference in final achievement results of students with identified learning disabilities in Grades 9, 10 and 11. He is passionate about the importance of an aesthetic dimension in schools as a means of increasing the learning potential of all students.

Wilson's vision has been realized at Queen Victoria, an inner-city school in Toronto. Here, drama has been woven seamlessly into the whole program as a means of improving literacy and language learning. At Queen Victoria the 1200-strong student body has over 55 different mother tongues and only 25 per cent were born in Canada. "We have broadened our understanding of literacy," explains Early Literacy Co-ordinator Melissa O'Brien. "Text is not just the written word but anything that creates a story." The concept, attributed to David Booth, has revolutionized the learning experience at the school. "Through drama every kid can create meaning. Their stories are richer, their pictures are richer and their understanding is richer."

Teachers remark on other differences that they attribute to the drama program. "The students seem calmer and we don't see many kids in the office here."

Some effects have even been measured, since developmental reading scores are continually improving and the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) scores are close to the board average, even though the school comes 11th in the Learning Opportunities Index, established by the Toronto District School Board to measure relative needs among inner-city schools.

But the full impact is immeasurable. Denise Ing is a Grade 5 teacher who integrates drama throughout her teaching day. "I don't have a drama period. Drama just happens, whether we are learning about ancient civilizations or how a seed grows." Ing began to use drama because of a little boy in a Grade 3 class who refused to speak. After three months, desperate to reach him, she asked him to play a character in a story and he began to speak in role. At the end of the year the class was asked to complete the sentence, "Drama is a gift to me because …" The formerly silent boy wrote: "Because it makes me brave enough to say what I want to say."

"Drama is about having a voice," echoes Kathleen Gould Lundy. "So many kids are voiceless." Lundy describes an experience with Grade 9 special education students. Boys with behavioural problems who could barely listen to one another and spoke only haltingly became fluent improvisers once assigned a role in a dramatic story about a lost boy. Follow-up activities also showed an improvement in their writing.

In role, a student can be someone courageous, someone powerful or thoughtful. The students begin to see themselves that way and to act that way as learners. "It's pretty transformational," says Lundy. "What I want for the curriculum is to give teachers the skill sets so more students can have this experience." She is currently seconded to York University's Faculty of Education, training fine arts graduates to teach core curriculum.

Not every in-service teacher will have the confidence to act in role during class time and many feel intimidated by the use of dramatic techniques. Matt Duggan is a high school teacher of English, ESL and special education at Harbord Collegiate in Toronto. "I used to think I wouldn't ask my students to do anything I was uncomfortable doing when I was a kid. Then I realized I was a very uncomfortable kid so there was not a lot we'd be able to do." He brought in actor-animator Michael Kelly of Shakespeare In Action. "Much of the literature on the curriculum was never meant to be read - it's all about being performed. With Michael, right away they're on their feet. He sets up a theme, then turns to the scene."

But attempting such things on their own can be a source of discomfort for teachers unfamiliar with drama. "Students no longer follow the Socratic method; they don't sit at a desk and listen," notes Heather Boswell, principal of a K-6 school in Fergus, who incorporated shadow puppets into the whole school for a week as part of the OAC's Artists in the Schools program. Using kinesthetic and visual methods to illuminate the story was very successful but it can challenge traditional ideas of classroom control.

In drama, the nature of the teacher-student relationship can shift from moment to moment. Peter Moore points out that drama teachers become facilitators instead of instructors. They may even go into role themselves as participants. "This can take some getting used to," he admits.

Teachers need opportunities to try out drama for themselves. Even teachers with a theatre background, like Donna Marie Baratta in Thunder Bay, find that drama for education is a highly distinctive skill. But it is one that can be learned. "Anyone can do it," maintains Denise Ing. "That's why professional development is so important."

Beyond the faculties of education, other institutions offer summer courses, ongoing workshops and partnerships with artists. Theatre Ontario runs summer courses at Brock University in St. Catharines where Mac Dodge, another drama veteran, now teaches. He designed the Grades 7 and 8 curriculum for the Niagara District School Board and currently participates as an actor in Learning Through the Arts. This national organization created by the Royal Conservatory of Music calls itself a "school transformation initiative." The organization sponsors teachers and artists to work together to deliver core curriculum. Dodge found himself taking 25 Grade 2s on an imaginary journey to experience the elements of wind and water for their science unit. "Their engagement with the science was amazing," he reports, "and the teachers were impressed with their focus."

Working in partnership with theatre artists can be inspiring and instructive in itself. Last year Michael Kelly put together a new initiative for Shakespeare In Action. Versions of The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream were created and performed by the whole school community in three inner-city schools. For eight weeks, Thursdays were Shakespeare days and teachers, parents and students from JK to Grade 6 worked with two actor-facilitators and two musicians - studying the story, preparing scenes, designing and creating costumes, illustrating the programs and undertaking all kinds of cross-curricular activities.

"The teachers were skeptical at first. They asked questions like: What will the end product look like? How do I evaluate it? Mostly they seemed to be saying, I just really don't know what to do. We offered ideas, demonstrated and modeled the process and teachers began to understand and take control. They began to rehearse without us there. The comments changed to: There are choices I've never thought of. I can work in new ways in the classroom."

One teacher wrote: "Room 10 had a chance to show themselves and everyone else how able (as opposed to disabled) they are. This was a great experience for us."

The end result was "pretty astonishing," as a parent commented. "The whole place had been transformed; we were allowed to put on something big and grand and beautiful." This was theatre as both process and product.

Christine Jackson refers to this as the "ah" experience. Theatre has the power to move us and to create a deeper understanding of our humanity. Jackson calls this "the inner landscape of learning" and adds that "using drama strategies by itself is not enough; students also need the 'ah' of having been touched or moved."

As the district-side co-ordinator for dance and drama at the Toronto District School Board, Jackson has initiated pilot projects partnering teachers with theatre artists in the classroom to explore themes of homelessness, difference or colonization.

The best theatre for young audiences also speaks to this deeper understanding. Child poverty may have been the springboard for Roseneath Theatre's engaging production of Danny, King of the Basement by David S. Craig, but its resonance reaches far beyond the original issue. The play, researched at Queen Victoria, has since gone on to win awards and continues to tour the province and beyond. Access to excellent touring productions is an important component of drama education for students, and teachers can find a wealth of pre and post-show activities in the accompanying study guides.

Drama is a universal language no matter how the demographics shift across the province, and historically theatre belongs to more than one culture. In the north, despite more limited access to arts resources, teachers still have opportunities to connect with theatre artists. Debajehmujig Theatre is a native company from Manitoulin Island that will be touring its show Ever That Nanabush this winter. The company will send improvisation trainers to work with students of the Chapleau First Nations, north of Sault Ste. Marie. Turtle Gals Performance Ensemble, a group of native women in theatre, have conducted drama workshops with students in Fort Francis and are currently developing a touring show for schools on aboriginal labour history to fill in gaps in the curriculum.

What teachers won't easily find, despite the excellent school shows available, is the money to pay for them. Drama may be enshrined in the curriculum but there has been no money earmarked for its implementation. And despite its reputation as cheap, theatre does cost money and drama does take time.

Elementary teachers don't always have time or money to pursue drama training, even if this could help directly with core subjects and course overload. High school drama specialists may offer opportunities for collaboration with other departments but these are not easy to timetable, and the purchase of computers competes for funds with the drama department field trip.

"It's a hard sell," sighs Peter Mansell back in Kitchener. Yet in his experience pioneering the first co-op drama program in the province, he noted that the qualities business people were looking for in employees were not computer skills but creativity, initiative, leadership, problem solving, flexibility and communication - skills fostered by drama. Drama teachers are team builders, continues Mansell, "but drama work tends to be invisible while computers are tangible."

"What is needed is a systemic commitment to drama in schools and the training of teachers," maintains Kathleen Gould Lundy.

"We must share the data and seed more pilot projects," adds Christine Jackson. "All this requires time and money, which have been in short supply."

"I connect imagination with hope," says Peter Mansell. "Imagination bubbles up in hopeful people." And there is hope for teachers wanting to add drama and theatre to the knowledge they impart in a wide range of resources and professional development opportunities (see sidebar).

Whether as a means to deliver core curriculum and explore important social issues and human relationships or as an engaging and passionate art form in its own right, drama offers vivid and layered learning experiences that reach the varied and multiple intelligences of Ontario students.