MAKE A DRAMAtic DIFFERENCE IN YOUR CLASSROOM!™
Using drama- and movement-based activities
to enliven the classroom and support existing curriculum
Level 1 – In this workshop teachers learn ways of transforming their class of energetic, distractible kids with varied strengths and weaknesses into a well-managed and supportive “ensemble for learning”. We practice how to harness students’ energy and natural desire to play to help with team-building, classroom management, the learning process, and transitions between activities, all while injecting some fun and creativity into your curriculum to actually speed up the learning process and make teaching more enjoyable. These drama- and movement-based techniques are for any teacher – not just Ms. or Mr. “Naturally Dramatic” – and will help create a class environment where expectations are high and students know that excellence comes in many forms. We demonstrate and send teachers off with a number of specific exercises that they can use right away, and we focus on the core concepts of how and why these techniques can and should be seamlessly blended into all teaching, across subject-areas. We address how these methods can specifically address curriculum standards across the elementary, middle and high school levels (see “A DRAMAticly different way™ to meet the Standards”).
Level 2 – This workshop is geared toward participants who have already attended the “Level 1” workshop or who already have experience using drama and movement-based activities with students. In this session we delve more specifically into using exercises to address curriculum standards (particularly Common Core Standards) as well as more methods geared towards middle / high school teachers and students (though most of them are easily adaptable for younger classrooms as well). We explore using these exercises effectively in more counter-intuitive subject areas, like science and math, and how to design activities around specific learning and classroom management goals.
NOTE 1: All these exercises can (and should!) be used alongside any curriculum across the K-12 spectrum, and can enhance teaching and learning in a wide variety of subject-areas, including reading, social studies, science and math. They are often particularly helpful for engaging students who otherwise struggle in the classroom because of impulse control and focus issues.
NOTE 2: A definition — when we talk about “Drama” in the classroom, we’re not always referring to acting out stories or characters. Perhaps a better way of referring to these type of activities are “active arts” because they all share the goal of getting and keeping students’ imaginations and bodies activated in ways that more traditional modes of learning may not. Ultimately, they are meant to inspire students.
First, let’s understand the difference between what might be called the “Transmission Model” and the “Relationship Model” of education, as Drama-in-the-classroom, in its best and broadest sense, always addresses and strengthens relationships.
While the dichotomy is ultimately an impossible one and every good teacher must be doing both (see the quote below from the great California educator Mary Holmes), the contemporary emphasis on improving education through testing and the standardization of curriculum (“Transmission Model”) can obscure the relationship part of the learning puzzle.
“Every good teacher must be both a teacher and an educator: Teaching is the passing to the next generation of a discipline; educating is bringing each individual out of the narrow confines of the self into the larger human community, past, present, and future. You can’t do one if you don’t do the other.”
The “Relationship Model” stresses that building strong relationships — between teacher and students; among students in a class; between a student’s existing knowledge base and new information and material – is particularly vital to achieve in the early years, and essential to keep alive throughout the educational process and throughout life. This is what the exercises and activities below are meant to nurture, through guided play and verbal / kinesthetic learning exercises. These exercises are meant to inspire students, in the old sense of “breathing new life” into them – animating them with an idea or purpose These techniques are meant to be used in conjunction with and support of strong curriculum standards, testing and evaluation.
Why these Exercises?
- All the games and exercises build on the extraordinary and universal need for imaginative play and kinesthetic activity that all young people share but that is discouraged in the classroom setting, where it is too often considered counter to (or at least not essential to) sequential learning.
- These techniques stimulate the imagination, bodies, and thinking processes of most students in ways that more traditional modes of learning do not.
- They build physical skills and awareness that can be very useful tools in the classroom and are essential for well-rounded development.
- Presented and used rigorously, they teach students that “excellence” can be achieved in different ways.
- They engage students as “experts,” assuming they know more than they think they do and using this “innate intelligence” to instill self-confidence and individual creativity.
- Used well and consistently, these techniques can enhance all areas of learning, while making teaching more fun.
- They can often be used to streamline and speed learning and discussions, and build a richer and more interesting common vocabulary
- Ultimately, all of them can quickly “change the state” of a classroom by putting smiles on students’ faces and the light back into their eyes – and wouldn’t we always rather teach a class of smiling, bright-eyed students?
NOTE 3: Some of these exercises are much more broadly useful than is touched on here – they build skills that can be used in combination with many other activities and referred back to, to re-stimulate the imagination. We encourage you to experiment, re-combine, and change them as suits you, your students and your goals.
Some of the specific areas in which these methods can be particularly helpful are:
- Classroom Management and transitions between activities
- “Fast, slow, normal, still”
- Abstract reasoning
- Contrapuntal Arguments
- Physical awareness that can be transferred to other subject areas and assist with individual impulse-control issues
- Laban Effort/Shapes, “Run for Daylight”, “Animals”
- More abstract concepts like the universality of change, sensory awareness
- “How does Black sound?” “How does Green move?” “Rainstorm”
- Encouraging shy students to come out of their shell
- “Narration and Expert” exercises
- Learning about sequential subjects like storytelling
- “Let’s tell a story”
- “De-fusing” concepts that are seen as being difficult
- “Estimation and long division,” “Moving Molecules,” “Moving Geometry”
- Empathy and working effectively in small and large groups
- “Narration Exercise,” “Run for Daylight,” “Animals”
- Re-focusing a distracted class.
(There are obviously many more exercises available to the teacher who understands the importance and value of using these methods as core teaching techniques rather than just “fun diversions.” The following are arranged loosely in order of how they might best be presented over the course of weeks or months, as the early ones can be thought of as building skills that can be incorporated into the later ones. However, depending on the grade level and subject area, they can be “mixed and matched”, used out of order, etc.)
Move the desks — Silly as it might sound, practicing moving the desks and chairs to get some room for the whole class to move is a terrific way to build ensemble, cooperation and special awareness. Tell the class what the goal is (working together with the others in their ‘pod’ or at their table or with their neighbor to move the desks and chairs out of the way to leave the most floor space available) and ask them to estimate how long they think it will take. Time them. Discuss what worked well and less well, and why some groups finished earlier (like the value of eye contact, no talking, cooperation). The next time you do it (also when the room is restored to its normal configuration) give them a faster time deadline, and play with this deadline over the next few times (can all the groups arrive at their all arrive at their “finished” positions at the same time? What if the time deadline is doubled or tripled?). What happens in most classes, at least at first, is that trying to go faster actually slows the process and adds chaos. But tell them to do it as slowly as possible (after touching again on things you will have noticed in previous tries) and you will often find that the whole job is actually achieved quicker, more safely, and more quietly. THAT can become a powerful and extendable “teachable moment”.
Clapping rhythms– Great to get everyone focused quickly, while practicing group listening, and rhythmic awareness. Teacher claps a rhythm, class repeats. Build from short rhythms to longer, more complicated ones. Insist on accuracy, “excellence”; go around the class and have individual students repeat your clapping rhythm. Let individual students lead the group. Add stomps, over-the-head claps and or other movements with the rhythms. As simple as this exercise is, it can have a very powerful and immediate effect on the group at all grade levels, and can be used as a quick “waker-uper” for the whole group.
Fast, Slow, Normal, Still – As simple as it sounds, but a great way to begin to build body awareness. Get the students on their feet, establish a few rules (“no touching anyone else with any part of your body”) get each to do a “fast” movement. Do it a few times, encouraging them to us all parts of their body (or one at a time – not just their hands and arms, which will often be their shy instinct). Repeat the process with “slow” and “normal.” Then practice “still” – freezing – which can be described as “all outside movement stops – every finger, every eyeball, every hair stops. But inside you might be going a million miles an hour – thoughts, breathing, your blood racing through your veins…” Then practice sequences of slow changing to fast, then freezing, etc. Discuss how the pace of things change all the time – our bodies, our minds, our moods, the weather.
Run for Daylight – This is a wonderful way of getting a group of students to be aware of each other and their own bodies in space. The exercise starts off with everyone evenly spread out around whatever open space you have. Rules: no physical contact and no talking. Start at a “normal” pace. Then fast, slow, etc. A later version might include moving with one of the “effort-shapes” or emotional states discussed below. The basic direction is to move in a straight line around the space until someone crosses your path and blocks the “daylight”, which will cause you to change direction.
Laban “Effort-Shapes” – The graphic below shows how different “qualities” of movement can be broken down into simple concepts that children of all ages will immediately understand, can “perform”, and have fun with. Even a quick occasional session of practicing these can get the “wiggles out” of younger students (a good transition between desk-bound activities) and help re-focus older ones. They will build skills and concepts that can easily be referred to in many other subject areas (e.g. calling students’ attention to how different things move in nature, how energy can be used in different ways, how they can control their bodies at will, the important concept of ‘taxonomies’ and how we breakdown larger concepts systematically, etc.) Some questions to ask: How do ghosts move at Halloween? A Firecracker on the Fourth of July? A falling leaf? How does a river erode the earth around it? How does snow move as opposed to rain or wind? What Effort-Shape best describes the mood of the class today? Your mood? Physical forces, chemical reactions, etc.
Note: chart is read in cross-referenced columns – e.g., “wringing” is “Heavy and Direct” while “Floating” is “Light and Indirect”
Happy, Sad, Afraid and Angry (K-6th) – Introduce the idea that emotions are GREAT! They change, they can be exciting, they can be scary when taken to extremes. As a whole-group exercise, have them act out one emotional state. Add a strong body-sculpture to go with that emotion. What kinds of movements go with different emotional states? Break down stereotypes — Can you be sad and fast? Can Angry be “gliding”?
How does Black sound? How does Green move? (1st-6th) – Using their understanding of movement qualities and tempos, ask them to think about more abstract concepts like the type of movement or emotion a particular color has. Have them demonstrate individually “Angry, fast, heavy, pushing Red” or “Happy, floating Black”.
Let’s Tell A Story (2nd -4th) – To begin a unit on story, most of the current standardized curricula (e.g., McMillan’s California Treasures and McGraw-Hill’s Open Court Reading Program, etc.) start with a discussion of “What makes a good story?,” touch on stories of different cultures and genres, introduce lists of words and concepts that must be covered in that unit. But school-age kids come to the learning table with an enormous amount of prior knowledge that can be tapped into first to get them started on the learning path in a more personally engaged way. Children as young as five already know what makes a good story and that there are many different kinds of stories. You only have to eavesdrop on a child telling herself a story about a frog having a tea party in outer space or watch another child “teaching school” to his differently-sized dolls, stuffed animals and figurines to realized that children don’t have any problem integrating different scales or genres or disparate story elements. Listen to the stories these children spin for themselves and others and you very quickly see that the adult understanding of “sequence” is often different (at times more limited) than that of children, but that most children also have an early sense that all good stories have a beginning and an end, and that there is often a conflict or problem involved.
Get students on their feet and tell them that the class is going to make up a story. Ask them to guess what story a quick phrase represents and encourage them to shout out their answers: “There’s a girl in forest with a red cape and hood…” – “LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD!” “There’s a wolf who wants to eat someone” – – “LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD AGAIN. OR THE THREE LITTLE PIGS!”. “Ok! So you guys are good at stories. What do you need to make a good story? (Here, it’s often common get tentative answers at first based on the technical details they’ve been studying: “CORRECT PUNCTUATION?,” “A TITLE?”) But quickly, someone will usually answer “A GOOD BEGINNING…” and you’re off. In short order, most groups will say that the middle part of a story is about “what happens next,” “keeping it interesting,” “and then, and then, and then…” “something bad happens”. Then the concept of wrapping up the details – endings, is easy.
Ask the class for an interesting noun. Then a verb. Then a sentence that uses them both as the start of a story. Then let the next person add the second sentence, and so forth. Of course you can stop to call their attention to the idea that one idea usually should follow the one before in a logical way, and that previous details need to be remembered, but don’t get bogged down by this. Get through a few sentences and transcribe them. The class can then choose to use the common beginning to continue individual stories on their own or with partners, or they might be inspired to come up with a new one by themselves.
As a homework exercise, let them write their story beginning and illustrate it. Read and show them to the class.
Take this exercise as far as you want and can, always stressing to them that they are storytellers and writers, and that they already know that a story can be about anyone and any thing. Call their attention to thinking about how the characters move, their emotions, and describing things in different ways: “Red Riding Hood floated through the forest in a slow, happy way.”
Moving Molecules (4th – 8th) – A quick and fun way to get the class to experience how molecules move, how they attract, repel and bond (strongly and weakly). Building on “Run For Daylight,” “Effort Shapes,” “Fast, Slow, Normal.” Get the class to act like molecules that are cold (moving slowly – get them to shiver, add an emotional state, an “effort-shape.” Get them to act like hot molecules (fast, etc.) An extension of this for older kids (in chemistry, for instance) would be to have them demonstrate how atoms combine into molecules and then can recombine: some students act as Oxygen atoms (arms held like a large “O”), some like Hydrogen atoms (arms out and parallel to floor). Have them demonstrate different compounds (two H atoms combine to form H2, then add an O to for H2O; loses an atom to form HO, etc.) Read the following description and see how convoluted this might sound to some students. Now picture acting it out with “Hydrogen people” holding a ball in their hands (an electron) and Oxygen grabbing and holding two Hydrogens’ electrons to form H2O.
Oxygen is an electron-grabber, while hydrogen can “lend” its sole electron. The most stable configuration of this is one atom of oxygen “grabbing” two hydrogen atoms by their electrons. This leaves the oxygen atom slightly negative, while the hydrogen atoms become slightly positive. This enables hydrogen bonds which makes water liquid rather than gaseous.
H2O, on the other hand, has an unpaired electron and is very reactive.
How could you act that out?
Rain Storm (1st – 9th) – Create a “soundscape” of a rain storm, discovering together what sounds (mouth-noises, finger snaps, clapping, foot-stomping) makes the best sound of drizzle, a downpour, etc. Add wind noises. Add thunder and lightening (what does lightening sound like?) Get the class to “perform” a whole storm, from the gentle beginning to the violent height of the storm, to the end. Talk about how this is like a story (beginning, middle, end). What “effort-shapes” can describe the different phases of the storm? How can they write about a storm?
Animal Acts (K – 6th) – All kids love to act out animals. All of the above exercises can be used to layer terrific performances of animals in lots of different ways and situations, and build empathy. Let’s say you’re studying the rainforest. Have each student pick out their favorite animal. Show how they move. Have fun with adding emotional states (“How would a flicky little lizard move when it’s happy? How about when it’s scared?” Establish the carpet area (or any central area) as “the pond” and have each animal find a “home” in the classroom. Then have each one come to the pond individually and interact with it (a jaguar might drink; a frog might swim, an elephant might wash). Then act out two-or-more animal interactions (predator/prey; cooperative animals). Always challenge them to be aware of how they’re moving and using their whole bodies. This exercise can obviously be extended and grown in many, many ways – for acting out stories, while learning about the different kinds of animals (“all invertebrates on this side of the room; vertebrates on the other side of the room. How do you each move? Watch each other. What are the advantages of one or the other?”)
Narration Exercise – (3rd – 6th) – Have groups of two or three students work together to come up with a short animal story (“The Cheetah was sleeping in her cave. Then she walked slowly to the pond to take a drink. She was sad. A sad monkey came to the pond to drink, too. They met and became friends. Then they were both happy.”) One will act as narrator, as the other(s) go through the actions. This is a great way to encourage listening and observation and to focus easily on good public-speaking technique.
“Expert” or Translation game – (5th – 12th) – This is a more free-form and sophisticated version of the above exercise, in which pairs of students choose who’s the foreign, non-English-speaking “Expert” and who’s the “Translator.” The Expert can speak in gibberish, sounds, or even be silent (this is a good role for the shy student in class), but in any case must use body-language to tell us a bit about the subject they are expert in (encourage them to be “experts” in something a bit difficult or unusual, though even something as simple as being an “expert in how to sit on a chair” can produce some fun results.) The Translator then watches the Expert and translates into English what s/he is “saying”. Encourage eye contact and pay attention to not letting the Translator “lead” the story at first. However, if the Expert is reluctant, the Translator can subtly lead by interpreting sounds and gestures in unexpected but still plausible ways. Then, as students get good at it, the lead can pass back and forth seamlessly. The skills of listening, quick thinking and collaboration built in the two main participants are matched by the level of attention and enjoyment of the group watching, and easily becomes a focused whole-class activity.
Contrapuntal Arguments (5th – 12th) – If practiced consistently, with everyone taking turns (in pairs), this can become a wonderful way to build a class’s verbal and mental acuity, increase vocabulary and reasoning skills, and teach the structure of well thought-out argument (Proposition / Argument / Conclusion.) Begin with simple, concrete arguments (day is better than night; a brick is a more useful tool than a coffee mug), and move into more abstract ones (Time is funnier than Light; A bucket full of Negative weighs more – or less – than a bucket full of Positive). The rest of the group votes after on who “won”. At first, the verbal ball should be passed back and forth, with eye contact, physical relaxation and openness encouraged. Then, a time deadline can be imposed, with arguers being allowed to speak over or cut off each other (with the warning that they must still listen carefully to what the other person says and turn it to their advantage). Encouraging students to “think outside the box”, not give up, really listen, and (for those watching) to notice that sometimes the “winner” is the one who stays simple, honest and clear.
Estimation and long division (2nd – 12th) – As we said at the beginning, the main benefit of all these exercises is to stimulate the imagination, and this is a powerful tool no matter what the subject-area. As a side exercise to regular math study, work with the class on estimation, stressing the point that often in life, the exact answer is not nearly as important as a very good guess. Take two or three colored white-board markers and make a big bunch of dots on the board. Ask them to shout out how many red dots they think there are. Do this quickly, to avoid answers based on actually trying to count the dots. Write down the first four or five answers on the board. The average or mean of these answers is often very close to the actual number. Do this a few times, and the class will get very good and quick at the task. Try the same exercise by dropping a handful of beads onto the carpet, etc. With repeated practice, students will greatly improve in their ability to quickly estimate, which adds an important layer to their feeling of control with mathematical concepts – often a difficult thing for many students.
The words “Long Division” strike fear into many 4th-graders’ hearts. Even if they’re not scared of it, it’s rarely seen as “fun”. But there are some good ways to de-fuse the idea a bit. Ask them what the long division symbol is called (it actually doesn’t have a name, poor lonely thing…) Come up with a name based on how it looks (“a house with one wall missing”, “a tent”). Then tell a story (don’t write it on the board or let them write it down) about a number who goes into the house (obviously make it a number close to their math skill level). Another (smaller) number comes to the “door” on the left side of thee house and knocks. How many times can the number outside “go into” the number on the inside? Approximation is great here. Let them guess. Let’s say the “inside” number is 236 and the “outside” one is 92. Ask them to describe how many 236 and 92 are in concrete terms (how many rolls of pennies, approximately? Can you picture how many pennies that is? Could you hold them all in one hand? If you had 92 daisies in a bouquet, how big would it be? etc.) Then ask again how many of the outside number can go into the inside number. Most students will get good at this, and will be better at on-paper long division when they go back to that. The idea is to create a mental relationship between numbers and the physical world; between numbers and story.
Moving Geometry (K – 6th) – Using a string or rope, groups of two or more students create geometric shapes (line, triangle, polygon, cube, etc.) Angles can be measured, and more than one rope can be used to show how shapes fit together. A contest can be set up to see which group can make 5 different shapes that change smoothly from one to another in one minute.
What other kinds of “Active Arts” activities can you think of? How can a specific curriculum unit or goal be addressed with these kinds of activities? How can these methods be used systematically to enhance whole-class learning and rapport?
For more specifics on how these methods align with curriculum standards (with special reference to the “Common Core” standards), see A DRAMAticly Different Way™ to Meet the Standards.
Further Reading: There are many good books that will give excellent ideas for other verbal / kinesthetic exercises – Three of the best are:
Theater Games for the Classroom: A Teacher’s Handbook by Viola Spolin
Impro by Keith Johnstone
Games for Actors and non-Actors by Augusto Boal.
Robert Shampain has served as Director of the BAYFEST International Youth Theatre program since its founding in 1990. He has taught and directed in K-12 schools, youth theater training programs and universities around the US and UK, including the Lab School of Washington, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, University of Southern California, Boston University, Catholic University of America, Clwyd Youth Theatre, Tyne Youth Theatre, Seattle Children’s Theatre and schools in Boston, New York, Seattle, Los Angeles and around the UK. Under his guidance, BAYFEST also does in-school drama programs, primarily in economically-disadvantaged schools, and teacher-training that gives classroom teachers “arts processes” training to support their curriculum and enhance the learning environment.