I recently attended a professional development course which looked at ways to improve student success in the HSC when it comes to writing the drama essay. Across the board it is the weakest section of the entire assessment both internally in high schools and externally during the state wide HSC exams.
I thought I might share some of the key things I got out of the course. Not only do I feel these tips would benefit NSW Drama high school teachers but also teachers looking for a new way to incorporate writing into their drama classes at all levels of schooling.
- It’s Not Theory, It’s Directing – Student’s seem to be put off by (and I can attest to this) the idea of “theory.” It totally drags down a drama class. It’s the one part that seems to feel like you’re walking through mud. Try re-naming and thus re-thinking of the writing component as “directing.” Even re-naming units of work from something syllabus sounding like “Verbatim Theatre” to “That’s What She Said!” which encapsulates what Verbatim Theatre is all about would be great.
- Say “I” – In many ways the Drama essay is like the English essay: well structured with an introduction, body and conclusion, and formal language. The key difference however is the use of the experiences in the classroom as evidence in the same way that a quote from a novel might work in an English essay. As such, student’s should refer to themselves as “I” or “we” when referring to classroom practice and use examples from class or past productions.
- Show Insight – This is the part that needs the work. Try to get student’s to evoke classroom experience by discussing the elements and theatricality. Consider things like form, style, the varying social, political and cultural contexts, the actor/director intent etc. Structuring specific practical lessons that look at each and programming writing follow up activities will help with this.
- Write Evocatively- It’s the key to communicating the quality of the theatrical experience and theatre reviews can really help with this. Choose the most important moments in the play to do this. Use emotive/sensory words to recall the audience experience. Another great idea I heard was of a prac student who got a whole stack of old sunglasses and pushed the lenses out. She then made her student’s wear them when they were responding to a practical activity. She would also wear them whilst listening to their writing and take them off when it didn’t sound evocative enough.
- Make the Process Visible in the Classroom – place the different parts of the essay (e.g. introduction, topic sentence, elaboration, index, close, main body paragraph, topic sentence, elaboration, example, explanation, close, conclusion, review, close) up on the wall, keeping certain sections the same colour (e.g topic sentence = orange). When you mark your student’s work you can easily identify which sections of the work they are not performing as well in by identifying the colour..
The drama essay is a tricky one and one which needs a lot of time dedicated to it. I also like to remind my student’s to:
- Underline or highlight key terms in the question;
- Take 5 minutes to plan what they are going to write after the reading time and before they start writing, whatever the time limit of the exam.
- 5 minutes at the end to read through and check what they have written is also a good idea;
- Tick off the parts of the plan that they have written as they go.