Writing Assessments in Drama

I was asked by a reader recently to write a post about how I go about assessing my student’s in Drama. I had a bit of a think about this because assessment is such a huge part of what we do as teachers and it really is so vital. I wasn’t sure how to approach the post, thus why I’ve been sitting on this one for awhile. Assessment informs our practice in so many ways yet it can be such a tricky thing to get right. If there is, in fact a “right” way.

The things I always worry about with assessment are:

  1. Have I distributed the weighting of tasks correctly?
  2. Is this an appropriate weighting to give to a task?
  3. Does the task I have designed accurately match the outcomes?

The other thing with assessment in drama or in any subject for that matter is that there are endless ways to design a task. It is a highly creative part of programming but also stressful because you have to worry about weightings and outcomes because these in turn influence what you teach as part of your program for that unit (not to mention it’s their HSC and all that jazz). So I’ve discovered the way that works best for me is to work backwards. That is, design the task first and the program will follow after. Remember, this is just a process that I have found works for me. You will find your own in good time.

So to design a task, these are the steps I like to take:

  • Pencil It In! -Work out when your tasks will need to be completed by student’s. Factor in when your half-yearly or trial exams are, when reports need to be written etc. Mark them in your diary. I always find it gives me a much clearer idea of a time frame to work within.
  • How Many Tasks Do You Need? – This can be tricky. In Stage 6 I design one assessment task per topic and finish with either a Yearly Exam or the Trial HSC Paper. In Stage 5 I strip right back and simply have one practical task and one theory task per semester. So I have a 30% Practical/20% Theory split each semester which equals 50%. Put both Semester’s together and what do you get? 100% and it fits the 60/40 rule perfectly. See below if you have no idea what I’m talking about.
  • Remember The 60/40 Rule –  In Drama 60% of tasks must be from the Making and Performing (Practical) outcomes, the other 40% must be from the Appreciating or Critically Studying (Theory) outcomes. I revise my Stage 6 assessments every time I teach them both for weighting and task content. In Stage 5 I tend to stick to the same weighting allocation but vary the task. I am not a huge fan of numbers and I find this part can do my head in because I dance back and forth between what I want to focus on in the task and whether or not it fits into the appropriate outcome and the weighting I’ve given it.
  • Match Your Outcomes – There are no hard and fast rules here but naturally when reading the syllabus you will find that some outcomes, particularly in Stage 6 lend themselves to one particular unit of study to that of another. In Stage 5 the outcomes are quite broad in their terminology so there is flexibility to design tasks that could massage themselves into particular outcomes. I do find this part a little time consuming because you do have to make sure you have covered all outcomes by the end of the course and some faculties like certain outcomes assessed more than once. In doing this first however, it creates a clearer and somewhat narrower picture for me in terms of the direction I need to go in with my task and I feel reassured that I am covering outcomes.
  • Brainstorm Task Ideas – This is such a tricky part of the process to advise on because it is so dependent on many factors including class size, level and ability of student’s and resources. In Stage 6 I model all my tasks around what is expected in the HSC. Designing Stage 5 tasks like this isn’t such a bad idea either because it allows for continuity and adequately prepares student’s for the expectations of the senior school.
  • Write Your Task Clearly – Particularly focus on the “Submission Requirements” section of your task where you are imagining that in an ideal world, where kids will just read the task, go away and do it, all the information they need to do that is there. I agonise over this section because it is not only beneficial for your student’s it is beneficial for you because it again clarifies exactly what it is you are looking for and how best to advise your student’s.
  • Spend Time on the Marking Criteria – I try to use as much terminology from the syllabus and the outcomes. I also keep the criteria to between three and four dot points, with each point linking to a particular part of the task. I also take the time to go through this with student’s. Particularly what an “A” response looks like. I want them to know that these are my expectations and that they are all capable of reaching them. Discuss how the criteria also links back to the outcomes and how this will be reflected in their report.
  • Step Away From the Computer – Once you have written it, leave the task for a few days and come back to it when you are completely fresh. I find I get so immersed in the writing of it I lose perspective sometimes and there are typos and my head just goes round and round in circles stressing as to whether or not it is effectively going to achieve outcomes. Show it to a colleague or someone in your PLN who can give you some good feedback.
  • Revise The Task – If you find as you are teaching that the task is not going to work with your student’s rewrite it and reissue it. I have had this happen and it is no big deal if you are transparent and up front with the kids from the start. At the end of the unit, take the time to reflect on the task and what worked and what didn’t. Think about what you would do differently.

All in all, the best advice I can give to new teacher’s in Drama is to find a colleague or someone in your network who would be willing to look at your tasks and give you some feedback. Also the feedback you give to your student’s is of the utmost importance. I’ve blogged about that before. Maybe team up with another teacher in your area and program and assess together. So many of us are the only Drama teacher’s in our school. We are isolated and when we need it most the support may not be there.

I hope this helps but if you can offer any other advice or suggestions please feel free to leave comments below. Also, I’m happy to share programs and assessment schedules and notifications if you are in need of them. Comment below or contact me via my Twitter account in the right hand widget bar.

Image Credit: One done / Daniel Kulinski / http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

Lesson Lovenotes: The Theatre of the Absurd, Teaching Suggestions and Resources

I recently posted some teaching and learning activities for the teaching of Dada Performance Art in the classroom. I mentioned in the post that Dada is an excellent pre-cursor to teaching The Theatre of the Absurd. Here are some of the strategies I like to use in the classroom when teaching The Theatre of the Absurd to my students.

Introduction to The Theatre of the Absurd

There are two main concepts students need to understand in order to start to understand the basic ideas behind The Theatre of the Absurd:

  1. The random, lack of connection between actions, objects and words.
  2. The playfulness between the actors in being able to convey this randomness.

The first point links to the social, cultural, historical and philosophical viewpoint of Absurdists. The second links to the execution of this philosophy by the Absurdists.

Remembering that drama is a visual medium, it is important to understand the viewpoints of the Absurdists. However, the intricacies of the execution with which they manifest their beliefs through their plays is what is of real interest. You want your students to be able to identify these, interpret and perform them in new and existing ways and to also be critical of them and review and appreciate the process of making an Absurdist performance.

There are two activities I always like to use in the classroom to convey this.

1. A Non-Sensical Scene: Place a number of random objects around the room. Have each student line up at the entrance to the classroom. Each student must take a turn at entering the space, picking up an object and using it in a way that it would not normally be used. Secondly, students pair up. The first of the pair enters the room and picks a different random object and uses it in a way it wouldn’t normally be used. As they are doing this the second of the pair comes into the space and whispers a line of dialogue into their partner’s ear. It should have nothing to do with the object or what the person is doing with the object. The person then says it aloud. It is important at this point to have the students discuss their experiences of the exercise. Use questions that engage them with the idea and the connection that what appears on stage is not literally what is intended. Often something different may be meant.

2. Watch Clips of Absurdist Scenes: In the years since Beckett, Albee and Ionesco many have treaded the boards of Absurdism. These include the Marx Brother’s, Abbott and Costello and of course Monty Python’s Flying Circus. There are several excellent clips on YouTube that show what an Absurdist piece can look like but the key concept to be drawn from these clips at this point in the students learning is that commonly, not always, but commonly, Absurdist plays featured two main, male characters who were seemingly clown-like.

Before viewing these clips may I also suggest rather than watching the clips straight from YouTube you consider downloading them and saving them permanently on your computer. I have written a post about this previously that you may be interested in to help you with this.

The Marx Brother’s – A Day at the Races

Monty Python’s Flying Circus – The Dead Parrot

Abbott and Costello – Who’s on First?

Working Through the Concepts

There are some pretty heavy concepts dealt with in the Theatre of the Absurd. In particular, their philosophical viewpoint, the idea of existentialism. Consider starting your theoretical study of Absurdism with a discussion about this. Link to the Wikipedia page or perhaps consider the use of another video to get the students thinking about what it is. Essentially what they must understand is that Absurdists believed life had no purpose or meaning and only till you experienced anything could you place meaning onto it and what it means to you may be different to someone else.

Other things to consider in your theoretical study include:

  • The historical context: Absurdism was a creation born out of WWII. Get students to consider the effect the war had on people at the time and why some people may have felt it necessary to create theatre like this.
  • The social/cultural context: Absurdism was not well received by theatre audiences. Have students consider (and perhaps research) what kinds of plays people had been watching up until then and the kinds of expectations they had of an evening at the theatre and why this (Absurdist Theatre) was so outrageous at the time.

Acting It Out

Next comes the fun part 🙂 The experiential learning. Students need to be up and actively engaging with the texts language and stage directions in order to fully understand the purpose and dramatic meaning of the text. Most of the suggestions below are based around Waiting for Godot but can certainly be adapted to suit any of the other texts available for study. Consider the following:

1. Pick a play: There are heaps to choose from including most famously Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett (notice my tree reference in the image above), The Zoo Story by Edward Albee, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. I prefer to use Waiting for Godot because there is a lot of material available on this play both online and in books. Ensure also that you are able to study the play chosen because certain syllabi have text lists and texts are not be studied across more than one curriculum area.

2. Moved Reading + Video: Have the students perform a moved reading of the script. Alternate students playing each of the parts at different times during the play and alternate students to also read the stage directions (these prove very important later on in the experiential study of the plays). If you can source a video of the play, watch it after the moved reading. Personally, I prefer to watch the film at the end of the unit because I like to see how the kids interpret the dialogue and stage directions without the films impressions in their minds but that is a decision best left to you, the teacher.

3. Clowning Workshop: After the students have read the play I delve into getting the students to understand and interpret the relationship between the characters. Many of the Absurdist plays, as mentioned above, tend to centre around two main, male characters. The dialogue is like a tennis ball bouncing between them and the ins and outs of their relationship are moulded by it. The clowning workshop looks at interpreting the physicality of each role. Look at facilitating certain activities such as master/servant, look at the different types of clowns, the way they dress, speak, walk, stand, show facial expressions, enact with other clowns (consider slap stick and tricks here like falls etc). Have students create their own clown character. Pair them up with another student and get them to create a short skit that demonstrates some of the elements explored in the workshop. To take the workshop one step further, have the students apply their knowledge of clowns to specific scenes from the play. Incorporate props (e.g. the bowler hats that Estragon and Vladimir wear). Have the students perform it to the class and have them discuss the effects of the performance on the audience in terms of dramatic meaning and the relationship between characters.

4. Voice/Dialogue Workshop: Similar to the clowning workshop and linking some of the elements of the voice workshop mentioned in my Dada post, choose sections of dialogue to experiment with pitch, pace, pause, tone etc. Pitch and pause are two commonly used conventions in Absurdist plays. Another one is intonation and punctuation. A fantastic example of this is Lucky’s speech towards the end of Act 1 in Waiting for Godot. There is not a single punctuation mark for over two pages. Many students will interpret it as being read in one long, fast, continuous breath. However, watching various interpretations and trying to work out what it could mean to Lucky generates some interesting interpretations and deliveries of his dialogue.

And The Rest…

In addition to all of that it’s a good idea to look at the following:

  1. Biblical Allusions: In Waiting for Godot there are many. Have the students find out what they mean and why they have been referenced.
  2. Who is Godot?: Obviously this is specific to Waiting for Godot but it is an essential question to ask. Also, whether or not he is in fact real needs discussing.
  3. Dramatic Form: The cyclical nature of the play both in Act 1 and Act 2 are relevant and link in with the Absurdist philosophy of existentialism. Explore this.
  4. Elements of Production: Minimal sets, lighting, sound and costumes are used. Have students look at pictures of past productions or use the stage directions or inferences to set pieces in the stage directions as a means of discussing the dramatic meaning for the audience.

I hope you found these suggestions helpful. Any suggestions are greatly appreciated. Please leave your feedback in the comments below.

Image Credits:

3005 Waiting for Godot, melomys, Licensed Under Creative Commons: Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0)

Lesson Lovenotes: Teaching DADA Performance Art

One of the units in the NSW Year 11 Drama syllabus is called Theatrical Traditions and Performance Styles. I stumbled upon DADA when researching new and different styles to teach my student’s. There was something really wacky and totally left of centre that I liked about it. So I decided to create a mini unit as an introduction to theatrical traditions and performance styles.

I think DADA works well as an introductory unit for a number of reasons:

  1. It is simple for new and unfamiliar students of drama and
  2. It encourages random, spontaneous creativity and ideas because there is no right or wrong.

The thing I tend to find with most of my student’s, whether they have taken drama since Year 9 or coming fresh to the subject after not having done it in the junior school, is that the student’s ideas of what drama actually is and what it actually involves is very different to the reality of having to stand in front of an audience and perform. Somehow, they all seem to miss this rather important concept.

Thus, my daily challenge as a drama teacher is to try to make the classroom environment comfortable enough for the student’s so that they attempt a performance.

The difficulty with senior drama is that there is little time to indulge fears and boost confidences. You’ve got to be prepared to get up and perform no matter what. The difference in quality is often determined by whether or not a student took Drama in the junior school or whether they are in fact new to the whole subject. There tends to be a great divide in the classroom initially because of this. However, I think DADA fixes all of that.

Below is a list of strategies that I have used to teach my student’s about DADA. I think it links in well with the Theatre of the Absurd which is what I teach after this unit because it frees them of any fears they may have and helps to set a context that can be developed further through the Theatre of the Absurd. I hope you find them helpful.

  • Fruit Salad: This exercise can be used as a practical/experiential starting point to Dada.Give each student a small square of paper. Ask the student’s to think of their favourite fruit. They are not to tell anyone what their chosen fruit is. Ask the student’s to write down five words that they would use to describe their fruit. Have the students share their five words, one student at a time. Ask the student’s to then think of one movement or action that they can repeat over and over again whilst saying their words. With the teacher as facilitator, experiment with performing the sequence individually and then integrating different pairs together. At the conclusion of the exercise discuss what the student’s observed. If you get responses like “random”, “messy”, “weird”, “it didn’t make sense” then you’re on the right track.
  • Learn about DADAists: This can be used as a theoretical introduction to Dada. There is a fantastic site called the International Dada Archive created by the University of Iowa. I use the Online Bibliography link as a starting point to get student’s exploring what some of the Dadaists created. A lot of it is art and manifesto type stuff but you can use that as a starting point for discussion. It’s also good to get them to research the leaders of the movement. People like Hugo Ball, Marcel Janco and Tristan Tzara.
  • Get the student’s to watch some clips: I find this part of the mini-unit very important. Drama is visual so student’s need to see what these performances looked like. From there you can dissect them looking at things like the dramatic form, theatrical techniques and conventions used and elements of production used. Here a couple I’ve been using directly from YouTube:

Karawane – Dada Sound Poetry

Gadji Beri Bimba – Dada Sound Poetry

The ABC of Dada – A great three part video with a lot of background info, pictures and sound examples.

  • Do a voice workshop: A lot of the Dada performance work was nonsense, sound poetry. This part of the mini-unit is an excellent place to bring in some technique workshops looking at the role of voice and breath control, warming up the voice and face muscles and using that to manipulate and experiment with sound creating soundscapes, different moods and atmospheres using rhythm etc.
  • Create a mini-performance with costumes and all: What was unique about Dada was the way they produced their costumes. A lot of them used masks and cardboard for costumes. They looked childlike. I get my student’s to split into small groups and create their costumes using cardboard. They then can either manipulate their fruit salad sound poem, one of the ones they created during the voice workshop or something completely new. I give them a lesson to create their costume and a lesson to discuss and improvise and playbuild their performance. In the third lesson they perform for the class and feedback is given on each of the groups.

The mini-unit in its entirety should take no more than 3-4 75 minute periods.

Each of these exercises ties in really nicely with the elements of drama so before and after each exercise use the discussion time as a place to reflect on how these were all used.

Did you find this article helpful? Please leave your comments below.

Image Credits:

The Discreet Charm of The Bourgoiesie, DerrickT, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)