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“We’ll get through this” – Drama lessons, social distancing and why the show must go on

As schools look to socially distance, drama teachers have to find new ways of teaching a subject that’s inherently physical and group-focused, says Alex Weller...

  • “We’ll get through this” – Drama lessons, social distancing and why the show must go on

It’s safe to say that the 2019-20 academic year didn’t quite turn out as planned. When lockdown began, however, what I hadn’t accounted for was that the next academic year would leave me with no concrete plan at all.

In the process of preparing for 2020-21, I’ve heard and read numerous plans from drama teachers across the country about how they’ll be running the subject from September, once schools are fully open again for the first time since March (as intended at the time of writing, at least). Some were palpable; ‘Yes’, I thought, ‘that could work. I could teach outside, couldn’t I?’  Others, I was … less keen on: ‘What? This is madness, not practical at all!’

But some of the plans I heard were gutting. Those were the plans that led to teaching staff discovering that their role as a drama teacher would be obsolete for the next academic year, since the subject wouldn’t be running at all.

Be more creative

If we’re to run any practical subjects, it follows that our students will need to practise social distancing in some form, and that we’ll need to adapt to new ways of delivering our curriculum. Now, ‘drama people’ are nothing if not adaptable – but even with my most optimistic of hats on, I’m still uncertain about how my GCSE and A-Level drama lessons are going to go this year and how I’m going to get the students through their exams.

Having missed a significant amount of learning last year, drama students will now have to dive head-first into devising and scripting practical work without touching and standing too close to the rest of their group, while potentially having to carefully watch the volume of their voices and the enunciation of their words. Social distancing is definitely not a practical option for practical drama lessons, but it’s currently the only safe option we have.

Scrolling through Twitter led me to a fellow teacher posing the suggestion that all this presented a perfect opportunity for us to become more creative teachers. ‘I barely have time to make breakfast, let alone be more creative,’ was my initial thought, but this teacher, clearly from the ‘glass half full’ school of thinking, was right – there’s no proven, effective way of teaching drama during, or in the aftermath of a pandemic. I’ll therefore be following their example and taking the opportunity to ‘DV8’ (one for the theatre-goers there) from my usual plans, find new ways of delivering tried and tested lesson content and attempt things I haven’t taught before.

Embracing the new

The first of these? Puppetry. I haven’t had students experiment with puppetry in their devised pieces before now, but I’m excited at the prospect of introducing puppets as a way of including an extra ‘player’ in smaller group pieces and negating the 2m gap between students. I’m also thinking of how to stage physical theatre without physical contact, incorporating masks, using staging blocks differently to create multi-level performance spaces and – if I’m feeling brave enough – using multimedia.

Social distancing will undoubtedly have a huge impact on teaching and learning within drama lessons. Even something as simple as walking round the room to observe each group now seems improbable for the foreseeable future.

Yet there are strategies through which it’s possible to keep monitoring progress and providing effective feedback. Those might include taping off an area where I can stand safely, and regularly rotating the class so that groups take it in turns to rehearse where I can see them.

I might also encourage my drama groups to record videos of the work they develop each lesson, so that I can watch them back later and provide written feedback that they’re able to respond to in our next class together.

Engaging and safe

Drama is inherently collaborative, so it’s not surprising that there’s a whole community of drama teachers out there sharing free ideas and resources online. Facebook groups and #edutwitter provide quick and easy platforms for asking questions and receiving support from professionals in the same boat. I’ll be scrolling through and will often find brilliant strategies from teachers I don’t know, who I’m sure feel as I do – that we’ll get through this, with mutual support.

The year ahead is going to be largely trial, with little time for error. In the way that only a drama teacher can, I’ll be improvising my way through these, yes, ‘unprecedented times’. Our capacity to teach and deliver drama lessons may have narrowed, but the potential for creativity within our teaching has widened considerably – just as long as it’s engaging, and above, all safe for students and teachers.

We’ve all had to follow official guidance on what we can’t do. It’s now up to us to discover what we can.

Alex Weller is head of drama at Plume Academy in Maldon, Essex, and tweets as @ITeachDrama2

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