Creating and responding to text isn't a drama!
Article Type:
Composition (Language arts) (Management)
School prose (Management)
Classroom management (Management)
Improvisation (Acting) (Educational aspects)
Dennison, Dayna
Pub Date:
Name: Practically Primary Publisher: Australian Literacy Educators' Association Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Australian Literacy Educators' Association ISSN: 1324-5961
Date: June, 2011 Source Volume: 16 Source Issue: 2
Event Code: 200 Management dynamics Computer Subject: Company business management
Geographic Scope: Australia Geographic Code: 8AUST Australia

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Full Text:
I was one of those lucky people who knew from a very young age that all I ever wanted to be when I grew up was a teacher! However I was unsure of what sort of teacher I would eventually become. Kinder was high on my list until I walked out of my very first Drama lesson in my first week of high school. This subject and its experience had connected with me so deeply, it unlocked a drive within me. This was going to be my passion in life. And from then on, my career was mapped out.

I fully appreciate that this love I have for all things dramatic couldn't be further from the truth for other people. However, it is my challenge, through the help of Practically Primary, to sway even the most drama-shy of teachers into finding the courage to add drama to their bag of favourite teaching tools. Why? Using drama strategies as teaching tools provide teachers with the ability to bring a unique purpose to your students' writing, develop their ability to connect with sub-text and provide them with endless ideas and feelings to write about in response to texts.

Toy and Prendiville (2000) suggest that drama involves more than just the passing on of knowledge; instead it encourages students to make meaning of an idea through active participation. Drama can be integrated in the classroom to enforce a richer understanding of any literacy lesson. Students can participate in role-plays, explore characters from a storybook or encourage a different ending to the particular scenario. Drama teaching techniques allow students to see the world through someone else's eyes. It is the process that becomes important for the teacher when working with drama in primary schools ... not the end product or performance opportunities.

Drama allows students to feel the experience. I find that after participating in a dramatic activity students are able to write with more energy, use words that they have heard in the drama and can feel a connection with the characters from a text that inspired the drama. The more ideas that they can workshop through a dramatic context, the better their writing becomes as a result. Drama allows children's writing to become more descriptive. Drama is 'the way in' ... we know that learning happens when students are emotionally engaged and drama provides them with a 'way in' to experience the insights of texts first hand.

I regularly use drama techniques with my students when we are responding to and creating texts. Some of these techniques are:

Freeze Frames

Role on the Wall

Teacher in role


Writing in role

Decision Alley

For the purpose of this article I will refer to a Unit Plan Exemplar written by O'Toole and Dunn (2002) from their Teaching Resource 'Pretending to Learn' (1st ed.).

The Giant Who Threw Tantrums (See Appendix 1)

This drama experience is built on a small part of a text. Here the children are given a brief extract from a much longer text, and they build on this extract to create a text that is only in a small way related to the original.

In this example, the children adopt a specific role in the small community of Thistle Mountain. They will work from an in-role position of a townsperson, meeting a tantrum throwing giant. The giant is under threat from a 'giantologist' who has been brought in to save the community from this dangerous tantrum-thrower! It is suitable for early to middle primary.

Background planning and requirements

Key question: What causes tantrums and how can they be avoided?

Focus question: What can be done to stop a giant from throwing tantrums and upsetting the people of the town?

The 5 W's

What's happening? A giant is throwing tantrums and upsetting the locals.

Who's it happening to? The people of the town of Thistle Mountain, a giant who lives at the top of the mountain and the giantologist.

Where is it happening? The town of Thistle Mountain

When is it happening? In fairy-tale time

What's at stake? The people of the town are living in fear.

The hook: Children love reading and speaking about Giants. This drama gives the children the chance to have power over a giant by stopping him/ her from throwing tantrums. The term 'giantologist' is also a big hit with children of this age group.

The teacher in role: Within this drama the teacher takes three separate roles--the Mayor, the Giant and the Giantologist. Have clear signals for which role you are in.

Resources: The excerpt of The Giant Who Threw Tantrums, a prop for the Mayor, the class dress-up box containing props for each of the children as townspeople, prop for the giant, prop for the gaintologist, a letter from the giant.

Connected Curriculum Areas: storytelling, letter writing, vocabulary, literature, visual literacy, mapping, visual arts, cultural studies.

STEP 1--(Initiation phase) Introducing the context and roles

Read and discuss The Giant Who Threw Tantrums with the children (Appendix 1). Highlight the word 'tantrum' and invite them to share stories of tantrums they have witnessed. Ask the children to sit or lie on the floor with eyes closed while you narrate an atmospheric description of Thistle Mountain. For example:

STEP 2--Realising the fictional context

The children collaboratively create Thistle Mountain through collective drawing. This can be done by recalling any of the geographical features mentioned in the story extract and then brainstorming any additional features that the children might wish to include such as lakes, creeks and caves.

Explain to the children that during the drama they will be involved in helping to solve the problem of the tantrum-throwing giant and will be in role as people from this area. Now ask them to draw their house on the map of Thistle Mountain. They decide where they would choose to live if they were residents of this are (e.g. up on the mountain, by the stream, in the town itself). The children write their characters' address on large envelopes (e.g. 'Sarah by the stream', 'Tom on the hill'). The envelopes will come into their own in Step 8.

STEP 3--(Experiential phase) Introducing the problem

Explain to the children that for this first part of this drama you will be in the role as the Mayor of Thistle Mountain and they will be the people from the town. Share with them the prop that you have chosen to signal your role (a badge, hat, jacket or gold chain of office).

Next ask them to choose a hat, coat, beads, etc. from the dress-up box for their symbol. Get them to put it on and get used to it, and then try going up to somebody else and talking to them as people of Thistle Mountain, greeting each other as neighbours and talking about their work.

Enter in role as the Mayor and ask the townspeople if they have ever seen the giant. Explain to them that this is not the first time that you have heard rumours about a giant living up in one of the caves, and suggest that, although you do not like to admit it, you have seen and heard some strange things up on that mountain. Suggest that the townspeople talk to one of their neighbours about the times when they have seen or heard strange things.

Bring the group together again and closely and seriously question the townspeople about what they know or have heard. Ask the townspeople to help you (as the Mayor) to make a list of people/ experts who may be able to resolve the problem (if the children don't beat you to it suggest that a giantologist may be useful).

Cut the drama (make it explicit by asking them to remove their prop/costume and sit down, as you do)

STEP 4--Building belief in the role of the giantologist

Explain that you will now change roles and become the giantologist. So that they can help you to take this role, discuss this person and what their job would be. Once again, show them what prop you have selected to use to signify your new character to assist in the transition of the roles. Ask the children to put their props back on as you do and be ready to begin again.

Enter in the role as giantologist. Explain that the work is dangerous and that if cannot be achieved by one person alone. Extra recruits from the town will therefore be needed. Will they help to become assistant giantologists? Not everyone will be needed to do the dangerous work though. The others can stay in the town but will be needed for other things. Give the children an opportunity to ask lots of questions about the job. Don't be too knowledgeable. Be evasive about the tough questions like 'Won't we get eaten?'. You might drop slight hints about perhaps wanting to catch the giant.

When the townsfolk have agreed to help, tell them that they will be put to work straight away coming up with a plan to trap the giant. Explain that as a giantologist, you are certainly against killing giants as they are very rare and quite valuable too. The townspeople's plans need to be carefully designed so that the giant is not harmed.

Cut the drama

STEP 5--Exploring the giant

Out of role, ask the children to work in groups to come up with a way to trap giants. They need to plan their strategy. To share their plan they need to create a 'photo' (a freeze frame) that shows how they would capture the giant.

Back in role as townspeople who are helping the giantologist, the children are interviewed by the teacher-in-role as the giantologist. Children must share their 'photos' and plans and persuade the giantologist that their plan will work and that they are brave enough and prepared enough for the task ahead. The giantologist will accept all appropriate plans.

STEP 6--More about the giant

Suggest to the children that the next step is to find out more about the giant. We need to understand this giant a little better if our trapping plans are going to work. Revisit the story excerpt and discuss the tantrums thrown by the giant and make special mention of the language that he/she uses. The language is lots of fun and the children could try to make up some of these nonsense words themselves and record them on tape or say them for the teacher as scribe.

Using the convention of 'gossip mill' discuss reasons why the giant might throw tantrums. The children each think of one reason and prepare to share it with the group. They can all begin every time with 'I've heard that the giant throws tantrums because ...' The children move around the space milling together and on a signal from the teacher (clap of hands) the children stop moving and share their gossip with another student. Repeat this process approx. 6-7 times. The wonderful thing about the gossip mill process is that you can change your gossip as you go. If you hear something that you like better than your gossip you can spread that idea instead. This is very useful for the less confident students who may not think that their idea was as good as others.

STEP 7--Cross curricular tasks

A number of cross curricular activities can take place here, for example,

--Use the giant for visual arts activities

--Create a shared big book about the story so far. In this way the children are recalling the sequence of events and reshaping them to make their own text.

--Create a soundscape of the giant moving down Thistle Mountain toward the township. This can be done using the children's voices as sound effects, or junk percussion instruments can be used or added.

--Create a map of the town and use mapping positions to identify or plot the location of various events and places

STEP 8--The crux of the drama

Announce that you are going to go back into role as the townspeople of Thistle Mountain with yourself as the Mayor again, who has called a meeting. Don props (before this step you need to prepare letters by placing a copy of the letter (Appendix 2) into each of the children's envelopes. You can photocopy the letter or handwrite one of your own generated by the stories that were created in the 'gossip mill' activity.

As the Mayor, announce that you have received a bundle of letters. Let them share with assistance. The letters show that the giant is very hurt by news that the townspeople are planning some kind of trap. The giant wishes to speak with the townspeople and Mayor when the giantologist is not present.

Discuss the letter in role then start preparing to meet with the giant. Tell the townspeople that as Mayor, you are too frightened to meet the giant yourself but that you are glad that they are brave enough.

Cut the drama.

STEP 9--Building the giant

Discuss with the children how you are going to bring the giant to life for the drama.

Prepare one of the following three giants:

1. Build a giant statue, getting ideas and materials from the children, hanging cloth, cushions and oversized clothes on eg. a screen and tripod, or a hat rack, with a big painted cardboard or cloth face.

2. Rig up a big sheet with a light behind it. Then experiment with the children on how you can make a shadow bigger and positioning a person (you) or a child between the light and the screen ... the support of a teacher assistant could be helpful in supervision here.

3. Create and practise with a giant puppet, using two broomsticks and painted cloth hung between them, with a giant face painted on that cloth.

(Being a stilt-walker, I have a great time dressing up and acting as the giant with a mask with long, funny nose and hat, long stilt pants and a funny voice)

STEP 10--The dramatic climax meeting the giant

Once again, set up the town ready for meeting the giant. Since you are not playing the Mayor, stress to the children as the last reminder that their main job is to try to stop the giant's tantrums, and the fear and damage these are causing.

The townspeople meet the giant (teacher in role) who appeals to them to keep the giantologist away. The giant is scared and wants the people's protection. The giant explains his tantrums. They are because of all the problems he has, for example, noisy neighbours (the loggers); other giants laughing at his language problem; his inability to play sport because of his big feet and legs; the fact that he has no friends. The giant reminds the people that he is not the only one with a tantrum problem; lots of people throw tantrums. The townspeople can ask the giant any questions they want and offer suggestions to help with the problems. The giant should not be too easily persuaded to be good, but should clearly show that the tantrums are not meant as a threat to anyone in the town and that he only wants to be left alone to live in peace. The giant departs claiming that they have helped him a lot and that if they kept the giantologist away he will really try to be good.

STEP 11--Reflective phase--reflecting on the action.

Out of role discuss the causes of the giant's tantrums and compare these with why children, and sometimes adults, throw tantrums. Each child draws a picture of the giant and then, with the teacher as scribe, writes adjectives and phrases around their pictures to describe how they now feel about the giant.

STEP 12--Reflection in action--wrapping up the drama

Back in the role of the townspeople, report to the Mayor. The great advantage of you not being present as the Mayor is that you can now admiringly ask the townspeople to tell you what happened. The townspeople then discuss with the Mayor what needs to be done to help the giant. Make a list of these. Also discuss what should be done about the giantologist. Provide time for the children to respond to this session in writing, for example, a letter to the giant in role, a letter to the giantologist, a list of tantrum avoidance tips. Early writers can be supported by the teacher as scribe, but remember that the letter can be written using role-play writing and posted just as validly as a teacher-written letter. This letter could also be composed as a group writing task.

You can imagine what wonderful classroom displays can come from this sort of work with text. A play space can be designated for this purpose and can be set up in a corner of the room with the props that you used for each of the teacher-in-role characters, along with some of the children's own props. The map of Thistle Mountain along with any images of the giant created by the children can be placed on the wall with the title 'WANTED' above it. The 'role on the wall' posters can hang to display the inner thoughts of the giant (they could also do a 'role on the wall' for the townsfolk).

Opportunities for responding to and creating new texts are endless. For example:

--Create a word wall under the topic of 'the scientific language of giantologists', or 'Glossary of a Tantrum Throwing Giant'

--Write your own story ending

--Make a town brochure to advertise Thistle Mountain's unique tourist attraction--meeting a giant face to face

--Write letters to the Mayor, Giantologist, Giant

--Create descriptive pieces/poems on life on Thistle Mountain

--Create persuasive text of the pros and cons of living with a giant

Hints for making drama work for you ...

Freeze Frames are a simple technique to use in the early stages of exploring texts. Children are asked to work together to represent a still 'photo' image of what is happening and share these still images with their class mates. The teacher says 'freezing to show your photo in 3,2,1 freeze'. Freeze frames allow children to develop awareness of the text. They don't require a deep understanding of the characters to allow students to participate in creating Freeze Frames. They allow students to become more involved in the story line and adventures of the characters involved.

Role on the Wall is a useful strategy to enable the deeper exploration of a character within a text. The physical activity of tracing around a friend to create a body image on a sheet of paper allows the students to focus in on how the character is feeling at a particular time in the story. Students then fill the body image with phrases or words that symbolise that character. Role on the Wall provides an opportunity to capture on paper a characters thoughts and feelings. It's about providing as many of their ideas as possible, onto the paper, about what the character is going through. It becomes a record of their ideas that can be shared and taken further as their understanding becomes deeper. Roles can be placed on the wall for the rest of the class to view and discuss. Before their eyes (on the wall) is someone who then appears real to them, in the context of the story. They develop a sense of what that character is feeling. As teachers, we can challenge students who are more able and who are less able to come up with higher vocabulary to extend them and in turn, extend their writing for when the go on to write later.

Teacher in role. Many teachers can feel uncomfortable about taking on a role with their students. The biggest misconception among teachers is that to successfully participate in role, we need to be wonderful actors. This couldn't be further from the truth. To make this technique work all a teacher needs to be is confident and secure in the company of their students. After all, utilising the technique of Teacher in Role is only doing exactly what we are expecting and encouraging our students to do. When we are in role alongside of our students, we are not focussing on performance arts or stage dramatics, instead we are merely focussing on being in touch with our children. In my entire teaching career I have particularly enjoyed the excitement and engagement on the faces of students when I take on a role with them. They are excited and pleased that I am joining in the fun and sharing the experience with them.

Improvisation. I recently attended a workshop on Writer's Notebook with Deb Sukarna who says that 'writing is thinking'. I describe Improvisation as 'thinking and imagining', and believe that this drama strategy would complement Deb's program immensely. Improvisation is all about the children bringing part of the text or sub-text to life. Once they have developed a clear understanding of the feelings and dimensions of a character I then encourage them to experiment with acting out a part of the story:

--How would the character react if this happened? In small groups I'd like you to come up with a short scene that shows the rest of the class what you think will happen next

--What do you think happened that led to this character feeling this way? In small groups, show me what you think happened before this character entered the room.

One of the important teaching issues around improvisation is being conscious of the security that our children need to feel to enable them to willingly participate in improvisation activities. Not only do they need to feel safe and secure to express and voice their opinions and ideas, we also need to encourage an understanding of the plight of the characters within these contexts. Rules are important. We need to build up to these improvisation activities slowly so that students can learn the techniques first, allowing them to recognise the importance of respect in this instance.

Writing in role. Once students have had opportunities to participate fully in the experiences above, I always provide opportunities for writing while they are still in role. This allows students to change the tenor of their text according to the person they are pretending to be and who they are choosing to write for or to. Writing in role is powerful and important. Even though the situation is 'imagined', to them it feels REAL. The drama prompts the 'meaning making' in their heads and at the end of their pencil. I find this technique for boys in particular, makes the writing easier because they have already voiced it and rehearsed it in the role-play.

Decision Alley can be used to prompt decision making about a character, solve a problem posed through text or sub-text, or to assist in the creation of a new ending to a story. Although this is not used in the lesson The Giant Who Threw Tantrums, students are encouraged to use persuasive language to convince a character which choice is the correct choice to make. Think of how this technique could be used and integrated into a behaviour management/social skills program too! The inner conscience of a character is spoken by each class member as the focus character walks through the alley-way, listening to what suggestions their inner conscience is voicing. The student then makes a decision based on shared ideas they have heard. The important teaching aspect is to ensure that we honour the children's decision at the end of it.

Drama Strategies are incredibly useful tools for the literacy teacher. When children are speaking or participating in a dramatic context they are rehearsing exactly what they are going to go on to write about. Student's feedback has been that:

--it gives me something to write about

--it gives me a purpose to write

--it gives me words, ideas and feelings for me to use in my writing.

So, if asked how I support children to respond to and create text ... my answer would be ... 'for me it's never a drama! I use Drama!'

Appendix 1

The giant who threw tantrums

At the foot of Thistle Mountain there lay a village. In the village lived a little child who liked to go walking. One Saturday afternoon he was walking in the woods when he was startled by a terrible noise.

He scrambled quickly behind a bush.

Before long a huge giant came stamping down the path. He looked upset!

'Tanglebangled ringlepox!' the giant bellowed. He banged his head against a tree until all the leaves shook off like snowflakes.

'Franglewhangled whippersnack!' the giant roared. Yanking up the tree, he whirled it around his head and knocked down 27 other trees.

Muttering to himself, he stalked up the path towards the top of Thistle Mountain.

The child hurried home.

'I just saw a giant throwing a tantrum!' he told everyone in the village. They only smiled.

'There's no such thing as a giant,' the Mayor assured him.

An excerpt from Harrison, David (1972) 'Giant Who Threw Tantrums', The Book of Giant Stories, (1st ed.) Boyd Mills Press

Appendix 2

Dear Townspeople of Thistle Mounted I don
Im just a lonely old giant and nobody seems to want to be my friend.

What have I don't to hurt you? I know you've all been talking about me and my tantrums. I can't help them can I?

Don't you throw tantrums--you wagglepooping nurdlecrusts?

I want to meet with you to talk about this. Keep that franglewhangled whippersnack gaintologist away from me. He just wants to take me away from my home and put me in a cage.

How would you like that? I don't and I'm frightened!

From The Giant


O'Toole, J. and Dunn, J. (2002) Pretending to Learn: Helping children to learn through drama (1st ed) Melbourne, Australia: Pearson Rigby

Toy, N. & Prendiville, F. (2000) Drama and Traditional Story for the Early Years. London: Routledge & Falmer KS1/2 English-Drama in the Classroom

Dayna Dennison currently teaches middle primary at Wesley Vale Primary School in Northern Tasmania. She is also an Associate Lecturer at the Cradle Coast Campus of The University of Tasmania, lecturing in Drama in Education. She began her teaching career 16 years ago as a high school Drama teacher and established 'Rascals Youth Theatre Company' as a Community Youth Project. A passionate arts enthusiast, she directs circus productions annually and works as a Stilt Walker and Living Statue Street Theatre Performer in her spare time.
Thistle Mountain had always been a very quiet place and
   there had never been any trouble there. Not many visitors
   came for it was not on a main road. The town at the foot of
   the mountain was a very pretty one, with a few shops and
   houses. The mountain was quite steep and covered with
   trees. The local people liked to walk in the forest and look
   down on their town. There were several large caves to be
   found at the top of the mountain, but they were dark and
   mysterious and most people stayed away from them.
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