No, not that kind of drama. Performance. Few people know how to act, but everyone knows what a good performance looks like. The words and the tone fit the character and the moment. It’s all about the context of the scene and the internal conflict going on inside the mind of the character. When an actor performs lines of a play or dialogue, we get to hear their words, but we yearn to know what they feel, what’s going on behind the words. That’s where body language, rhythm, and tone come in. I’m no director, but sometimes I try to put on that hat to bring literature to life. It’s one of many ways we can make fiction a reality.
There are few ways to transform your classroom into a theater. It’s not as easy as just saying “perform this scene”. A few of your kids in the school play will impress everyone else and they’ll miss out on understanding the value of imagining and interpreting the voice and body language of the character. Here are a few ways to bring drama to your classroom:
1. Have students read the entire text first.
I believe students should always read the entire text first before interpreting it in class. They need to develop their own independent understanding of the character so they can have the chance to imagine what they look like and sound like.
2. Close read the passage.
Especially with playwrights like Shakespeare, it sometimes takes a lot of mental work to shift through the figurative language and allusions. After students get to the bottom of what the characters are trying to express, they can then think about how it will sound out loud and they can mark up the passage with moments they will read slowly, or loudly, or whisper, or shout. The way they read the lines should reflect what they believe is happening inside the mind of the character. They might pause their reading because the character is in disbelief or doesn’t know what to do or say. Or they could make sounds to reflect their emotions.
3. Watch a performance.
Before students decide how they would like to perform their lines, they need to see it done in reality. Students can watch for body language, facial expressions, space, and movement and listen for tone, volume, and pacing.
4. Write creatively.
I’ve had so much fun watching my students create a short play out of a short story or passage from a novel. I ask them to modernize the story by taking the basics of the plot and setting it in the present day. They could put the play in their own words or even go in the other direction and create a short story from the lines of a play. I’ve also asked students to imagine plotlines or fill in gaps that exist in the story. For instance, imagine if Ophelia had the chance to speak openly and honestly with Hamlet in private, or if she knew that he met the ghost of his father.
5. Use technology.
It’s a lot of fun to ask students to perform scenes in front of the class, but some students do better when they can make a private recording of their lines or work in a group to create a short film. I’ve seen amazing movies created on iPhones. They don’t need to be masterpieces, and while I want students to take the assignment seriously, it can be a lot of fun to watch students get out of their comfort zone and take on the personality of another person.
When we ask students to read, we ask them to enter the consciousness of another person and performance takes that to another level. We ask them to take the words off the page, imagine what they sound like in reality, and then take that vision and put the stuff of life into it: the sighs, the laughter, the smiles, the eye rolls, the hair pulling, and the stomping.
English language arts teacher
Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers