Home' Teacher : June-July 2011 Contents 42 teacher june/july 2011
A long, long time ago, so all good stories go,
I trained as a primary school teacher, and as
an emerald green shiny new teacher landed
in a Year 6 classroom of rambunctious kids
that had chewed through their previous
teacher. These kids thought it was hilarious
to pinch my car keys on a Friday afternoon ,
leaving me stranded in the car park. They
weren’t bad kids – I secretly admired their
cunning, exuberance and wit – they just
hated school. Looking back I think most of
them were bored stupid and thought school
As they continued to excel at lesson sabo-
tage, I needed do something different. I had
majored in drama during my teacher train-
ing, so I gave up on the chalk and talk and
instead together we did a play – the first
one in the school’s history. Not because I
had any understanding of the power of arts
at the heart of pedagogy but because there
was nothing else I could do with a group
of children hardwired not to sit still. Every
subject’s lesson used dra ma, a nd then ulti-
mately their own d ra mas were written a nd
sewn together into a public performa nce –
a transformational moment for them , for
me and the school community... and they
stopped stealing my keys.
It wasn’t all roses. Some teachers com-
plained about the noise, a pare nt wanted
to know why we weren’t doing real ‘work’
despite the fact their son hadn’t been i n the
pri ncipals’ office all term. A couple of teach-
ers were openly hostile in the staff room,
particularly the guy who had this cohort the
year before... funny that!
It wasn’t long afterwa rds that I left teach-
ing and enrolled in an Arts Management
degree at the Western Australian Academy
of the Performing Arts, which eventually led
to working at Bell Shakespeare for a num-
ber of years and then on to Sydney Theatre
Company (STC) where I am today.
Artists in schools
Throughout my career, I had some experi-
ence of artists in schools programs. What
frustrated me about these programs is that
the ‘technicolour’ they create usually fades
when the artist leaves. Future students miss
out on the experience if it can’t be replicated
by teachers. I think that’s a waste.
I also observed that if the focus for an
artist in a school is to provide skills for an
art form in lieu of the generalist teacher, or
if the arts are being used as an intervention
related to social justice, a nd then the money
dries up, then the future of that program is
Artists in schools progra ms have unques-
tionable value but I worry about their sus-
tainability in the longer term. If we are to
truly arm our children with an education
that will see them flourish in the 21st cen-
tury, then the arts must be embedded across
all key learning areas, particularly in the
primary years. But how should we do it in a
sustainable way? What could a theatre com-
pany meaningfully do in this area?
The arts remain an u nderused component
of primar y curricula despite unequivocal
evidence that they enhance student learning
outcomes in all key learning areas (see, for
example, Robyn Ewing’s article ‘The arts
and learning’ in the January/February issue
of Teacher this year).
In addition, many primary teachers do
not feel well equipped to embed the arts in
what is an already overcrowded curriculum.
More specifically, there is strong research
evidence that demonstrates the effectiveness
of drama as critical, quality pedagogy – but,
again, teachers feel they must concentrate
on the teaching of literacy and numeracy.
This is especially so in an increasingly regu-
latory, high-stakes testing national context.
As a result, drama is often undervalued and
In 2008 serendipity struck. The personal
experience in my classroom collided with
my previous experiences of artists in schools
progra m, a nd with the chance assignment
of Professor Robyn Ewing to STC as our
research partner on a giant project analysing
young theatre audiences. In getting to know
Robyn, I learned of her extensive work in
classrooms and passion for putting the arts
at the centre of prima ry schools classrooms.
She’s a formidable talent in this area.
I asked Robyn if she thought we could
work together to train actors to replicate and
model her superb work in classrooms, and
she agreed. Professional actors a re highly
skilled and obviously have enor mous crea-
tive capacity. Their craft involves embodying
a character, creating imagined worlds and
commu nicating experiences to an audience.
Actors often have an affinity with children
and many work in schools between gigs.
Teachers give performa nces every day, com-
bining their body with voice, and often story
to evoke responses a nd transformations in
their student audience. I’ve met ma ny teach-
ers who are innately creative, wonderful per-
formers , they just don’t realise it!
So, to make the technicolour last when a n
arts intervention has been and gone we must
focus on supporting and developing teachers.
In the second half of 2008, Robyn and I
developed the in- school professional learn-
ing model based on Robyn’s co -mentori ng
strategy developed in schools alongside
classroom teachers. I n essence, the project
would partner an a rtist with a teacher over a
period of time to demonstrate how to imple-
ment dra ma strategies in the classroom, i ni-
tially focusing on the English key learning
area and on literacy.
I then further developed the concept in
light of STC aims and processes, with trepida-
tion wrote the budget, a nd proposed a project
called School Drama to STC’s Artistic Direc-
tors Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton. Their
enthusiasm and belief in the importance of
School Drama was brilliant and it was their
support that paved the way for f unds to be
sourced for a 2009 pilot in part nership with
the Faculty of Education and Social Work at
the Universit y of Sydney. We’ve been having
a blast with teachers and students ever since!
School Dra ma focuses on developing pri-
mary teachers’ professional knowledge of
and expertise about the impact of drama
on children’s English and literacy outcomes.
Actors work alongside classroom teachers
once a week over a term on a jointly devel-
oped and agreed teaching program.
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