Teaching & Learning with Drama: A Collection of Quotes & Reflections

During the first week of my summer vacation I took an intensive week-long course at OSU on active dramatic inquiry in the classroom as a teaching and learning approach. I got a lot  out of this course and have written 30 pages to flesh out my reaction to the readings and ideas for implementing some of the practices in my classroom! I hope to post some of that piecemeal on the blog over the next few days or weeks to share my learning with others who are interesting in making their classrooms more active places that engage students more deeply in their learning. My first post will be a collection of the quotes I selected from our in-course readings and my reactions to them. Full Disclosure: this is a looooong post but a good introduction to basic principles of using drama in the classroom as an active inquiry method. Some parts may have also showed up during my reflections here here here and here – sorry for the possible overlap! Enjoy and post any questions and/or feedback you may have for me in the comments section!


Principle 1:  Be active, be dramatic, and have authentic conversations

 “As teachers, we’re not destined to teach like other teachers, even when we admire their approaches.”

This is a reminder that I think I often need, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s true of a lot of teachers. Somehow when I attend new classes or professional development sessions I walk away with the message that I need a complete overhaul of everything I do in my classroom and I should replace all of my standbys with the new things I’ve been exposed to.

While it’s great to challenge myself to try out new strategies and methodologies with my students, the quote above goes a long way in reassuring me that it’s O.K. to be true to myself as a teacher and to do the things that work for me.

The important thing is not to confuse having confidence in who you are as a teacher with becoming rigid and inflexible, or someone who is incapable of entertaining the possibility of doing something in another way.

“Dramatic playing is essential for children’s learning empathy and self-control. Children learn to empathize as they view the world from other people’s perspectives including those of peers, adults, and people in stories.”

 In addition to being active in our learning, we discussed how learning should be dramatic. I had never really considered before how dramatic playing is helpful for children to learn empathy and self-control.

As children role-play they view the world from new perspectives and “try on” ways of being and acting that are different from their own experiences. This is critical in helping children understand the feelings of others in a variety of contexts and acting in ways that are compassionate in response.

Self-control might also be developed through the use of dramatic approaches. It is possible students will try to use drama as a justification to be silly and will need to be re-directed to keep their actions consistent with the context that has been set up.

For example, when we worked with Dominion students we had to redirect them away from using shotguns in a fight that took place in medieval times and instead suggest that they use a sword and shield to remain in line with the story.

Principle 2:  Build an ensemble community

 “In an ensemble community students encounter possibilities and create understandings that go beyond what individuals can do alone”

This quote supports everything we did in class. The most important thing is to create a respectful, emotionally safe community of learners so that everyone will feel comfortable working and growing together.

Perhaps one reason this quote speaks so strongly to me is that it convicts me of what I say I do versus the reality of what I really do in a classroom. I say that community is important to me, yet I don’t even engage students in enough community building at the start of the year to ensure that they know each others’ names before delving into the content. I say that a language classroom must be a safe place to take risks and grow, but I mark down for grammatical errors that are a normal part of the process of language acquisition.  This quote reminds me that it is worthwhile to take the time away from the content at the start of the school year to get to know one another deeply, because if you take the time to build the community first, the potential for learning together later grows exponentially.

In class, we really, authentically built a community of learners together. I think a hallmark of a true ensemble community is that students, as individuals, begin to feel protective of the group, as a whole. They begin to say nurturing things to one another, even while the teacher isn’t looking; they consistently build one another up rather than (even jokingly) making fun. They find themselves thinking, “How did I get so lucky to be in this class?” because they assume that maybe it’s going so well because of the specific individuals that make up the group. And while it’s possible that the mix of students in a class are the reason things go well, I think it’s also possible for any group of individuals to build a true community and grow together if the teacher sets the tone for it.

Plus, it’s possible with a little creativity on the teacher’s part to engage students in community-building exercises that also get into the content right away.  For, example, I could do a variation of the name game we did in class in Spanish and students would review both how to say “my name is” and “I like” in the target language while learning each others’ names.

“Particular students in every group enter the classroom already more competent in one or more dimensions than in others.”

It’s important to remember that children are no more blank slates when it comes to learning than are adults. This quote reminds me that even very young students come to situations with prior knowledge and experiences that affect their understandings and can contribute to my and others’ understanding.

I know I have been in several classes where I find myself thinking, “why isn’t the professor trying to figure out what we already know so we don’t keep repeating this theory over and over again?” From the student perspective, this is such an obvious thing to do – nobody likes to sit in a class bored by lectures or activities the lead them through practice of skills or content they have already learned; in fact, it’s possible that these are the very things that end up leading students to disengage from the education process. From the teacher perspective, however, it’s so easy to overlook the importance of uncovering what students already know and just assume that “a little review” won’t hurt anyone. In reality, we probably review far more than we need to, which comes at the cost of not having as much time left to actively engage students in creating new understandings together. In the process, I’m afraid that we lose many students.

It’s my job as the teacher to help uncover students’ prior and emergent knowledge – the “old” knowledge already there in the classroom—and then to encourage student to move towards creating “new” knowledge together as a group.

“People’s reflection on process affects subsequent behavior. In other words, if people agree to do something they do it.”

This quote speaks to the importance of establishing community norms and practices that are understood and followed by all members of a group of teachers and learners. In class, we discussed how creating norms could be done in a variety of ways (explicitly or implicitly).

Regardless of how they are agreed upon, having norms in place helps students buy in to what you are doing in the classroom, allows them a say in their own learning, and lets them contribute to the tone of the community they are creating. Depending upon the age and maturity of the students in a room, they may even be permitted to write up the norms, which could bring an even greater sense of ownership.

Creating norms with your students rather than dictating rules to them will build trust and a sense of safety and mutual respect which may lead to students feeling more comfortable and participating more readily.

Principle 3: Stand up texts to explore fictional worlds

“To be able to stand up and explore fictional worlds…all students must agree to imagine actively that they have encountered, or that they are encountering, an imagined person. However, this does not mean that you or the students have to become actors.”

This quote comforts me! I really love the active approach to exploring a text, but I was instantly thinking of how resistant my high school Spanish students would be to acting (with the exception of those who love drama). So, when I read this quote from Principle 3, I felt reassured that it’s possible to engage students in active dramatic approaches without necessarily making students become a character themselves with a crazy voice or strange actions. While some students may want to do this and it may at times be appropriate, it is not a prerequisite for many of the activities we discussed in class to work.

In some ways, the idea that you don’t need to be creative to be dramatic in your learning reminds me of how so many people are concerned with their lack of creativity when it comes to doing anything related to art.

In my experience, however, it’s always so interesting to see how students who claim to be uncreative will produce some of the more interesting pieces when they are reassured that they will not be graded on their artistic ability. I bet that when I try to use these active dramatic approaches to teach about fictional worlds, some of the most meaningful “breakthrough” moments of understanding will come from an idea voiced by students who are very down-to-earth.

“The more dialogue you can get going between the questioner and the character as well as among students the less superficial and more complex the students’ understandings of the [text] will become.”

When students all agree to encounter an imagined character, for example in a hotseating activity, they are able to dialogue with him or her in order to learn more about the character’s motivations, thoughts, and feelings. This extra, inferred information is not directly spelled out for students in the text and is often the sticking point in students deeply comprehending why events in stories take place. So, by engaging in dialogue with key characters, students can often move forward in their understanding and be more successful with the text as a whole.

This quote speaks to the importance not just of engaging students in such dialogues, but also of the need to keep them going for as long as possible. The longer you can keep students engaged in conversing with a character, the deeper they are likely to go with their questions and the closer they will get to authentic inquiry. It’s even possible that as a result of engaging in these questions with characters, students will uncover something that will change their previously held assumptions and allow them to transform their understanding. In fact, one way the teacher can use power in these dialogues is in the statements they make while in-character. For example, I can play devil’s advocate and make provocative statements that challenge students’ views that I might not make as their teacher but which are appropriate from the perspective of the character.

One reason this quote is so powerful to me is that it assumes the teacher is willing to give power over to her students to allow them to shape their own understanding. The tips for how to extend dialogue provided in principle three all demonstrate that the teacher must share power with her students in order to draw them into these extended dialogues. For example, teachers who are playing the role of a character in a hotseating activity may ask for clarification from students, which will cause students to extend and/or explain their question by clarifying in some way. Or a teacher may turn a question back on a student by asking him or her for their evaluation of a situation (e.g. “what do you think I should have done?”)

Using these questioning strategies to promote extended dialogue sends the message that students are responsible for creating their own understanding and gives them the power to continue to explore the possibilities in the texts they are reading, and thus walk away with more complex understandings of those texts.

Principle 4: share power

“As teachers we may choose to regard young people as subjects with individual lives rather than as statistics or objects to be managed, to treat them with dignity rather than as problems, and to value them as equals rather than as inferiors. More challenging, we have the power to treat youngsters with respect even when they may disrespect us or devalue their peers.”

Every child is an individual deserving of dignity – that is the message in this quote. While it’s easy to lose sight of this in the day-in, day-out process of teaching, it’s important to remember that all students’ voices are equal and should be heard.

Just as age should not determine who has the power, neither should personality. It is a constant challenge to encourage all students to participate in the dialogue of a class. All teachers have had the experience of trying to draw out and engage the shy, reserved student while downplaying the over-eager contributions of students who often have louder voices and are less inhibited.

I’m ashamed to admit that over time, I am sometimes guilty of going straight to my eager participants to arrive at the correct answer more quickly and move forward with instruction rather than taking the time to encourage equality among all voices in my classroom.

This is problematic in two ways: first, I am overlooking the possibly insightful contributions of my more timid (or poorly behaving) students and second, I’m teaching in a way that doesn’t promote authentic conversations if I am asking questions that have a predetermined answer.

This ties back to the first principle of teaching & learning with drama: Have authentic conversations. One characteristic of authentic conversations is that a large majority of the questions that are asked by the teacher are ones that she doesn’t know the answers to. Clearly if I am so rushed to have a student identify the “right answer” and move on, something is missing at a deeper level.

“Paradoxically, the person in the room who may have to change the most is the teacher: using dramatic approaches means that when children participate in new activities they also become visible to use in ways that we have not previously encountered”

Creating a respectful, emotionally safe community of learners is essential to level the playing field among the students in a class and encourage the active participation of all. When typically shy or unengaged students sense that their ideas will be accepted, they are more likely to voice them. This shift in who participates in the classroom can even help teachers to see their students in a new light and change previously-held ambivalent or negative assumptions about their abilities or attitudes towards learning.

This quote speaks to me because it shows me that in order to see my students in new ways, I first have to be willing to change the ways I do things. So many of the procedures I have in place show my need for control in my classroom. I always start class with a bellwork activity because it is a way to make sure they are quiet and working while I go around to check their homework and ensure that they are obediently completing the work I assign for them each night. While these are not necessarily bad procedures, they definitely don’t send a message of trust or nurturing to my students.

What if my “bellwork” each day was a question on the board that they were to think about? Or what if we came up with those questions together, for example in a way similar to how we began our first class (e.g. What do you want to know about the people in this class? – I could adapt this to “What do you want to know about Don Quijote?”) And what if homework just became an extension of the classroom conversation online so that I didn’t have anything physical to check each day but instead was encouraging authentic conversations in and out of my classroom?

I have a lot of thinking to do about how I have been doing things in my classroom, which of those procedures have merit and are worth keeping and which might need to change. I want to move away from my authoritarian teacher-centered orientation towards a nurturing, student-centered position that asks, “what have we created together?” and “what might we explore today?”

Of course, every shift in power must be approached with balance. There’s no use in simply shifting all of my teacher power to them as students – the result would be chaotic! Instead, the key is to focus on negotiating with students to notice and hear their thoughts about what they are learning and to accommodate their interests as much as possible; in doing this, it is also possible to further reveal to students the givens at play that I am held to as their teacher: the curriculum that must be covered, the commitment to proficiency in our district, and other elements of our Spanish class that are pretty much non-negotiable in that we must do them but might be negotiable as far as how we get them done. 

Principle 5: Teach Through Dramatic Inquiry 

“New knowledge is understanding and knowledge of skills that is authored by participants – actually created and produced in the classroom by the students –or coauthored —as they work collaboratively with one another alongside the teacher.” 

 Too much of what we do in our classrooms focuses on “old knowledge” – the stuff that’s already known by someone, somewhere. This type of learning values students’ ability to learn and spit back “old” knowledge while devaluing their ability to create “new” knowledge by collaborating effectively with others. While it is important that students learn skills and factual information, it is even more necessary that they learn to be flexible and creative in their thought processes so that when they do not know a correct answer, they are equipped with strategies to explore ways of finding out what they need to know and making new meaning.

In other words, we ought to encourage students to go past simple comprehension and even what turns out to be simple synthesis of already-existing information and push them to instead have authentic conversations and interpret the possibilities that exist in a text, factual or otherwise. Even if students create new meaning that is not factually accurate, they may at the same time deepen their understanding of the context of a story and the characters’ possible motivations. Of course, as the teacher I can also intervene at any time necessary to correct misinterpretations that are very important and redirect the learning of the class. All of this will, at the very least, help students realize that understanding a text goes beyond literal comprehension of what is on a page and requires a constant, active conversation with the text.

Plus, students can easily be clued into the difference between socially-constructed meaning that may not be exactly what is contained in a text and literal factual information that is; in fact, the socially-constructed inferences that students figure out together have to be different from the literal words on the page – that’s the very essence of inferencing! But, just in case not all students grasp this, it’s important to remind them of the difference between the factual and the inferred information gleaned from a text.

“In each case, of course, every dramatic experience or performance can be followed by our analysis using an inquiry question”

This quote helps me to remember that the purpose of dramatic inquiry is not to simply be active and dramatic. It ties back to the all-important having authentic conversations to facilitate reflection and analysis of what has been learned through the active, dramatic process.

Drama for drama’s sake is not the purpose of drama in education. Drama must be accompanied by an element of reflection and deepened understanding to be relevant and useful in the classroom.

The best way, perhaps, to facilitate the reflection piece of dramatic inquiry is to tie back what we have learned or experienced to an essential inquiry question that has organically developed through the group’s explorations together. For example, when we worked with the Dominion middle-school students on the story Brave Margaret, every time we learned more about the plot or characters we would revisit the question “What does it mean to be brave?” to determine whether the character under discussion was brave or not. We also then pushed them to provide examples of the bravery from the dramatic experience they had just participated in and what their interpretations of those actions were.

Principle 6: Assess what and how you want students to learn 

“An inauthentic assessment turns the teacher into a judge, separates him or her from the group, and actually interrupts learning and teaching.”  


“If the only types of assessment are preparations for (end –of-year) tests the implicit classroom values are that we value inauthentic experiences over authentic achievements”

I have felt the above quotes to be true over and over in my four years of teaching. There are times when I feel like all I do is to prepare students for assessment, assess them, grade their assessments, and go over their results with them and parents. I work in a proficiency-based language program and while the philosophy behind the program is sound –that students ought to leave each level of language study with a clearly defined ability to speak, read, listen, and write at their current level of Spanish proficiency, and be prepared to succeed at the next level –somehow that philosophy gets practically interpreted as “students have to have an 80% in all four skills before they can move on to the next level.” As a result, we have all sorts of disagreements with students and parents alike about the importance of 1% or 2% at the end of the year when a student ends up with a 78% in speaking, for example. It’s awful to have to be the judge, the bad guy, justifying why a 78% means a child cannot continue to the next level of Spanish.

At a more basic, day-to-day level, assessment interrupts my teaching all of the time. I am constantly keeping in mind which skills students will be tested in and, as a result, I limit our in-class activities to practice those skills only.  For example, if I know I am only assessing students in reading and speaking in a given chapter, I will not spend class time practicing writing and listening because I just don’t feel I have time to. This narrowing of my curriculum ignores other, valuable skills in favor of teaching to a test, and leads to students learning rather quickly that assessment is the most important thing and their grades matter.

This is really not the message I want to send as a teacher. I want to send the message that students in my class will be expected acquire Spanish and communicate with native speakers effectively at their level. Authentic assessments that would allow me to ascertain whether or not this is the case, however, seem hard to come by. Even worse, even if they don’t like them, many students expect inauthentic assessment of their learning by the time they reach high school. Some students resist informal assessment because they have become so grade-oriented that they are not comfortable going through a course without a strong sense of whether they have an A or B.

While this is not an excuse to avoid authentic, informal assessment of student learning, it is an observation that demonstrates just how often we must be assessing children in ways that are inauthentic if they eventually crave that sort of feedback from us in order to know how they are doing.

I’ve always heard the saying “assess what you value” but I think that principle six above is a more specific and useful framework to practice by. Assess what I want students to learn and how I want them to learn it. Or, in other words, assess what students produce but also the process that they use to arrive at that product.

“Interpreting the results of a summative assessment is a way of saying “This is what the children know at this moment.”

 Although I know the above quote to be true, I unfortunately don’t express this idea to my students often enough.  I, of course, know when I give an assessment that the results of it are just one snapshot in time that tell me a story at that moment of what a child knows or can do. I have, however, on occasion received e-mails from parents who tell me that upon getting back a non-proficient assessment, their child came home crying and upset about what would happen next. I think that because of our proficiency program, everything feels very high-stakes to my students (as I suppose it probably should given that several non-proficient assessments over the course of the year often do result in a non-proficient status and inability to move on to the next level of language study).

As I reflect on how my program works, the message it sends is not a very positive one. Instead of the philosophical ideal of “you will be able to communicate in Spanish!” students and parents hear “you won’t be able to move forward!” I feel like I often have to resort to threatening students with this possibility in order to motivate them to do the work that needs to be done to become proficient.

What if, instead of focusing so heavily on a single assessment’s results, I focused on the feedback I gave to students about what those results mean? Perhaps if I helped students to understand that a 75% corresponds to the descriptor – “progressing towards proficiency” on our rubric it would be clearer to students and they would be more motivated to move up the rubric to an 80% which “clearly demonstrates proficiency.”

Principle 7: Make Learning Dialogic

 “When we develop a dialogic attitude toward learning we embrace dialogue with new perspectives, remain open to new possible interpretations, and expect to encounter other viewpoints on events. At the same time, we resist the closure, certainty, tidy conclusions, and finalizing solutions that are the hallmarks of the outcomes of “monologic” learning”

 Principle seven is the most important of all of the principles I’ve explored in class this week because, as Edmiston writes, “it is at the core of the transformation of understanding” (p.1). Learning becomes “dialogic” when we engage in dialogue to, possibly, change our views from a previously held understanding or opinion.

Dialogizing learning is the fourth quadrant of teaching and learning with drama which is both the most challenging to address and the least common to reach. It’s easier to remain in the first three quadrants of directing/instructing, facilitating, and collaborating. But it’s important to engage students in critical dialogue to challenge their perspectives and, perhaps, to allow for transformation to take place.

In fact, dialogizing learning is probably one of the only effective means of helping people to view others’ opinions as having the potential to allow them to let go of their own ideas, something that I often struggle with. Only when people can reframe the issues they are studying and see them from new and diverse perspectives can they be expected to abandon some of the inflexibility that accompanies otherwise usually rigid, single-minded views.

“In everyday life imagining from other people’s positions is often more difficult than when participating in dramatized encounters. First we usually have to imagine shifting positions without actually speaking or acting as if we are another person…Second, dramatizing allows you to slow down or “rewind” and repeat interactions for deeper analysis….Third, fictional worlds are emotionally more protected spaces for young people to imagine taking intense extreme actions very different from those they would likely ever do or even contemplate e.g. kill a brother (like Claudius)…or commit suicide (like Ophelia)  [in Hamlet]”

I have to agree with this. There are so many times in teaching at the secondary level when it seems like we have to use so many words just to express an idea that could have been acted out in seconds and been completely clear to everyone. Although sometimes it’s good to engage in whole-class discussion for the express purpose of encouraging students to be clear, concise and articulate, often I think we do students a disservice when we continue to have roundabout conversations that result in at best cloudy understanding where an active approach could lead to deep comprehension and shared meaning-making.

Dialogizing learning allows the teacher to play “devil’s advocate” in order to challenge students’ pre-suppositions and push them to justify their positions. If they are unable to do so, or waver in their reasoning, these pockets of uncertainty provide windows of opportunity for transformation. While some learners take this more seriously than others, by constantly engaging in these types of active approaches and then following up such activities with asking students questions about their points of view to spur reflection and analysis, more students will likely begin to take their thought processes more seriously. I really think after my experience in class this week that many students will welcome thinking on a deeper level than they do in the majority of their classes.

It could be that students are largely bored because we don’t dialogize learning with them. Likely, many would be okay with a change of pace, particularly one that is mentally stimulating and exciting without the constant use of edutainment or technology.

Indeed, one of the most refreshing aspects of this course for me as a teacher has been the realization that, although technology is a valuable way of extending learning past the walls of the classroom, within the classroom itself, social interaction and building a community are the most important thing.


About beckysearls

Married (DINK); High School Spanish Teacher; Lover of new technology (especially apple products!), Learner (of the life-long variety), Voracious Reader, Aspiring Writer, Tweeter, and now (or rather, a returning) Blogger!
This entry was posted in MA, reflection, world language teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Teaching & Learning with Drama: A Collection of Quotes & Reflections

  1. @kerridrama says:

    Hi there, great post! Just stumbled on your blog and found it a very interesting read. Would it be possible to tell me where the fab quotes come from? I am conducting some research & really like some of these. No worries, I can see this post was from a while back!!

    • beckysearls says:

      Hey there! So sorry for the incredibly late response, but I have been on a bit of a blogging break. The quotes were from a book in progress written by a professor I had a class with at Ohio State a couple of years ago. I believe the book has since been published or is being published soon. His name is Brian Edmiston if you’d like to look him up/contact him. Great professor!!

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