I am not alone among professionals in the field of educational drama who were deeply influenced by the book Dorothy Heathcote: Drama as a Learning Medium by Betty Jane Wagner. For me, the discovery of this book propelled my life’s work into targeted motion. So, each semester that I teach a course called Drama in Education, my students read and respond to Wagner’s description of the drama work of the late great Dorothy Heathcote.
This semester, one of the students in the CUA Master of Arts in Theatre Education program wrote such interesting reflections on the book that I asked her to allow them to be reproduced and shared with a wider audience. So for this post, here are the reactions of guest blogger Robin Bingham:
Let me first say that I’m in love with Dorothy Heathcote. I wish I had met her. I want to be her. Reading about her work, I’m reminded of what it means to get to the heart of what it means to be a teacher: How do you hold a class’s attention, gain their respect, keep their interest, open them so that they want to take what you have to give them, open yourself so that you can learn what they have to offer you, adjust what you have so it fits them perfectly, so that you are working as a team together?
“No magic in it?” Heathcote insists that “what she does has ‘no magic in it’ and can be learned and employed by any teacher,” (p. 3) but given the thousand and one split decisions a good teacher makes every day that an average, or a bad teacher is not even aware of, this can be hard to believe. There is magic in it! The magic of synthesizing all those split decisions, organizing (external and internal) the lesson and the class, keeping your eyes and the students’ eyes on the objective, and then—selling what you are doing to everyone (administrators, parents, students) involved.
A Good Teacher’s Split-Second Thinking. One of the things I really like about this book is the extent to which (and still it is limited) the author tries to quantify the split-second thinking that goes into the kind of class that Heathcote (or any good teacher) conducts.
I really think that this is key: there are a thousand little actions and reactions that a class brings, and as we teach, we realize that there aren’t really a thousand. There are maybe 10 or 20 categories with a thousand variations. What is the preplanning required to set you up so you can respond to these thousand little actions? Learning those 10-20 categories is one. This is the want-a-hall-pass-for-some-reason category. This is the I-don’t-like-my-grade category. This is the lets-get-the-teacher-to-change-the-subject-and-ramble-so-we-don’t-have-to-work-today category. This is the let’s-make-a-rumpus-so-I-can-have-a-little-much-needed-attention category.
The Fear of Drama in the Classroom. I think that many teachers, (myself included) fear drama in the classroom because the strategies they must learn are new and different from the ones used in a traditional classroom format.
- What happens if the stage-fight turns into a real-fight? (This happened to me)
- What happens if the class audience starts calling the actors names? (This happened to me, too.)
- How do you grade something that is spontaneous and took a lot of courage to do, but which wasn’t very good? (I’m still struggling with this one)
- What if what the students produce looks nothing like what I wanted them to produce? (This one, too.)
These last two are true of a story assignment just as much as a dramatic production for the class, but because the story is more common in a traditional classroom setting than a dramatic production is, average teachers are more familiar with the categories of student actions they need to think about.
The Thinking Process of the Teacher during the Drama Class. One thing I really appreciated about Drama as a Learning Medium is that it describes the thinking process of the teacher during class. In the first chapter, we get to see Heathcote’s thinking and directing of a class as they decide their play (and it really is play) is about a ship at sea in 1610.
In describing the drama work, the author focuses very much on Heathcote’s direct interactions with the students:
· “…then she changes to a musing tone and says softly… she pauses…another pause… followed by a long pause…..”
· … then she says quietly, almost to herself…”
· … then with some gruffness she turns to the laggers and says….” (pp. 5-6)
I think the focus on her tone of voice and her manner is important because it shows the subtlety of what Heathcote is trying to draw out—the teacher as actor. These subtle changes in demeanor are clear decisions she has made to evoke a specific response in the students.
Of course, this is much more difficult in practice than in theory.
The decisions Heathcote allows the class to make. In Chapter 2, the author describes the decisions Heathcote allows the class to make and how she leads them through these decisions:
“She has discovered that an essential element in her teaching is the taking of risks. She comes alive to a situation and does her best teaching when she and the students both are moving into the unknown.” (p. 10)
One thing that is not addressed in this text is how you might write up a lesson plan that would pass muster in an American public school if you don’t “plan beforehand beyond a moment of beginning,” and when “the outcome is unpredictable.” (p.10) But this book sets a lot of things aside and the entire super-category of ‘answering-to-your-administration’ is one.
Addressing the Discomfort of the Teacher. I really like the way the author (and Heathcote) address the discomfort of the teacher. I think that being upfront about one’s own comfort zone is really key to ‘edging in’ as she likes to put it. In the example of the play about the ship, Heathcote’s acknowledged discomfort with the idea of placing herself in the middle of the slave trade allows her to ‘protect herself’ by moving the class to another set of choices. The point is well made that “when she lets the class make decisions, she pays for this in that the class may make decisions that are actually uncomfortable for her. However, if she gets their decisions, she gains their committal; her discomfort is the price.” (p. 15)
But I wish the book would go further into the actual risks. One is uncomfortable for reasons far more important than simply the feeling of discomfort itself. For example, the reason Heathcote is uncomfortable with the slave trade topic is that it throws the power-dynamic of the imaginary world into a horrific parallel and echo-chamber of the actual world. Here would be this English woman teacher, (white, and in both imaginary and real worlds, therefore in power) and a mix of students, black and white, (whose power relationship is directly tied to the class connotations of their color) whose very existence is dependent upon and scarred by 17th and 18th century American slave trade, and who live today in a power-dynamic that was created through the slave trade. (A simplified analogy would be a German teacher re-enacting the holocaust with a bunch of German and Jewish students, all of whose grandparents participated in the holocaust.)
In actuality, if this class had been working together for sometime, it might be a really good idea to do something about these historical elephants in the room. In fact, I think it’s important especially for white teachers to be open about the topic of race in an American classroom. The problem is that race is such a charged subject. Because of this, many teachers (and people) avoid the subject altogether. Then they are completely at sea when it does come up, and because the subject is closed for debate, simple misunderstandings can suddenly take on racial overtones. At the same time, the topic has to be addressed with real sensitivity, and with an ear for complexity and shading.
I think that Drama really is a fast-track to these topics in a way: sensitive subjects get brought up almost freely in a dramatic context, perhaps because students are drawing on real life at every moment in order to participate. This means that race is going to come up in some way or another.
A Situation of Discomfort in my own Teaching: Once, I had a group of high school students improvising a chicken-box take-out restaurant. One student was supposed to be the lady behind the counter, taking orders. One student was the short-order cook. The other students were to be customers waiting in line. Immediately, the improv veered into this impossible world for me. One mistake I’d made was that I’d only bought take-out chicken in Baltimore once, so I didn’t know any of the “stock” characters. I didn’t realize that 95% of Baltimore take-out places are run by Koreans, and that there is a very real and tangible animosity between the Koreans, who mostly live in the suburbs, and who seem to be gaining quick access to the American Dream, and the generationally poor and disenfranchised local African-American customers, who a few generations ago, ran the chicken-box stores.
All my students were black, which meant that no sensitive ears but my own heard the almost immediate epithets and racial caricatures; I was suddenly dealing, not with an innocuous role-playing exercise, but an extremely sensitive and angry subject. The real risk was that I was reinforcing deep-seated prejudice. This was true regardless of whether I continued the role-play or discontinued it. Because it came up so suddenly, I didn’t have a ready split-second decision plan in place. I quickly stopped the improv and, because I hadn’t thought about it, I was at a loss as to how to proceed.
So I started a different improv with a different scenario and characters. The experience left me with a little fear and a lot of discomfort. I had done nothing to address the racism in the room. At the same time, I was uncomfortable re-opening the subject because I didn’t know how to effectively address the issue, and I was afraid of going into uncharted territory. The risk was that I might re-enforce deep-seated hatred, I might put myself into a weird power-dynamic with my students (my being white and middle class, they being black and poor) and I could lose authority and direction. So I stayed away.
The Decisions You Don’t Dare Let Out of Your Hands. In her chapter “Edging In,” the author touches on this, saying, “What you need to know is what decisions you don’t dare let out of your hands. Don’t give away decisions that will land you where you don’t want to be, and don’t play so risky that the class doesn’t sense your authority.” (p.27)
Heathcote admits that “when a threshold has been crossed, a teacher loses poise, control and satisfaction.” What she doesn’t really touch on, however, is that you really kind of have to cross these thresholds multiple times in order to really know where they are, and how to cross back. It’s very easy to hit that line—of losing authority, of finding yourself out of your comfort zone, of touching off something potentially explosive. While Heathcote is very good about pointing out that one has to think about where these thresholds are, most of the time—even if you’ve thought about it—you are not going to understand that threshold or its implications until you are on the wrong side of it. Unfortunately, Wagner never really addresses the problem of what to do in these situations.
Revealing the Inner Thoughts of a Teacher. This not withstanding, Heathcote does an excellent job of quantifying a system for thinking about this stuff. I’ve rarely (if ever) seen the inner thoughts of the teacher being discussed at all, even in the eight education classes I’ve taken. That’s fine. I’ve rarely seen the minute-to-minute interactions between people organized on paper anywhere. In teaching, the types of interactions really matter; this is what will make or break you. You can learn grammar and composition out of a book. But you really need to understand human interaction in order to teach, and this book is brilliant in systematizing a way to go about this.
Discussing “Register” in Teaching. A great example of this is her discussion of register. “When she is talking about register as a threshold… she means the attitude implied in the way the teacher relates to the class.” (p. 30) It’s ironic that this is the first place I’ve seen a real discussion of register—it’s a primary part of teaching. It’s extremely necessary to understand register in order to get the kids to do what you want them to do, get them excited, pique their interest, and so forth. Maybe this has not appeared in other education classes because it’s the ‘acting’ part of teaching.
Build a Tension Situation. Another really nice discussion in the book is the one about the fighting boys class, in which they wanted to kill the president. “The teacher’s goal was not to build a conflict situation—which was what the boys did every day in their real lives—but to build a tension situation… the boys needed the adult, not to ‘direct’ the play but to engineer it so it stayed long enough in one place to build toward new insight… without an adult, children’s dramas tend to be episodic, a set of adventures with no time for the build-up of tension or the exploration of what lies between people, of that aura that can be felt in a human situation” (p. 37)
Incorporation “The Brotherhoods.” Herein lies the entire focus of a literature class. Fortunately for us, she spends quite a bit of time explaining exactly how to do this. Brotherhoods is one way. Wagner writes that “By keeping only the inner experience itself constant, a person can span all time and circumstances, all social strata and age groupings. Instantly into a teacher’s hands come dozens of situations in which the inner experience of the participants is the same,” (p. 41) i.e. “If you ______________ you are in the company of all those who ____________________.” (p. 42). This is the ‘universal experience’ that underpins all human interaction, and is highlighted through Drama.
Segmenting. By a pre-planning process she calls ‘segmenting’, Heathcote is able to have at hand a dozen entry points for the class of boys who want to kill the president. If the goal is truly to ‘build a tension situation … not to ‘direct’ the play but to engineer it so it says long enough in one place to build toward new insight,” (p. 37) she has to have a whole set of possible scenarios in which the class can slow down and focus on the characters.
So, here I’m going to go back to my chicken-box store scenario. I really like that Heathcote’s segmenting of anti-American and violent activity of killing the president includes ‘living with murder on one’s conscience, loneliness of being President, danger of flouting the law, prison after being found guilty, fears of the president, loneliness of those outside the law, fears of gang members, the bereaved family, the funeral,” (p. 50) etc. I begin to see how if I had segmented the chicken-box store scenario, I might have been able to sit with the scenario a while in order to push the class beyond their own boundaries to explore the actual people in the chicken-box store rather than re-enforcing negative stereotypes. I can see a segment on “owner’s family goes home after work, employee goes home after work, former owner comes to visit, owner has to sweep up the glass after a robbery, daughter of owner plays outside the store after school,” as ways to perhaps open the students up to the idea that the Korean family running the chicken-box store deserve the respect and dignity of their humanity.
Dropping to the Universal? I need to think more about ‘dropping to the universal’ (52) and Heathcote’s claim that “the deepening of the level of the drama is the one thing classes cannot manage without a teacher,” and the one thing Heathcote is committed to effecting. “Without this dropping to universal human experience, Heathcote sees no point in drama in education.”
I’ve found that yes, it is easy to have empathy when you are working to find something in common with the character you are trying to play. But is this really the point of drama? I agree, but perhaps not so broadly. I want to think that simply playing is important, and that exploring the range of people and things and events and scenes that you can enact is important, that just the ‘agreeing to pretend’ part is important—so the class can begin to have a shared vision of things. Does it have to be ‘dropped to the level of universal’ in order to get these things? Or does having these things mean you’ve ‘dropped to the level?’
All in all, I’m really excited about this book. It puts into words things I’ve thought about deeply as a teacher but without focus or understanding that these were real issues. It describes a systemic way of thinking about teaching drama (and literature) that makes me really want to read more and begin to use in my own work.
If you have any thoughts you’d like to share with Robin, please leave a Comment below and I will make sure she gets them and responds.
You might also like:
The Passing of Dorothy Heathcote