It’s like rolling a rock uphill! Teaching Year 9 drama in a lockdown

Dr Jane Luton (Secondary school drama teacher and arts-based researcher)

I cherish the sense of joy and excitement that is palpable in the Secondary School drama space, the energy of young people making discoveries and expressing themselves, the noise, the organised chaos. As an experienced drama teacher of many years, I had to ask, why did teaching drama remotely with year 9 students during the 2021 lockdowns feel like I was pushing a rock uphill like Sisyphus or nailing jelly to a wall?

Drama is, at its heart, an embodied, interactive ‘subject’, requiring collaboration, creativity, and active participation. Going online felt like we were all becoming disembodied, disappearing into a digital world. Along with the Head of Drama, Jacqui Hood, we reflected on our experiences writing an article titled, A Sisyphean task? Doing drama online with year 9 students in a COVID-19 lockdown due to be published in the 2022 Special Arts Education Issue of Teachers and Curriculum. This blog highlights a few of the challenges we encountered and some of the solutions we found.  

The year of the plague

Last year, I returned to teach part time in an Auckland secondary school drama department after two years away from teaching. The year began with excited bodies in a circle in the ‘empty space’. We used poetry, myths, and images to generate embodied responses to the stimuli. Students began to be actively engaged working together in groups, finding dramatic ways to disseminate ideas creatively and confidently. We were all embodied together actively engaged and participating in the real space of our classroom, the black box drama studio.

The first lockdown of 2021 was brief and provided a chance for me to experience remote teaching, whereas Jacqui had taught remotely during the Auckland lockdowns of 2020. We returned after a few days to the drama classroom. We rehearsed, directed, and produced the school production, appropriately named The Year of the Plague, filled with songs, comedy, and serious commentary. We had fun, we learnt and laughed together. Three days after the show ended, we were plunged once again into a lockdown, but this one was much longer than the last. Three months of remote learning from home in Auckland, hoping the internet would hold for us all, trying gently to find ways to entice Year 9 from behind their chosen cartoon or photographic images, and to turn on their cameras using Microsoft Teams.

Unforeseen problems and disruptions

I was overconfident in assuming that because schools have BYOD [bring your own device] policies and a culture of digital learning, this automatically means that Year 9 students can fully engage with online learning. Their competencies tend to be limited to digital tools for social media.  There were many unforeseen problems teaching an embodied active subject online, especially as many of our Year 9 students were new to drama. Most said they had not experienced it at intermediate school. We could sense their trepidation, their fear of being seen in close-up on their screen, judging themselves on their video feed. We asked them why they would not turn on their cameras. They replied:

“My camera doesn’t work”!

“My Wi-Fi isn’t good enough”!

“I won’t do it if they won’t”!

“It feels awkward”!

We identified and recorded in our article some of the disruptions that happen when trying to teach and learn in the virtual space. We recognised that many students, even in an urban high decile school, shared devices with other family members, some struggled with the technology and lack of fast broadband or had to share a study space with their younger siblings. Those that appeared online seemed shy, hesitant, hiding their faces from the camera, or angling it to show only the ceiling. Perhaps we felt as lost as the students in this remote world.

How can we help our students?

In this silence we began to feel like entertainers. No matter what strategies we used, we struggled to break through the electronic barrier. We asked ourselves: how could we help our Year 9 students to become more confident? How could an online drama class give students a positive sense of the excitement of the real space where we can create drama and perform together? Jacqui and I decided to give ourselves permission to experiment, break away from pre-designated lesson units and plans, to embrace fun. We were empathetic to the fact that the students were being challenged by a situation none of us had experienced before, and therefore our collective sense of wellbeing had to be paramount.

We began to find some solutions, which drew on the imagination using “let’s pretend” or “imagine that…”and through role play, we tried to generate some work with purpose. We created opportunities that invited students to include whānau members in their performances or to imagine they were presenting to a specific audience. We team taught some junior classes online and again when we returned to the drama studio in mid-November, to help generate a playful and supportive atmosphere.

Being embodied once more

I found last year was one of the most frustrating years to be a drama teacher.  It was comforting to find that academics researching drama education across the world have also found the online drama classroom a difficult and challenging environment (see here, here and here). Jacqui and I acknowledge that drama within the New Zealand curriculum is a taonga, an embodied treasure we do not want to see lost in the electronic space of a virtual classroom. When we were able to return to the actual classroom, although we were all masked, and classes were noticeably smaller, we felt a renewed energy and vibrancy in the space. Free from curriculum and assessment restrictions, with no devices in sight, students actively engaged with their peers throughout each lesson. After months of sedentary individual teaching and learning, we could stop rolling our rock uphill, or trying to nail jelly to a wall. We could be active, embodied, and collegial once more, helping students develop their confidence and creativity through the medium of drama.

Dr Jane Luton has been a drama teacher since 1989 and was one of the authors for the ESA NCEA Level 2 & 3 Drama Study Guides and Drama Resources for New Zealand Senior Secondary Schools – Ko Te Ao Toi Whakaari: He Puka Rauemi mā Aotearoa published in 2020. She has had articles and book chapters about drama education published nationally and internationally. Her doctorate in Education used creative practice methods resulting in a theatrical performance at The Maidment Theatre, Auckland.

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