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Drama and group work in KS3 English: teaching Dracula in the Twilight age (or: fangs for nothing Stephenie Meyer!).

As an English teacher, I have fond memories of directing a chaotic and distinctly anarchic Year 8 bottom set production of A Midsummer Night's Dream using a script based on the BBC Animated Tales abridged version that I'd transcribed myself. The thing is, those pupils remember it too--to this very day in fact.

Why do they remember it? And why do they insist on reminding me of it every time I happen upon them in the supermarket, or whilst walking my dog in the park? (And that includes the teaching assistant colleague who supported that class in those days!) 'Because we did it as a group, miss,' and 'We were all involved, Miss,' and 'There was no sitting around, miss, we were on our feet the whole time!' I was even so bold as to ask one what he'd actually learned from the 'Dream' experience in Year 8 and was surprised by a reply that cited knowing why events in the play went in a certain order, how to make a scene have a certain atmosphere through their acting and, most importantly, how to work successfully in a group.

These perceptions resonated again very recently, as I sat down to plan the beginning of a sequence of lessons around a play script version of Dracula with an English teacher from one of the schools I support as their English consultant.


Her enterprising Head of Department had said beforehand that she wanted this colleague to have 'some fun' with this script, that she wanted the Year 8 class involved to 'get up and about and do some acting'--even though she felt there was little curriculum time available for this in reality. We agreed the assessment evidence generated could be entirely based in Speaking and Listening and that it was quite feasible to 'have fun' and ensure these Year 8 pupils made discernible progress at the same time.


So what to do with drama and Dracula? Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, while being the Daddy of all vampire texts in many ways, is nonetheless quite a tricky text even for a top set Year 8 pupil. It's told mostly in flashback, from various narrators' points of view and uses those popular nineteenth century narrative devices--the letter, the diary and the journal. It's really not Twilight--and this is what this generation of Year 8s know when it comes to vampires. (They are not even the ass-kicking Buffy generation--that's me!) What they expect is an intense first person narrative, events that occur in an action-packed mostly linear timeline and a vampire hero that embodies noble morals (despite his weakness for bloodlust) a poised glamour, is utterly devoted to our first-person heroine and is, of course, somewhat unobtainable and aloof. (Mr Rochester anyone? Heathcliff? But I digress...)

We used David Calcutt's excellent play script version of Dracula, published by Oxford University Press as part of their 'Oxford Classic Playscripts' series. In this, Jonathan Harker, Mina, Van Helsing and a Reporter all turn narrator in places, delivering opportune soliloquies to summarise and keep the plot moving along. The script is then able concentrate on playing out the juicy bits between various characters, e.g. Harker's visit to Transylvania and Dracula, when Lucy is first claimed by Dracula, Renfield's descent into madness and the confrontation between Dracula, Mina and Renfield at the end.

We couldn't resist slipping in a little of the original novel to begin with--Stoker's initial description of the Count--and asking the Year 8 to work in pairs and infer everything they could about this mysterious character. They took to this with gusto and some pairs guessed that this character was, in fact, a vampire--a fact we chose to omit. In groups of three or four, they next were asked to think about everything they already knew about vampires and explain where these ideas had come from to the whole class.

This was an important moment for this class and their teacher. This English department had recently decided to develop their pedagogy surrounding group work, adopting certain practice that would inform all sessions like this. All groups of three or four students would have particular roles with particular duties: the manager would lead the learning activities, the scribe would lead and supervise any writing that was required and then the envoy would be in charge of questioning and feeding back to other groups and the whole class as necessary. Groups and roles would stay the same for a series of lessons and then be subject to peer review. Everyone was to be engaged, purposeful and learning the skills required of their specific group role, as well as learning how to use and adapt different dramatic approaches to explore the text and its themes.

That first activity of brainstorming all their vampire knowledge, exchanging it with other groups and using new information to extend their own, was a testing but formative one. It seemed memories of working like this from their primary days came back to them. 'We always used to work in groups there, Miss,' and again the importance of 'We were all involved, miss, no one was left out', as well being delightfully honest that the experience was a 'bit noisy.' As an aside, my hypothesis that their knowledge of vampire lore was based in Twilight, The Vampire Diaries and True Blood and occasionally the Blade franchise (mostly boys) was borne out! Their teacher also questioned the Year 8s' impressions of the vampire compared to Daddy Dracula and they were able to see how different these were--we were witnessing a reworking and a reinventing of vampirism in action!

Next we planned for them to read the atmospheric prologue of the play script version, which is spoken by Dracula himself. Thus his motivations and context are hinted at from the start, which is very different to Stoker's novel. Each group would then be asked to present this prologue to the class with the mission of creating the spooky gothic atmosphere intended by language such as 'And we shall be filled with hunger and silent longing, and the moon shall rise, and we shall--be wolves running, with the horizons running endlessly beneath our feet.'

To this end, I was reminded of four basic physical dramatic movements that I'd learned on a fabulous Inset course run by Globe Education a few years ago: the 'hook' (a beckoning movement), a 'prod or probe' (pointing), a 'block' (both arms or hands crossed) and a 'deflect' (one or both arms or hands pushing away from the body). We would ask the year 8 students to decide in their groups which movement fitted each sentence and use it accordingly to act out the prologue. Each student had to act a sentence or line in turn. Having used this before in KS3 Shakespeare workshops, I knew that choosing a specific physical movement makes students immediately focused on what each sentence or line might mean to an audience watching. Of course, the movements get adapted, refined and exaggerated as they go along, but that's the kind of adaptation and development hoped for.

I suggested this technique again when supporting one group of four with a read through of Act 1 Scene 1 where Jonathan Harker finds his way to Castle Dracula in Transylvania. He meets a Landlady who is most concerned that he should be making his way to the Castle on St George's Eve and then a Lost Girl whose sinister behaviour suggests she is not as helpless as she appears. Again it helped them prepare to present their interpretation of this scene to their teacher and the rest of the class. And all the while, the 'manager' led proceedings; the 'scribe' made any key notes required and the 'envoy/s' shared information with other groups. The Year 8 students began to say things like 'We need that noted, please?' or 'Shall I see what the other group says about this now?' I watched them begin to organise their learning through drama in a far more independent way than before. This was more than 'Go and act out that scene,'; instead it was 'How shall we act that scene?' and 'What's the way to make that bit really scary, do you think?'

Furthermore it was planned that these students would be cued into looking out for moments when they were individually providing solid evidence for assessment in Speaking and Listening Assessment Focus 3, which conveniently is all about 'Talking within role-play and drama' and 'creating and sustaining different roles and scenarios, adapting techniques in a range of dramatic activities to explore texts, ideas, and issues.'

Another drama technique that helped them investigate the playwright's use of language and potential effect on an audience was the 'Pointing at the Pronouns' game. For each piece of dialogue, the student actor has to point in the appropriate direction to the relevant character at the moment the 'you'/'I'/ 'we' is uttered. I asked them to exaggerate the pointing and, after some initial giggles, the meaning and mood of the words spoken came well and truly alive. Another trick was to get them to count slowly to three after the end of each piece of dialogue before saying the lines that came next, or to begin saying their lines three words before the end of the previous actor's lines creating an overlap. Each of these had a profound effect on the mood and pace of a scene, prompting the Year 8 student groups to discuss and make further decisions on their delivery of a scene or extract.

Scene extracts can also be reduced to 'silver bullets'. Each student in a group has to choose just three key words from a line of dialogue to say aloud. This can then be reduced to merely one 'silver bullet' per line and the whole extract then rehearsed and acted to the whole class to see if they can discern its theme or message.

This Year 8 class read, acted and studied the whole playscript in their groups via these and other drama-based pedagogical approaches. Yes there was time for that very valuable whole class discussion at times, but it was led by and large by the students themselves. There was less teacherled exposition, a whole lot of 'having fun' with the script and a great deal of learning around how to *> work successfully in a group. I wasn't there for all the lessons in the sequence (such is the transient nature of working as a consultant!), but knew they were going well when their teacher reported '.and I had them all hot seating each other as various characters--you would have been proud of me, Helen!'

I am. Fangs, Ms Meyer.

Helen Lapping

Helen works as an independent education consultant supporting English teachers in the North West. Contact her on: about all things English--she'd love to hear from you. Special thanks to the English department of Highfield Humanities College, Blackpool with regard to this article.
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Title Annotation:Secondary
Author:Lapping, Helen
Publication:NATE Classroom
Date:Jun 22, 2011
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