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Chapter Four

 

Classifying The Learning

 

4.1: Interpreting the Data:

4.1.1: Ken Dryden: "For today’s kid"

 

Ken Dryden came to T.L. Kennedy Secondary School in Mississauga for one year in 1993 to gather research about the life of a typical Canadian school for a book on that subject. He needed to shadow a number of students who coincidentally happened to be enrolled in my grade 10 Drama course. And that is how he became a regular, weekly visitor to my Drama class throughout the first semester of the academic school year (1993/94).

Ken’s connection to the field of education had been, up to the time of his research project at my school, mainly through involvement with his own children’s schooling, and through his personal style of writing. This approach to writing was developmental and stemmed from self-understanding. He had also done some consulting in educational areas. But, it was laterally that position which encouraged him to write a book on schools. He had been the Youth Commissioner of Ontario for two years and his job related to Youth Unemployment. A high percentage of the youth who were unemployed were high school drop outs, so he had spent a fair amount of time in schools, trying to get to know the drop-out and trying to imagine why young people did drop out and what might be done to change that. And when he wrote his final public report, half of it dealt with education and half of it with other aspects of unemployment. After spending the year at T.L. Kennedy, he followed that with some educational projects.

So, Ken initially became aware of Drama as a Therapeutic Medium by visiting my Drama classes. Where it was most obvious to him was in the ‘Pass the Cane’ exercise of students expressing themselves. Ken explained,

Whereas in the regular classroom or the classroom of the traditional academic subjects, most kids don’t say anything for extended periods of time (and it can be days and weeks without them expressing themselves in any way), just through the weekly exercise of Pass the Cane, pretty much everybody is going to talk about something and if you are not very good at talking about things that have to do with algebra, you may well be fairly good at talking about things about your friends or about doing something at the mall or your part-time job. That’s your turf. The algebra is somebody else’s, perhaps?

That specific ritual of Drama, offers an occasion to get young people talking and when they open their mouths, they start to reveal themselves. It is the way in which they express themselves, even the tone of their voice that can give the listener, the teacher, a fairly good sense of how they are feeling on a given day. And then, the kids are also talking about something and that content may also reveal something about them and how they live, what their priorities are and what their goals may be. This starts to reveal the person.

His thoughts about teaching people rather than subjects, support the Developmental Drama adage of Brian Way that commands, "You have to start from where they are!"

As referenced in his book, the two areas in a school where this occur for students are in both Physical Education and Drama classes. He clarified, "I think to some extent it happens in Art and maybe in Music as well but I wasn’t in enough classrooms to know whether that is the case. But, those courses, which are often under some pressure to justify themselves in terms of the value of their course content, have as their greatest value not the course content but the atmosphere that they offer. That "open, expressive" atmosphere allows a lot of other things to happen."

Ken’s further describes this unique learning environment in his book.

It is an extraordinary sight. Drama class: sixteen kids of all colours, their shoes off, in a ragged circle on the floor, some sitting cross-legged, others lying on their stomachs, heads propped on their hands, almost touching, touching, … the class going on. (Dryden, p. 193)

Ken’s purpose in attending Drama classes at T.L. Kennedy School for the preparation of his book made him a suitable candidate as an interviewee of this dissertation. He was not "in role" as a student. He explained, "I was there to just try to be another person who was there and to sit and look the way they did and in doing all of those things, not to be a distraction. The first time around, I would have been a distraction; the second time I may have been; the third, less of one, and by the fifth time, I would be almost ‘the wood work’, and as a result, experience as close to what would have been going on if I hadn’t been there. And I think that we pretty much got to that point as the year went on."

Ken’s personal philosophy of Drama in the Educational process lies in its inculcation of a student’s personal and social values. He thinks that, "the apparent value in terms of the course curriculum would have to do with the student becoming better at self - expression. And a large part of getting better at this is practice. They are not just expressing themselves in front of their closest friends but in front of somebody who they do not know very well or in front of a group of people that they don’t know as well." That is what he has assumed was the understood value of Drama.

It is not just being fluid in how you speak but in all your body language and ways of expressiveness which what others might call acting, but is really portraying yourself and your feelings." The second value, is the way in which a person reveals himself to his friends, his teachers and then indirectly to others in the school. And the third value may well have to do with social and personal values. The subject matter that is brought up may lead to interesting discussions that relate to issues in a student’s life and that can be an additional by-product. And those things are useful to have as a focus of discussion because they may be the things that people find the easiest to talk about in order to fulfill the other goals of the course. The goals that are reached may include making a commitment to a larger group and fully expressing themselves. That kind of thing may well happen at least initially if you talk about smoking in the school as opposed to talking about the comedies of Shakespeare.

To Ken, the development of social values is not the direct purpose but is more of an "add-on benefit" of Drama-in-Education. Before going into my Drama classroom, Ken had thought that the reason that Drama was in a school curriculum, only had to do with developing the skills to express yourself and act. His attitude probably started out with the feeling that,

Acting can be fun! and the chance of getting some experience at that would be the reason for its existence. And the secondary purpose of acting is even if you are expressing somebody else’s lines, at least you are getting words out of your mouth and you are speaking in front of other people." But after being a part of the Drama classes, he discovered that third purpose, which in the end, could be at least as valuable as the first two. And whether it is an intended but most likely an unintended purpose, it’s a useful one.

In terms of this third, more therapeutic value of Drama, he would have thought that somebody who talked about Drama or Art Therapy was "selling him a bill of goods and he was not buying. And he only ended up ‘buying’ because he didn’t realize that he was buying it." In other words, he had experienced it "in action" before he even knew what it was supposed to be:

And again, the most vivid example for me was watching people who had been sexually abused as kids and working on an Art project. The project was to create little sculptures that would be part of a much larger sculpture. They were working on their squares of a quilt and what they were supposed to do was to try and express what the sexually abusive experience had meant to them, and what meaning there had been in their lives before that happened and in the present. " The young people had a very difficult time talking about their abuse except when they were able to almost separate it from themselves and have it take the form of a square that they were working on. They could talk about why that image was there in the square and why that written message was there as well. And, in that way, they talked openly about their abuse. If they had been asked directly about it, they wouldn’t have wanted to talk about it and couldn’t have talked about it. And so, the focus on the activity of Art helped them to express lots of experiences, feelings, and understandings by separating the abuse and themselves.

One of the students Ken had shadowed for his book was Sofia, who he had been re-named for confidentiality. He observed her process of transformation in the Drama class during the semester. "Here Sofia is different. She doesn’t push so hard or run over everyone’s words. She laughs more. Others laugh with and at her." (Dryden, p. 196)

What he remembered about Sofia, (not her real name) in the other classes was how absorbed she was with what the teachers were saying in the lesson and that she would respond to questions as if there was nobody else in the room. "And so, every question was hers to answer and she would often blurt things out before anybody had a chance and created a little ill will in the class and it made her something of an object of fun." As a result, she was mocked for being somebody who was such a keener. At the same time, she alienated those who also wanted to answer questions being seen as a monopolizer who took away their opportunities. "In the Drama class it worked. It started to work differently. And then her experience of being involved in the school play (Twelfth Night) just represented something to her in a number of different ways that helped integrate her or helped her fit in and helped others see her as more than "a blurting answer machine" that she was in some other classes." Ken seemed quite impressed to learn from me that she was in fact a second year student at McMaster University hoping to study medicine

When Ken was in the process of observing or being a "fly on the wall" type of other person in my Drama class, he admitted to reacting emotionally to some experiences revealed by the students.

It is a revealing experience and what is revealed is tough. It is emotional in some way. And it might be poignant, triumphant; it may be lots of things. But, it is personal; it is revealing and it is real. So, yes, it is the kind of story that is there in every classroom but does not get expressed.

Ken’s understanding of the intrinsic therapeutic value of Drama-in-Education is apparent in Chapter Eleven of his documentary, published in 1995. He believes that students need to experience the processes of Drama in their educational lives and if this is not possible, they need to find something that can have the same effect. He was not sure how it happens but some students find other ways to express themselves just by growing up in relationships with their own families. He said, "Yet, that kind of ‘others getting to know you in certain ways’ and ‘teachers getting to know you’ is more likely to happen to the better students in the class who sit in the front row, asking lots of questions and seeing the teacher before and after every class. The teacher cannot help but get to know those students." But Ken’s concern is the ‘other’ student and how the familiarity happens for them. "It might happen in Physical Education and clubs they join (if they join them at all) but, it is important for the students in the school, as well as for their teachers that this familiar relationship does indeed develop." Ken sees Drama as one more useful way to encourage it to happen. "In Drama, kids get to know kids, kids and teachers get to know each other. They talk and listen, and because talking and listening is part of the course’s curriculum, there is time for both." (Dryden, p. 197)

Ken’s understanding of the objectives of Drama outlined in educational documents parallels the average person’s understanding. "The Government’s understanding of it is probably that Drama can help you with a skill and you may end up in the school play which makes it a little unserious or frivolous to the public, a frill, soft, discretionary, a luxury. And in times when you can afford luxuries, you know, sure, it’s nice to have around and in times when you can’t, it’s one of those areas that gets cut back." It is always based on economics.

Ken provided his own definition of "Dramatherapy" which he gained from an earlier experience. His previous one had been that students, in Drama, were given a very important chance to talk about themselves, for others to listen, including teachers, and for them to get to know each other. But, from his aforementioned experience with Art Therapy, that had helped victims of child abuse, he had observed the therapeutic dimension when a sculptor worked with these survivors. "And so, I think I understand that part of it now, which I wouldn’t have two years ago. I think beyond it being an experience where you are being encouraged to express yourself and to reveal yourself, and there are not that many instances where that happens; then in revealing yourself, you put out on the table, certain truths about yourself, in a way you might not otherwise. Then, once you get them out, you have that much better a chance to engage them."

He realizes his definition is a controversial one for teachers because "on the whole, teachers feel they lack the ability to deal with that depth of revelation. ’Acting out’ happens; that is a form of revelation in a way, but transformation occurs usually over a longer period of time than a semester can provide, but it does sometimes happen in a smaller time frame. When you are talking about ‘change’ that familiar red flag goes up." Ken explained his newer definition as the following:

Students don’t go in with a problem and have it solved through Drama but it can and does ‘sometimes’ happen. Dramatherapy does not mean Drama as ‘acting for the school play’ but means what he had observed in the classroom. There are certain ostensible things that Drama does which are useful.

We must not underestimate the fact that teaching and learning are very personal enterprises. And the best teaching and the best learning come from engaging the person (the teacher engaging the student and the student engaging the teacher). That only really happens when you have a sense of that person, when you know something about that person. So, what are the instruments by which you can get to know a kid? I think that this is one of them.

Ken does not feel that "today’s kid "had changed substantially since the publication of his book. "Not in ways that we have been talking about. Nor have schools changed in ways we had been talking about. Sure. You point to any number of changes. But how basic are those changes. How do they change the larger questions around the kid? I don’t think very much."

So, he now promotes Drama as a method for teaching with therapeutic benefits as well as being a subject on its own in the curriculum. "Informal, unself-conscious, verbal, familiar, active, profane, authentic: Drama class is made for today’s kid." (Dryden, p. 196)

 

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