January 27, 2022
Review: To be or not to be well?
Drama and Theatre in Education Project (2019-2022)
Prepared by Dr. Larry Swartz
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto
larry (dot) swartz (at) utoronto.ca
I have been a drama educator since 1980, working as classroom teacher, university instructor and workshop presenter to support and guide novice and experienced teachers who teach drama courses and who are responsible for integrating drama into their programs. Creating Caring Classrooms and building healthy classrooms where all feel accepted is at the heart of my teaching. Also, I believe that drama exploration provides learners with active, ‘what-if’ learning and through this art form we can build opportunities for cognitive, emotional, physical and social development that contribute to well-being. I was therefore honoured to have been asked to review the To be or not to be well? Project (To Be), its goals, content, resources and research.
This review is being written to praise the effective collaboration, the excellent resource materials and the strong attention and high-quality action research that was committed to the significant initiative of promoting good mental health throughout the Drama and Theatre in Education. The network of the Big Brum TIE from the UK, The Lužánky Leisure Time Activity Centre from the Czech Republic, Nyitott Kör Association from Hungary and Association of Drama Practitioners STOP-KLATKA have diligently worked together to plan, develop and implement outstanding programs with the goal of supporting teachers in their own well-being and that of the students. All participants are to be commended for the excellence of their efforts, their wisdom and practice that helped them achieve their goals with great success. In theatre, we use applause to acknowledge good work. An ovation is deserved to all those involved in this project for this outstanding dedication and the implementation journey and the commitment of the Consortium before and during the pandemic.
The ultimate goal of this project was to explore and enrich well-being in the classroom. The development of the well-being curricula by offering resources and strategies that encourage interaction foster inclusion and spark creativity through artistic modes found in Theatre in Education companies. The data and analysis of the work provides evidence of the teams’ success to not only fulfill their goals but provides strong potential for transferability that benefits young people. Important too is the opportunity that this scheme provides for other European practitioners who would like to work on the well-being of their schools by using drama conventions in their programs.
My first introduction to the To Be Project was the website which provides important information about the project as well as in-depth description of the action that each partner undertook. Anyone interested in learning more about the project can choose to investigate links that include, General Overview; About Us; Well-being Curriculum (x 4 partners); Guidebook; Research and Other Components. In particular, the extensive Guidebook for Drama and Education practitioners outlines key principles that guide the work, narrates the story of the project and describes the interactions with teachers and students involved in the project. Noteworthy, too, is the offering of research and data not only for the partners’ validation but for those outside the project with evidence of learning.
Review of the materials: How did the project develop a sense of caring where students feel comfortable? How did the developed curriculum fit into the teacher’s schedule?
Special recognition goes to the Well-Being Curricula developed by each partner that are thoroughly and clearly presented. The website provides documentation, one from each partner that is describing specific characteristics, interactions and needs of each of the schools participating in the project. Those outside the project who choose to investigate the Well-Being Curriculum can learn about the practices (and perhaps adopt/adapt them). Not only was each Theatre in Education Company/Drama Association committed to the goals of the well-being project, but each was empowered to plan and implement a program that suited the needs of the schools in which they worked. Given the freedom to plan according to the skills of the artists in each country as well as the commitment of the educators and students was a vital asset of To Be. This was a project that demonstrated cooperation, negotiation and sharing of expertise amongst the four partners. It was a project that also welcomed autonomy, allowing members of each company to know what would work best for the schools.
The Potential of Learning Through Drama and Theatre in Education
Our classrooms need to be places of inclusion, based on principals of acceptance, ensure that our students with emotional and mental challenges feel part of the school environment. Providing a safe space where students are free from being taunted because of their differences complies with the principles of social justice, diversity, and equity learning and especially well-being.
Drama and Theatre in Education are powerful ways to address and talk about mental health and wellness, important and sensitive issues facing students and communities today. Following the theatre piece or embedded within it, experiential activities initiate dialogue, inspire students to safely share their stories and build connections with each other and the school community. Their understanding of mental health and the effects of mental health will be enriched as they deconstruct the theatre piece or source through a variety of perspectives and lenses. Working collaboratively to respond to a text through talk, writing, and drama conventions helps students to develop a sense of belonging. A drama structure will equip them with confidence to confirm and alter their assumptions, perhaps change their thinking on this issue. Students who are struggling with mental health issues are given a window and mirror to cope with issues. Most importantly students develop empathy for anyone experiencing the issues presented in the lessons. The shared experience of the activities will hopefully build a caring and kind community of learners better equipped to understand and support each other through well-being challenges.
Positive Features and Benefits of the To Be Project and the Well-being Curricula
- Theatre in Education performances presented a context for exploration: (e.g.. Social Distant / Big Brum TIE company;
- The use of stimuli sources provided a narrative for teachers and students to respond to; (e.g., The Story of Szasza Gyuszi and Cyber = Are you in? TIE);
- Each partner was aware of the need to scaffold the lessons. No matter how much time was allotted, each program introduced activities to build engagement and trust;
- Students and their teachers were given a variety of response modes (discussion, writing, illustrating, questioning, brainstorming, still image, hot seating. Forum Theatre) to bring real world experiences into imagined contexts;
- The range of strategies provides meaningful opportunities for students and their teachers to use critical thinking skills regarding mental health and healthy relationships and to evaluate and apply to their own lives;
- Opportunities for feedback and reflection invited students and their teachers to learn inside and outside the drama experience;
- The description of activities, instructions and resources presented by each partner are clearly laid out and easy to follow in the website.
In summary, the following points highlight the success and impact of the To Be Consortium:
- Partnership / Collaboration
Ultimately, this project was about learning from each other, with each other. The To Be Project was an exemplary Consortium project where Theatre in Education from four companies negotiated, problem-solved, planned and shared their work. The opportunity to network throughout was an important component of To Be.
- Collaboration between Theatre in Education artists and educators was vital and a positive outcome of this project. Artists were able to draw upon and share their theatre and drama skills. Teachers were invited to be part of the goal-planning, implementation, assessment and feedback of the units.
- Learning about the art form
Theatre artists were, at all times, using drama conventions to bring the stimuli to life as students engaged in tasks. For some educators, drama work may not have been familiar and by having their students participate in the work, teachers recognized the potential of learning through this art form and therefore can potentially add drama as a learning medium to their teaching repertoire.
- Resources & Website
Information and description of the project presented in the website is extremely effective. Each partner provides a context, a rationale a description of collaboration, as well as an overview of stimuli and tasks implemented to make the project successful. Videotapes of lessons that appear throughout provide evidence of the work that viewers can learn from.
- Action Research
To Be serves as an exemplary model of action research in the arts. The key questions, methodology, collection of data, analysis and implications are components of a mighty piece of research that other Theatre in Education companies in Europe and beyond can perhaps replicate or adapt.
The researchers have drawn on significant theory to support their work. A number of articles and theorists are outlined in research to further validate the importance of this project. Social Emotional Intelligence (S.E.I) Social Emotional methods encourage the ongoing development of teaching concepts and strategies to help students learn about themselves and others. At the heart of To Be Project, the Socio-emotional learning helps to develop self-awareness, self-control and interpersonal skills students experience inside and outside the classroom, skills that are vital for well-being.
Efficacy “measures the capacity to succeed in ideal conditions.” The artists, and the teachers working alongside them, ensured that safe spaces were provided so students could openly share their feelings and express ideas. In this way the drama work ensured that that students and their teachers were immersed in a well-being culture that provided a capacity to succeed and could filter into the lives of the young people outside of the drama lessons. The research report highlights that
- There were clear and positive benefits of participation;
- Student were engaged both intellectually and emotionally;
- There was no exclusion in the involved classes during the project activities.
Recommendation: teachers, educators, artists, editors who want to work in schools, TiE companies, research in the arts. An example of a strong collaboration (artist-teacher cooperation, side by side learning).
- How is the To Be Project complementary and innovative to other initiatives, pedagogies you are familiar with?
The undertaking of this project required the project developers to explore the requirements of Action Research: raising questions, developing a methodology (unique for each Association), gathering data, reflection and considering implications. For drama and theatre educators, this initiative provides a strong exemplary model of partnerships of Theatre artists working with teachers and their students. The To Be Project can be considered complementary for other research projects designed to stretch the understanding of young people with regards to Intellectual, Social, Emotional and Artistic learning (e.g., in Canada, Kathleen Gallagher, Monica Prendergast).
- To whom do you recommend to learn from the project outcomes? How might the results of the project be taken further?
The To be or not to be? Project can serve as research-based evidence for
- Theatre in Education companies who plan to work in schools in a longtitudinal manner;
- Theatre in Education companies who wish to embark on collaborative projects within their own country, or internationally;
- Teachers (at all grade levels) who wish to work with a visiting artist to plan and implement drama-based curriculum;
- Teachers experienced in drama teaching and wish to deepen their work through significant content;
- Teachers, who are hesitant, or feel unprepared about teaching drama and are open to acquiring innovative instructional strategies
- To administrators who require evidence of drama-based learning;
- Administrators, teachers, parents, artists who are concerned about well-being and are intrigued with material and strategies to address mental health issues;
- Educators and experts who wish to embark on Action Research in any curriculum subject.
- How did this project contribute to supporting educators throughout the pandemic, especially those who work with Drama and at-risk learners?
The pandemic provided some unexpected challenges to the planned units. Each Theatre in Education company/Drama Association made efforts for pivoting, moving forward, and managing the work online as needed. My recent publication, Deepening In-class and Online Learning (Pembroke Publishers 2021) provides educators with over 60 strategies to make learning engaging as they translate successful classroom strategies. The To Be Project is significant, authentic teaching that validates that drama-based and theatre-based strategies can meet the demands of alternative instruction that the pandemic demanded. Similar to working within classroom walls, the experiences invited all students, including those at-risk, to explore, to know, to feel, and to understand amongst a gallery of onscreen faces. Whether working face to face or virtually was a project that encouraged interaction, fostered inclusion and sparked imagination to help them meet the goals of addressing well-being.
Members of the To Be Consortium essentially want “to respond creatively to the need to consider well-being of the schools (and the individuals present in the schools) crucial for learning.” In any school community there are students who are, for a number of reasons, socially disconnected from the school, feel excluded, or struggle with academic expectations. The question ‘To be or not to be well?’ invites artists, teachers, administrators, students, and parents to carefully consider what it means to ‘be well’ and how we can deepen understanding and step by step engage students in active work that ensures that they feel successful and feel that they belong. Is there really a choice about whether we want our students to be well?
From the research report, there is much evidence that all players who were involved in the learning were well-served, and grew in their understanding of well-being. Congratulations Big Brum TIE, The Lužánky Leisure Time Activity Centre from the Czech Republic, Nyitott Kör Association and Association of Drama Practitioners STOP-KLATKA for providing educators from any country to gain insights into how drama and theatre in education is essential to well-being. Bravo!