Sunday, April 2, 2017

Developing vocabulary through drama

It has been a busy week for us.

We are thrilled that Susan was honored by the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English (NJCTE) as Educator of the Year. She accepted the award at the annual NJCTE conference at Montclair State University this weekend, where she also presented some of our new work on The Great Gatsby in a session entitled, “Teaching Gatsby in the Age of Trump.” We are excited to be finishing the volume from which this work is drawn, Using Informational Text to Teach The Great Gatsby and look forward to its publication as the fourth in our series with Roman and Littlefield.

Meanwhile, Audrey travelled to Amsterdam with NJCU graduate student Tatiana Reyes who was presenting at “Look Both Ways: Narrative and Metaphor in Education at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. While at the conference, Audrey attended a fascinating session presented by Jackie Winsch, “A stage for racial justice: Empowering youth through integrated drama education.”

Winsch’s focus was vocabulary development through drama. Her focus was the elementary classroom, but one of the activities she discussed could be easily implemented in the secondary classroom and fruitfully added to a teacher’s toolkit for addressing challenging vocabulary in informational text.

For the activity, the students sit in a circle and the teacher stands in the middle. The teacher narrates a story, and as she does, she calls students into the circle, one, two, or three at a time. Students are asked to engage in a kind of narrative pantomime: to act out pieces of the teacher’s story (in Winsch’s example the students were princesses and a beast) with facial expressions and physical actions (sometimes prompted by the teacher). They might also be asked to repeat bits of dialogue (the beast said, “I am hungry,” so the student as beast repeats, “I am hungry”). Each time the teacher wished to dismiss certain students from the center, she would “whoosh” them out, and then beckon other students in.

The key to this activity, for our purposes, was the inclusion of several key vocabulary words into this narrated drama. Students were physically acting out and sometimes repeating dialogue that included targeted words. In a fun, interactive manner, students were hearing and using the key words, all in an engaging narrative context. In other words, this was a teacher-led version of the vocabulary skits we love.

This activity could easily be implemented in a secondary classroom. In Winsch’s example, the teacher had created the narrative and led the activity, and secondary teachers could do the same. But students could also write and then implement their own narratives, leading their peers in a brief and simple narrated skit. As with the vocabulary skits we advocate in our UsingInformational Text series, these skits could be on any topic (Winsch’s were intended to allow students to explore gender norms) but could also foreground the content of the upcoming informational text (a skit about table manners and gender norms for clothing in preparation for reading an excerpt from Lillian Eichler’s 1921 Book of Etiquette which we offer in Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird to stimulate discussion of gender in To Kill a Mockingbird).

The brilliance of this activity is that it gets students out of their seats, acting and thinking creatively, embodying and using new words. All of this enhances their necessary “massive practice” so that they can own these new words and engage any challenging reading with confidence.

Jackie Winsch used this activity to argue for integrating drama and play into education. Play is such an important part of learning, and it should play a greater role in school generally, not just in the elementary grades.

In conclusion, then, given all that we know about how crucial complex vocabulary is in determining students’ success with informational text, this narrated vocabulary pantomime activity is one tool we hope all teachers add to their toolbox.

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