Not for Wimps!
Using Drama To Enrich the Reading of YA Literature
Jeffrey D. Wilhelm
Drama as Teaching
Klutter's Kobras, a gang of brazen bullies led by Monk Klutter, have been terrorizing students, barring kids from restroom and cafeteria, and extorting money from the weak and fearful. They rule the school, and their reign of terror is undisputed. They are too organized and too powerful; they bend every student in the school to their will. Why will no one dare to stand up against these black-jacketed thugs?
In "Priscilla and the Wimps" Richard Peck weaves an engaging tale that fits nicely into a thematic study of social justice and civil rights. Like many teachers, I use YA poems, short stories, and novels to help my students explore many different interdisciplinary themes and inquiries. I also use drama in concert with these readings. Drama requires student engagement with the reading and with the issues we are pursuing. Drama does not allow for "wimpy" levels of involvement. To sustain and participate in a drama world, students must use their bodies, minds and emotions to completely experience the phenomena and situations of our theme.
In the spring, when pursuing an interdisciplinary unit on civil rights and social justice with my seventh grade students, we read "Priscilla and the Wimps" before using other texts such as Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and Freak the Mighty. Students later chose to read a variety of other primary source materials and young adult works as part of their own inquiry projects.
By using story drama with our reading, we considered the issues of civil rights and social justice in a personally relevant and socially significant context. Throughout the school year I often used drama with our reading to help my students engage in experiences directly related to our various unit themes. Drama strategies worked particularly well with YA literature to guide my students to consider and understand new concepts and viewpoints important to the unit, to support them in extending their reading and response to various texts, and to help them pursue their own research questions and inquiries related to our study.
Drama, I've found, can do prodigious kinds of work to assist students in ever more competent reading and learning performances. This kind of situated, experiential teaching is crucial. Tharp and Gallimore (1990), in their award winning book Rousing Minds to Life, argue that "In American classrooms, now and since the 19th century, teachers generally act as if students are supposed to learn on their own. Teachers are not taught to teach, and most often they do not teach. The problem does not lie in individual incompetence or the incompetence of individual institutions.... All participants in the educational enterprise have shared an inadequate vision of schooling" (pp. 3-4). The authors later go on to argue that teaching must be reconceived as what they call "assisted performance," the guiding of students to learning performances that they would be incapable of achieving without instructional support. In this article I will consider how the use of drama can work as "assisted performance" in terms of student reading and personal inquiry, helping students to procedural and conceptual understandings that would not be achieved by them if they read without the support that drama affords.
In my own classroom, I taught approximately 130 students each year. Among this number were all of my district's labeled students. Any kids with an acronym after their names like LD, ED, ADHD, or ESL were going to be in my classroom. My colleagues were often nervous about using drama with some of these students. "You'll lose control!" one team-teaching partner worried. "How will we keep a focus?" asked another. Right up front I have to say that these labeled students participated in and enjoyed the drama work as much as any other student and gained demonstrably more from it (For further discussion of this issue, please see Wilhelm and Edmiston, in press; and especially Wilhelm, 1997).
Framing the Drama Work
Another consideration is age. I've used drama with preschool children and groups of teachers in graduate school and every age group in between. It's true that more framing is necessary to get the drama work underway as students become older and more estranged from drama as a natural way of exploring and knowing the world.
Unlike many older children, my two young daughters, aged 5 and 7, still use drama quite naturally in their daily play. A few weeks ago, for instance, they read several pirate books including Jane Yolen's The Pirate Queens. When my wife and I twice discovered significant sums missing from our wallets, I told her, "This is an inside job, darling." With the kleig lights on our two young dramatis personae, they admitted to "burying a treasure" during some extensive dramatic play. I'd been vaguely aware of the two walking the plank and talking about scurvy but wasn't cognizant of the extent of their buccaneering. When we unearthed the buried chest, we found a plastic bag with $237 in it! Beyond engaging in an imaginative experience of what it was like to live the pirate life, our two ruffians also got to spend some time in the brig! This anecdote is just to demonstrate that drama is a natural way to experience and play with meanings. Though some of us lose this way of knowing as we grow older, with the proper framing students of all ages can be helped to use drama strategies as a powerful repertoire of ways to learn. Young adult literature is friendly to the developmental needs of young adolescents. So is drama. They make a great team.
Framing means knowing and often negotiating with students what purposes will be pursued through the drama. In the case of "Priscilla and the Wimps," I wanted the drama to support students in reading, experiencing and reflecting on the story, and to help them experience and begin considering issues related to our themes of social justice and civil rights. Next a dramatic context, roles and the viewpoint to be taken by the various roles needed to be defined. These contexts and roles changed with each drama strategy we used for this particular story and were defined and agreed upon before we used each strategy. With this kind of frame in place, drama should be safe, purposeful and fun for all parties. Just as most comprehension problems have been shown to be linked to a failure to access appropriate background knowledge, I believe that almost all unsatisfactory drama work goes back to a lack of adequate framing (See Wilhelm and Edmiston, in press, for a thorough discussion of framing).
Before reading, I framed our purposes by asking the students if they would like to do some drama to think about how our story could help us explore notions of justice. The students readily agreed, having enjoyed the use of drama throughout the school year. I then asked students to recall or imagine an injustice that might have occurred in our school. For fun, we then made a list of the various kinds of injustices students came up with: cutting into the lunch line, stealing someone's girlfriend, favoritism by teachers, peer group exclusion, talking people down, beating up on people, stealing, the shortness of the passing periods, getting kicked out of the library because people at your table were talking, not being allowed to go to the restroom, and much more.
Students then took on the role of victim of a particular injustice and wrote a short letter of complaint about this situation to someone who they felt could advise them or help them to solve their problem.
Into the Drama World
It's important to point out that this brief frontloading activity (which took us little more than ten minutes) qualifies as drama. Dorothy Heathcote (1984) differentiates drama from theater and performance. She maintains that drama happens anytime you "put yourself into other people's shoes by using personal experience to help you understand their point of view..." (p. 44). She also defines drama as "human beings confronted by situations which change them because of what they must face in dealing with those challenges" (p. 48). The purpose of this initial drama activity was to get the students thinking about injustice in personally relevant terms and to access background knowledge and opinions that would help them to relate to the action and themes of the story. It also worked to set the challenge of understanding injustice and considering how to fight. It also worked to build motivation for the reading.
We commenced to read the story. On the second page, the narrator says: "I admit it. I'm five foot five, and when the Kobras slithered by, with or without Monk, I shrank. And I admit this too: I paid up on a regular basis. And I might add: so would you" (p. 43).
This was a perfect opportunity for what I call a Vote with Your Feet drama strategy, followed by a Radio Show and Diary Drama strategy. These strategies help students to enter into the story world, relate to characters, make judgments, and become personally connected to the story. All of these "moves" are important to fully experiencing and understanding a story world and are used by expert adolescent readers when they engage with a text. These kinds of drama strategies model and help reluctant readers to make those same "expert" moves in a socially supportive context and help engaged readers to express and extend their initial responses.
I asked the question: "Is there any way to eliminate bullies from a school?" After a brief discussion about bullying, the students formed a continuum by standing in a line. On the far right were students who believed bullying could be completely eradicated in our school if the proper steps were taken. On the far left were students who believed bullying could never be controlled. In between were students who were unsure or who felt bullying could be somewhat controlled. The students had to talk with each other about their viewpoints to take their correct place on the continuum. Students who clumped on either end were encouraged to differentiate themselves based on the strengths of their opinions. Within four minutes, every student had talked with several other students based on their opinion and had taken a spot on the continuum. Many students were conversing about bullying in terms of our story. In contrast to the typical recitation discussion of many classrooms, here every student was engaged in discussing issues articulated in our reading.
Next I used the Radio Show strategy. I asked students to pair up and rehearse what they would say about this issue on talk radio. A minute later, I walked up and down the continuum using the strategy of teacher-in-role, in which I become a part of the drama world. From this role I can shape action, challenge and extend thought, focus, support and solicit drama moves from within the drama world. In this case I was a radio talk show host. "This is WBEV talk-radio," I chirped. "Today's burning issue is BULLIES. Can they be eliminated or are they a natural part of the social scene that we had just better be ready to deal with? I've got a caller on line 3," I announced, thrusting an imaginary microphone in front of a student."Caller 3, what's your name?"
"Chip, from Beaver Dam."
"Chip, where are coming down on this issue?"
"There will always be bullies. Strong people pick on the weak. And there's not enough teachers or police to be watching all the time."
I could have moved on to a new caller, but I decided to push Chip a little bit.
"You think that all strong people pick on the weak, Mr. Chips?"
"Well, not all. But enough that you're never safe."
"Tha-ank Yo-ou, Chip!" I sang out and moved to a new student. "Caller number 1, do you agree with Chip from Beaver Dam?"
In the span of about four minutes, I had engaged seven students, much to the amusement of all the others. All of them had something significant to say, and often they considered the responses of previous students in their statements. This strategy is great for doing some quick assessment of student comprehension in a non-threatening way. It also asks students to make judgments that can be returned to or challenged later on in the drama or in discussion.
Students then returned to their seats and wrote a diary entry as a bullied student from Monk's school. Their job was to report on a bullying incident that had occurred to them or a close friend during that day of school.
I had planned to use the Tableaux Drama/Slide Show strategy next to help students understand and visualize the story action. I didn't use it because all of my students appeared to be totally engaged with the story. I'll explain what I planned here anyway.
In tableau drama, students create a frozen picture with their bodies. The picture can be of an event, a scene, or even a seminal idea from the reading. It's fun to tap a student in a tableau and have her "come to life" to report on her feelings at the time of the picture. Pictures of missing or implied scenes can be created too to help students fill story gaps. Sometimes students like to perform a brief role play and then freeze it at the climax. At other times students like to freeze, role play, freeze again and so on in a kind of slide show. I had planned to pursue the slide show option, with students creating a tableau to signify Monk's "garden of Eden," where he was the all-powerful snake and then moving on to subsequent tableaux of Priscilla and Melvin's relationship, the confrontation with the gang member, the confrontation with Monk, and the exciting conclusion. I had also planned to have students create a tableau in which they would create a statue commemorating the events of the story, hoping that they would get at some kind of thematic statement about the story. I had toyed with the idea of asking each student to submit the wording for a plaque and with having the parts of the statue come alive to comment on what meaning they attributed to the story.
Though I have used these techniques with great success on many occasions, I didn't use them here. When I do drama with kids, I don't plan - I overplan. But the astonishing thing is that dramas - even a series of short ones like those I used with this story - tend to take a life on of their own. I'll discard scenes I planned, invent new strategies, and even more exciting, watch as students extend the drama work and even invent new strategies that take us in exciting, new directions. One of the wonderful things about drama is that it can be controlled and focused by the teacher, but it can also be controlled and pushed by students. The students are required to create meaning, and so they increasingly take on the roles of active constructors of meaning and of the art that our drama work often becomes. As I have discussed elsewhere, the productive activity of the reader, so heralded by reader response theory, is made manifest and visible through dramatic response (Wilhelm, 1997). Another consideration is that students often choose to use drama or some form of video documentary to share their free-choice or literature circle reading with other groups. Once drama is adopted by students, it becomes not only a way to explore but also a way to share reading with others.
Towards the end of the story, Priscilla's small friend Melvin is accosted after school by one of the brutal Kobras. A quick chop of her large and avenging hand loosens his grip on Melvin. "Who's your leader, wimp?" Priscilla inquires."Monk Klutter."
"Never heard of him," Priscilla mentions. "Send him to me" (p. 44).
After this scene there follows a missing scene in which the Kobra bully fetches his master and leader, Monk Klutter. This would be a great place for a missing scene drama. Pairs of students could use dramatic role play with one playing the part of the Kobra, the other as Monk. How does the bully approach his leader? What is Monk's apparent reaction to this summons? How do they treat each other? What plans or decisions are made? Afterwards, students could be asked to reflect on the ways that bullies might treat each other or the ways bullies react to threats. Much of any story is contained in its subtext. Creating missing scenes helps students to fill inferential gaps and get at the subtext of stories.
At the end of the story, Priscilla neatly stuffs Monk into a locker and twirls her lock shut. "Well, this is where fate, an even bigger force than Priscilla, steps in. It snows all that night, a blizzard. The whole town ices up. And school closes for a week" (p. 45).
After the completion of the story I had groups prepare for a hotseat/shadow drama. We decided in a couple of classes that we wanted to play the roles of guidance counselors attempting to understand violence in our school. In three classes, the students decided to become civil rights lawyers. Each small group prepared one member to be Priscilla, Melvin, a Kobra or Monk. The group then prepared questions, first for their group member and then for those taking roles from other groups. They asked the kinds of questions they felt guidance counselors or lawyers would ask to understand the situation and help their client.
The volunteers playing Priscilla, Melvin, a Kobra and Monk took the hotseats. They were peppered with questions - first from their group members. In this way, they were prepared and had rehearsed answers that would be in character. Then we began to improvise as any group could ask any character a question. Many questions were asked. "How do you feel about what happened?" "How do you feel about who you are as a person?" "Why do you behave as you do?" "What do you think we could do to help you?" "Do you feel your rights were violated in any way?"
In one class, I coded the questions that were asked, and they were all inferential questions that went beyond the literal facts of the story. Many questions asked the students to make judgments about what had happened in the story and what the events meant to notions such as safety and justice and human rights. It's important to note that, though only four students were "on stage," everyone took on a dramatic role as a counselor or lawyer. The drama started safely with rehearsed exchanges and then proceeded to improvised ones. Whenever I use drama, I try to move from order to adventure, from the planned and safe to the improvised and exploratory. This helps to keep the work focused and purposeful, yet creative and open-ended.
I had thought to have a shadow stand behind each character. As the character answered as they would to a group of lawyers or counselors, the shadow would reveal what they were really thinking. This strategy gets at the subtext of a story, at narrator reliability, and at the inferences readers must make as they read. When we were done, I asked each group to judge how well they had played the various roles and to report on what they had learned about the nature of rights. Again, I think it is important during dramas to step back and reflect on how well the activity mapped on to what we know from the text, and to reflect on what has been learned. This kind of reflective dimension helps students to consider "validity" in interpretation and to see that a variety of different responses can be valid (Cf. Rosenblatt, 1978). It also helps to monitor and consolidate what has been learned through the dramas.
As a final activity, I asked students to assume their original role as a bullied student. I asked them to write their diary entry on the night after they had witnessed Priscilla stuffing Monk in the locker. Students then exchanged their diaries and circled a phrase from one entry that spoke strongly to them. Groups then used these phrases to create a choral montage, a group poem about the story. I helped out each group by asking which circled line would be a good opening for a poem, then asking which one would be a good conclusion. I then asked students for a line that would answer the opening one. Eventually the students stood in a row in the order they would recite their lines. Each group read and re-read the lines, sometimes changing the order or re-wording lines to make them more powerful or artistic. Students created the following poem that told first of life before Priscilla's defiant act and then after her act of vengeance. They added a few words but stuck mostly with those they had originally circled.
I paid for pink slips to go to the can
I starved at lunch and ran through the hallways looking over my shoulder
Shuddering, muttering, too embarrassed to tell my mother.
Things really sucked!
Monk looks like the hunchback of Notre Dame
I don't see anybody wearing Kobra windbreakers no more no more!
Monk is the one running around scared
I'm not afraid, I tripped one of those Kobras today. When he stood up I whispered Priscilla's name.
When the poem was recited for the whole class, there was spontaneous applause, as there was for the rest of the poems. This is the magic of drama. The students created their own response to the story, and this response delved into the core experience of that story. They created a piece of art that we could then discuss in terms of themes like justice and rights. The students had made something of personal relevance and social significance that had deepened their understanding of the story and that had launched their study of civil rights and social justice.
Young adult literature has found a place in the curricula of many schools because it speaks directly to the concerns of adolescents and helps them to confront and outgrow their current selves. Drama works particularly well with young adult literature for precisely these reasons and with the benefits of helping students to be better readers and deeper thinkers.
When you use drama, magic happens. Teaching happens. Learning happens. None of these things are for wimps!
Wilhelm, J., and B. Edmiston. Imagining to Learn: Using Drama Across the Curriculum. Heinemann, (in press).
Author's Note: The author would like to thank Katie Greenman, Georgia Rhodes, and Brian Edmiston for their contributions to his thinking about the activities described in this article.
A teacher of middle and high school reading and English for thirteen years, Jeff Wilhelm's research agenda includes studying how student reading and thinking can be supported through the use of art, drama and technology. He currently is an assistant professor at the University of Maine, where he teaches courses in middle and secondary level literacy including courses in Young Adult Literature.