By Jessica Perich Carleton
I had the extraordinary opportunity to serve as the Arts Outreach Coordinator for VSA Arts of New Jersey (a John F. Kennedy Center affiliate in Washington D.C. with international branches) creating and organizing programming for all abilities in all artistic mediums for the entire state of New Jersey. For some unknown reason, New Jersey has one of the highest rates of autism in the U.S., and so the majority of our programming was focused on autism and the arts. When I taught one of the programs I assumed there were resources for teachers and/or artists detailing how theatre could be used with elementary school aged children (5-11) with autism. I was wrong. So I felt it was necessary to create a book that gives teachers – regardless of experience – practical tools and completed dramas and lesson plans to start creating drama in the classroom.
I began my research creating a structured program where students could feel comfortable engaging in dramatic play transforming their learning. I found that children’s stories are one of the greatest resources a teacher can have in the classroom. The theatre technique, story drama, uses the children’s story as a narrative guide where the teacher can implement other theatre techniques to enhance student learning. When choosing a children’s story in order to transform it into a story drama, the story line of the book should possess active and strong language. The characters in the story should be doing things, going places, fulfilling tasks. The more active the story, the easier it will be to transform it into a story drama and the more engaging it will be for the students.
In order for the students to enjoy the story drama at the end of the class, a structured lesson that balances activity and inactivity was vitally important so that the students did not become over-stimulated. I created a formula (called the Dramatic Formula), that never changed from week to week, which presents each step with a specific skill that the students need in order to succeed in the drama, while at the same time balancing the level of stimulation for the students so they can focus on each section. Structure and balance of stimulation are the two main factors which give theatrical play success in the classroom. These two elements allow the students to succeed in a safe and nurturing environment. The formula, resembling that of a mathematical equation where the teacher can input a different value for each section, includes all the arts and finishes with sitting in our reading circle to read how the book was originally written. The lessons are very structured but at the same time they give the teacher enormous flexibility. When I implemented the steps in the Dramatic Formula with elementary school aged students (5-11) with severe autism I followed the same Dramatic Formula every week. It never changed and the students weren’t bored with it or didn’t think that it was stupid because we did it last week. I believe they looked forward to tackling each task. Because even though the structure of the lesson was the same, the activities we played within that structure changed so it was always new. For example, halfway through the lesson, the students created a prop during the Art section that would be used in the drama. Many times this meant they colored a coloring sheet of whatever item would be needed in the drama. For example, for the story “Click Clack Moo”, they colored a typewriter and for “The Little Red Hen”, they colored wheat that later grew in the garden.
I cannot express how dramatic play greatly encouraged student learning, but also improved life skills. Even in a short time, there was definite improvement; students became more confident and started to say the lines and initiate the next plot point in the story drama. I understand the apprehension for the first-time facilitator using theatre in the classroom, however after experiencing it myself, I cannot imagine teaching without it. A structured lesson that teaches the students the necessary skills to engage in story drama will promote critical thinking skills, improve life skills, and inspire confidence and camaraderie among students and with their teacher(s). This structure will ensure teacher and student success, perhaps in a style of learning that may be new and different. I wish every teacher the best of luck in implementing drama in the special needs classroom.