The Show *Must* Go on...

Hello everyone!


I hope you are enjoying the sunshine (if you're here in the UK - further afield, having just checked, most of you should be basking as well! [edit - information correct at time of writing!]).  While pretty much all schools in the US have closed their doors for the Summer, and Indonesian schools (still getting my head around this system) only have a short time off at this time of year (please correct me if I'm wrong - I'd love to know more about the whole school system over there), in the UK 10- and 11-year olds across the country are prepping for their end-of-school production.


If you ever find yourself in a crowd of English people and you feel both bored and brave, here's a fun little experiment you can try...


Take a deep breath and sing the following phrase: I closed my eyes...  I guarantee someone in the crowd will call back with ...drew back the curtain... and before you know it, the entire place will have their arms in the air, swaying from side to side, echoing 'ah-ah-ah's until the song [1] is finished.  The reason?  Most UK adults will, at some point in their Primary education, have encountered Joseph and his famous Dreamcoat.  Probably at the end of their final year.  And this earworm will forever be etched into their brains (I can still recite all the colours of the dang thing, in order, from memory).  


There has been much coverage of terminal exams in the news these past few weeks, but little has been said about terminal experiences.  Week-long trips away from parents; huge, multi-lesson projects that allow actual practical application of education; and, my personal favourite, the end-of-year production.  


Last year, for obvious reasons, very few of these happened and those that did were virtual.  I'm so glad that the majority of schools have opted for a genuine in-person production this year.  I have always considered them to be just as important a part of the curriculum as anything else.  And this is not simply because so much can be taught creatively through them (not least Art and DT, so often the forgotten cousins of Primary teaching), although they certainly do.  No, there is a psychological benefit to these amateur masterpieces as well.  Andrew Oxpspring from Edgy Productions mentions a few of the benefits in an article from 2015 [2] but I am keen to explore the benefits on a less anecdotal level (fair warning though, there will be lots of anecdotes from me as well).


Drama Builds Confidence



It has been suggested in many papers that the transition period between Primary and Secondary school is stressful for lots of children [3,4].  They've completed their terminal exams; they are getting physically too big for the building; they are having to face the harsh reality that some of the friendships they have been building over the past six years may well be coming to an end (not all children go on to the same Secondary school).  Make no mistake, the final few weeks in year 6 can be the hardest of all.  


Researchers at the University of Dundee suggest that a performance at the end of the year helps children to come to terms with this change, allowing them to use a safe, fictional scenario to role-play the very real emotional journey they are experiencing.  Andy Kempe, Head of Initial Teacher Training at the University of Reading, put it another way:


[It] gives them a chance of working through problems in order to offer solutions in dramatic form, making explicit the link between the fictional situation in the drama represented and what the children themselves experience (or might experience) in reality. [5]


This makes a lot of sense to me.  Think of the classic end-of-year productions - Oliver!, Bugsy Malone, Joseph, they all follow the hero's journey of success through adversity pretty much to the letter.  They all feature strong friendships that are challenged and are ultimately successful.  Even tragedies are turned on their heads for a Primary performance.  The official schools' production of Stephen Sondheim's In the Woods ends on Act 1's happily ever after.  The schools' production of Schönberg and Kretzmer's Les Miserables, though bleak in the middle, ends with the promise that for the wretched of the earth, there is a flame that never dies. Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise. [6] When I wrote my own musical versions of Hamlet and Macbeth, despite everybody dying at the end, the finale songs saw the corpses stand up and start singing.  These shows are an important subconscious reminder that, no matter how bad things have been, they can end on a high.


While the research implications are that these performances equip the children for life after Primary school, as a Primary teacher, I think the more important theme is that of completing the Primary school journey successfully.  For me, it's about looking back and recognising that it's been a great time.  It's an important psychological step, one of accepting that an entire phase of your life is over.  You've completed it.  There's nothing else to be done here except take a bow and move on.  


It's also a great leveller.  A report from Frontiers in Psychology, an Education Psychology journal, called the transition from Primary to Secondary education a normative event for most children around the world [7], which is a researcher's way of saying that all children experience it.  Most of those children will have things in common: the stress of making new friends; the pain of no longer being with old friends; apprehension of new surroundings; and the fact that the majority of them will have taken part, willingly or otherwise, in a performance of some sort.  


More than Just a Sing-a-long...



There is more to a school production than simply building social bridges, though.  I mentioned earlier that they can be great vehicles for cross-curricular, large-scale projects.  When I was directing my Hamlet musical for my then Year 6 class, we were studying Shakespeare, exploring how different cultures rule and researching the history of ghost stories.  Not to mention sketching castles, sculpting human remains (a good science day) and delving into a bit of music theory.  


During the weeks building to the production, I had to go on a course.  A supply teacher was booked and lessons were planned.  These were, through necessity, your basic English and Maths with a bit of Art and DT in the afternoon.  However, they were entirely based around Hamlet, which by that time the kids had gotten to know pretty well.  When I arrived back at school I was greeted by a note from the supply teacher informing me that it was the easiest day of teaching she'd ever experienced.  Every single child was keen to simply get on with it.  Every child.  Even the horrible ones!   This was corroborated by my wonderful TA (shout-out to all wonderful TAs, you know who you are).  


This somewhat Stepford reaction is by no means unique.  Veli and Hacer Batdi, writing in Educational Sciences: Theory and Practise, noted that active participation in creative drama shows significant improvement in academic achievement [8] and this was echoed in findings from the University of Sydney [9] and the College of Charleston in South Carolina [10].  The research suggests that all children, even those who say they don't like it, benefit from performing end of year plays.


There's also a cross-year-group element.  To boost the singing, I have always invited the Year 5 children to learn the songs and be a chorus at the front or sides of the stage (facing the audience).  They love being involved, it provides an element of release for the Year 5 teachers on some afternoons, it encourages more parents to come and fill the seats and it makes it more of an event for the leavers.  


But what of those children who don't like it?  Don't enjoy the limelight?  Don't want to sing and dance and act?  Well, that's where the creative curriculum comes into play.  I have never paid for a backdrop for a production.  Instead, I give over some time for the children to draw/paint/digitally create their own, these are then projected onto the back wall.  While these might not look as snappy as the paid-for ones, they add a sense of ownership and inclusion for those children who are not so theatrically inclined.  Same with the poster, props and programme.  I was very lucky one year to have the school's Art specialist run some sessions on making paper look like metal for the armour.  I was even luckier another year when the local college agreed to send in their drama students and run backdrop and stage direction workshops!


So that takes care of the children who want to perform and the children who don't want to perform but do want to draw or make things.  That leaves the children who don't like drawing or making and don't want to act.  What about them?  


Assistant directors



I've had a few children who are very good leaders.  However, some of these very good leaders are still learning to tread that fine line between leading and bossing.  So you make them directors of a scene or an element of the play.  Note: this can be very scary and difficult if you are the sort of teacher who likes to micromanage!  Learning to let things go is tough, especially when there is a risk that the overall quality of the production may be diminished.

Except, of course, it won't be.  Remember (and I frequently forgot), it is their play.  You are just there to make sure that things run on time and no-one dies.  Let them do as much as possible.  Guide them.  Advise them.  But let them try.  The results might just surprise you.  If nothing else, it will free you up to produce the rest of the show (that is, after all your role, you are the producer).  Allowing them a dedicated space where they can work collaboratively to translate words on a page into physical people walking and talking is, according to Dr Jane Goodall (yes, the chimpanzee lady) essential for all learning all sorts of things like team-building, problem-solving, social integration, and motivation [11].  In short, teaching children how to be effective leaders.  With nary a lesson plan in sight!

Underpinning all of this, though, is the fun aspect.  I promise this will be the last time I bring up my musical of Hamlet but it's useful to close this section.  It was the first full musical I had ever written (music, book and lyrics) and I was with a class I absolutely adored.  Long story short, I wanted it to be amazing.  For me as much as for them.   But a couple of weeks in, the energy began to drain.  Lines weren't being learned.  Songs weren't being sung.  Props were shoddy if finished at all.  These were the same kids who had given the supply teacher the best day of her teaching career.  

The reason?  There isn't much time to do these things and the children are not professionals. At the risk of offending some Headteachers, end of year productions in the schools where I have worked have always seemed a tacked-on begrudged chore than a celebration (part of the reason for this essay).  As the only Year 6 teacher, I felt abandoned by the other adults.  And this was transferred to the children. The fun had been replaced with urgency and perfectionism. I had lost sight of who the play was for.

So why do I still remember it so fondly?  Because my amazing wife and brilliant TA sat me down one evening and told me off!  The next day, I sat the children in a circle and apologised.  We all agreed that we wanted the same thing and we started again.  And it was fantastic because it was, once again, fun. [12,13,14,15]

Wait... that's my child!?



Another wonderful thing about the end-of-year production is the sudden realisation from parents that their children can be seen as someone they never expected.  This is incredibly important psychologically but we'll get into that later.  I've lost count of the number of children who have been introverted and quiet for years only to belt out a solo number during the final weeks.  And why shouldn't they?  They have nothing to lose!  They understand the concept of the theatre - you do things; people clap.  It's instant gratification.  And they love it.  

I have an example of this which involves another anecdote, so if you're tired of reading about the plays that I have written, skip on a bit... 

The year 6 children were due to perform MockBeth (a comedy rock and roll version of the classic tragedy).  I was auditioning for roles (I like to have different children playing the central roles for each act.  It turns a 1-person role into a 10-person role.  Useful when everyone wants a part! And it reduces the amount of lines they have to learn.  There is a word for it as well: Verfremdungseffekt [16]) and I promised the role of Act IV Macbeth to a lovely girl whom I had never heard speak above a whisper.  I was so happy that she had gone for a main part and been very, very good.  She went on on Friday afternoon with her copy of the script and a very justified smile on her face.

However, she reminded me on Monday that in this particular version of the play, there is no Macbeth in Act IV.  I had given her a part that didn't exist!  My concern was that she would see this as a sign and decide that she shouldn't have auditioned anyway and actually she would be more than happy as a chorus member.  I wasn't having that.  She had shown great courage auditioning in the first place and she was going to have a part.  So I went home and wrote a song all about how she was given a role that wasn't even in the show.

And she absolutely belted it out of the park.  There were two performances and she was perfect in both, earning herself a standing ovation for the final performance and I am so glad that she went for it.  After the show, not just her parents, but parents of other children came up to her and me and commented on how they had no idea that such a fantastically confident child, with such an amazing voice, had been hiding there all along.  

Okay, anecdote over...


So, I was talking about how a child's stage performance can be psychologically important for parents.  Let's remember what the play represents.  Not just the end of Primary school (with all its emotional baggage) but the beginning of Secondary school.  The beginning of their little baby becoming a teenager.  This transitional period is considered to be one of the most difficult in a child's whole educational career [17].  

Beyond the obvious changes that I've already touched upon (friendship groups breaking up; going from the oldest and most experienced children to the youngest and most vulnerable), there are what the British Journal of Educational Psychology refer to as multiple small discontinuities [18].  Taking a bus to and from school for the first time.  Being responsible for lunch money.  Ensuring they have their belongings at the end of the lesson.  That sort of thing.

The children kind of muddle through this and find their own way but the parents can be a little more sensitive, especially when the transition is not just from Primary to Secondary education but from baby to young adult.  A whole bunch of paediatric researchers wrote a fun paper called Worries, ‘weirdos’, neighborhoods and knowing people [19] in which they discussed the importance of recognising maturity in children in order to develop and establish the sort of independence that will help them in later life.  I would argue that seeing their baby on stage, usually playing a slightly more grown-up person, displaying a confidence they never thought possible, is a very important first step to realising that they are growing up and more capable than perhaps they were considered.
 

Leaving yourself at the door



Finally, and I think most importantly in the argument of you-must-have-an-end-of-year-production, when you are performing, you get to be someone else.  Throughout their time at Primary school, children have built up a reputation and have, inevitably, been labelled.  Sometimes these labels are subtle; sometimes they are obvious.  They can be, if we're honest, a useful shorthand for some but they are mostly biased, restrictive and damaging[ 20].  Regardless of your personal opinion on labelling children, they have a proven link to bias [21] and the self-view of the child.  

The end-of-year production gives children a chance to shake off that label, even if it's only for a while.  The 'naughty' child can be the hero.  The 'smart' kid can be the fool.  The 'shy' one can be the centre of attention.  Learning that they can be more than have been before is such an important step on the road to maturity and independence (let's not forget that very soon these children will be faced with moral decisions they have, so far, only read about or discussed - will they take that first drag of a cigarette?  will they stand up for themselves? will they intervene when they see injustice?).  The end-of-year play gives them that chance to realise that they are more than they have perhaps been showing.  They can take that confidence, folly and heroism with them and they can leave anything they don't like behind.  Writing in the Roper Review, Jillian Gates calls this a chance for them to experience their whole self [22], possibly for the first time.

There are other benefits as well including self-discipline, empathy, listening skills [23], vocabulary [24], resilience, creativity, concentration [25], motivation, interpersonal skills, multi-tasking[ 26]... the list goes on and on and on.  But so have I so it's probably time to lower the curtain.  I shall conclude therefore with a quote from my favourite educational psychologist (it's Vygotsky):

 

What a child can do in a group today, tomorrow [they] can do alone [27].


This is the crux of it.  Formal education, book-learning, a classroom situation, it can only teach so much.  At some point, children must do and the end-of-year play is the perfect setting for that.  After all, to end on a final quote from the bard himself, all the world's a stage [28].


Thanks so much for reading - this is a subject close to my heart - perhaps you guessed that already - and I have a tendency to waffle when I'm enjoying myself.  I genuinely do believe that all children deserve some sort of terminal production and I hope that Primary schools around the world will have the opportunity to produce and perform in front of a live audience.  I know the pandemic scuppered many plans last year and that means literally thousands of children have been denied this transitive right of passage, which is a tragedy.  Please, please, if your school is considering abandoning their performance this year, direct whoever makes the decision to this post if they need persuading.  I know that safety has to come first but these kids will never have this opportunity again!  If professional theatres can be open (and charging hundreds of pounds for a ticket) then surely schools can open their doors to 60 or so parents.  


Anyway, that's what I think.   If this is your first time here and you've made it this far, I recommend my other posts.  They're not all as long but I have been told they are all good and worth a read.  Also, I have finally figured out how to add the 'subscribe button to the main menu (it's only taken two years) so if you did like what you've read, please do hit that button so you're alerted when the next post is live.


If you have any additional thoughts or comments to add, please leave them!  I love it when I get a notification that someone has left a comment, either here or on Twitter, I need that external validation!  Other than that, have a great time; get vaccinated as soon as you're able; keep wearing those horrible masks; stay safe and enjoy the weather while it lasts!


Carl Headley-Morris


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References for this Post


[1] Any Dream Will Do, Webber A. L., Rice T., Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Wise Music, 1968

[2] Our very own Andrew Oxspring writes for Education Today about why musicals in school are so important - Edgy Productions. (2015, May 24). https://www.edgyproductions.com/education-today-about-why-musicals-in-school-are-so-important

[3] Galton, M., & Mornson, I. (2000). Concluding comments. Transfer and transition: the next steps. International Journal of Educational Research, 33(4), 443–449.

[4] Jindal-Snape, D., & Foggie, J. (2008). A holistic approach to primary—secondary transitions. Improving Schools, 11(1), 5–18.

[5] Kempe, A. 1991. Learning both ways.British Journal of Special Education18: 137–9

[6] Epilogue, Schönberg M., Boublil A., Natel, J-M., 1985 Les Miserables: School Edition, MTIShows

[7] Evans, D., Borriello, G. A., & Field, A. P. (2018). A Review of the Academic and Psychological Impact of the Transition to Secondary Education. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1482.

[8] Batdı, V., & Batdı, H. (2015). Effect of Creative Drama on Academic Achievement: A Meta-analytic and Thematic Analysis. Educational Sciences: Theory & Practice, 15(6). https://doi.org/10.12738/estp.2015.6.0156

[9] Saunders, J. N. R. (2015). School Drama: A Case Study of Student Academic and Non‐Academic Outcomes. https://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/handle/2123/13948

[10] Finnan, C. (2015). Not a Waste of Time: Scheduling Non-academic Learning Activities Into the School Day. The Urban Review, 47(1), 26–44.

[11] Jankowska, M., & Atlay, M. (2008). Use of creative space in enhancing students’ engagement. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 45(3), 271–279.

[12] Stupans, I., Scutter, S., & Pearce, K. (2010). Facilitating student learning: Engagement in novel learning opportunities. Innovative Higher Education, 35(5), 359–366.

[13] Bensley, A. (2011). Must “Test” Be A Four-Letter Word? A Workshop On How To Make Learning Outcomes Assessment Almost Fun. In PsycEXTRA Dataset. https://doi.org/10.1037/e541732013-007

[14] Humphrey, R. (2013). Sir Richard Branson: It must be fun. SAGE Publications, Inc. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781506324487

[15] Tews, M. J., Michel, J. W., & Noe, R. A. (2017). Does fun promote learning? The relationship between fun in the workplace and informal learning. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 98, 46–55.

[16] Base Creative UK Ltd. (n.d.). Bertolt Brecht | Techniques and Facts. Dramaclasses.boz. Retrieved June 16, 2021, from https://www.dramaclasses.biz/bertolt-brecht-techniques-and-factsbertolt-brecht-techniques-and-facts

[17] Zeedyk, M. S., Gallacher, J., Henderson, M., Hope, G., Husband, B., & Lindsay, K. (2003). Negotiating the Transition from Primary to Secondary School: Perceptions of Pupils, Parents and Teachers. School Psychology International, 24(1), 67–79

[18] Bagnall, C. L., Skipper, Y., & Fox, C. L. (2020). “You”re in this world now’: Students', teachers', and parents' experiences of school transition and how they feel it can be improved. The British Journal of Educational Psychology, 90(1), 206–226

[19] Crawford, S. B., Bennetts, S. K., Hackworth, N. J., Green, J., Graesser, H., Cooklin, A. R., Matthews, J., Strazdins, L., Zubrick, S. R., D’Esposito, F., & Nicholson, J. M. (2017). Worries, “weirdos”, neighborhoods and knowing people: a qualitative study with children and parents regarding children’s independent mobility. Health & Place, 45, 131–139.

[20] Avoid labeling your child. (n.d.). Retrieved June 16, 2021, from https://extension.unr.edu/publication.aspx?PubID=3011

[21,22] Gates, J. (2010). Children With Gifts and Talents: Looking Beyond Traditional Labels. Roeper Review, 32(3), 200–206.

[23] Walker, S. R. (2014). It’s Not All Just Child's Play: A Psychological Study on the Potential Benefits of Theater Programming With Children. https://digitalcommons.library.umaine.edu/honors/198/

[24] Wright, P. R. (2006). Drama education and development of self: Myth or reality? Social Psychology of Education: An International Journal, 9(1), 43–65.

[25] Folostina, R., Tudorache, L., Michel, T., Erzsebet, B., Agheana, V., & Hocaoglu, H. (2015). Using Play and Drama in Developing Resilience in Children at Risk. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 197, 2362–2368

[26] Ashton-Hay, S. (2005). Drama: Engaging all learning styles. 9th International INGED (Turkish English Education Association) Conference. https://eprints.qut.edu.au/12261

[27] Vygotsky, L. 1978. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[28] Shakespeare, W. (2008). The Merchant of Venice. Yale University Press.




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