Stage 6 Drama – Applied Research Project – Hunter School of The Performing Arts – Teacher reflections

[MUSIC PLAYING] RAVENNA GREGORY: I’m Ravenna Gregory. I’m head teacher kappa and also a drama teacher in a large performing arts high school in Regional New South Wales. We’re really fortunate here because all of students are really actively engaged in drama from year seven all the way to year 12 for most of them. And they’re not only interested in drama in the classroom. They’re really interested in theater-making beyond the classroom and beyond performance.

Our year 11 program is very carefully designed to ensure that really, our students are getting the sort of program that will engage them in the kind of theatrical and dramatic expression that they have been experimenting with all the way through year 10, but we know they’re going to need for year 12 and particularly for their individual project and when it comes to the selection of that in year 12. It’s a place, really, where we’re putting something like the applied research project on students’ radar.

And sometimes, that’s for the first time. And there are a couple of things that we’ve done in our year 11 program to make sure that students are thinking about all of the individual projects. But specifically because Martha’s project was in applied research, and so a few students engage in that.

One of the things that we’ve done in year 11 is that we get students to do a mini project based on an exploration of Australian plays. And what that would mean for the applied research is that they’re actually making connections between a whole lot of Australian plays and coming up with a hypothesis. So they’re doing that as early as year 11.

In addition to that, we’ve actually created a group performance and elements of production unit of work where students have to embed that devising, that group devising in a really deep and meaningful research. And we need to see the evidence of that in their final work.

So for someone like Martha, that’s a wonderful opportunity to see those students who are really engaging in that research, and maybe going a little bit further beyond, and that it’s exciting them. And that can be a great time to sort of start to say to them, maybe the applied research project would be a good choice for you for your HSC.

So, officially we start the individual project at the beginning of term four for year 12. But I guess that we’ve taken the approach that if students are going to become more involved in submitted projects– which I would encourage all teachers to investigate those options for their students– We need to actually be embedding that way of thinking a lot earlier.

So we need to be embedding in the stage four. We have stage four here, and in the stage four courses, and particularly in the stage five courses so that students become aware that there’s not just performing as an option, but that you can write a director’s folio, that you can form a directorial intention that leads to a clear design concept, that research is as valuable as performance skills.

So I guess we actually are introducing that IP a lot earlier notionally to our students. And one of the wonderful opportunities that we have here because we have such large cohorts is that we’ve also got the opportunity for our junior years to be watching those senior students engaging in these different types of projects.

So really, an awareness of that is really important. But officially, we start that in term four. And we’re here because we have really large cohorts. We’re not able to meet with students individually. And so we can’t have sort of a haphazard approach to the introduction of the IP.

We spend the first two weeks of term four really encouraging students to do a deep exploration of all of the individual project options. And then guiding them, but also negotiating with them around the strengths that we’ve seen from them in year 11 and the challenges that they’ve faced in year 11, guiding them towards making a justified choice about which individual project they’ll choose.

When it comes to the applied research project, by the end of that two weeks, we would want to see students having kind of an idea of the survey of the area of study, and then even coming up with a loose hypothesis at that early stage.

And whilst I know that sounds really early, I think it’s pretty key to the success of this particular project that students really have that direction from the very beginning of the course, because it’s a challenging project. It’s a comprehensive project. And it really requires that kind of ongoing thought and direction.

Supporting Martha in developing their individual project applied research was different to the way that I would support any other student. And I guess you would say that of any individual project, really. But the applied research for her, it wasn’t on her radar. So I taught her for the first time. I came to the school when she was at the very beginning of year 11.

But what I noticed about her straight away was that she had this great breadth of knowledge and that she was out there making theater in youth theater companies in the local community, and that she had a real academic drive in all of her subjects that I thought made her really well suited to this particular project. She also needed to take on a project that would allow her to find the balance of her academic program.

And having a submitted project where she could control the development of that project, that she could get it done ahead of time, that was really important to her particular needs. And so I guess my role in supporting her became more about helping her to realize her potential– that she had already really done the survey of the area of study.

Because she was so passionate about musical theater in particular, and she was already coming into class and asking questions about artistic merit, and commercial success, and those things were percolating there for her already. And really for me, it just became about guiding her, directing that into the applied research might be a good idea for you, and how could you come up with a hypothesis?

Developing the individual project happens, I think for a lot of schools, outside of class time. And with the sort of multiple classes of HSC students we have here– so we’re often juggling three classes at a time– we need to make sure that a lot of that IP time is happening in class.

And so in addition to the first two weeks of term four, we actually have structured time every term, usually at the end of each term, where we’ll have a check in and we’ll give really valuable feedback to students, just give them some direction in that project. I guess things were a little bit different for Martha because of the nature of the applied research.

She was often having conversations with me in the corridor or coming in early in the morning to talk about a new piece of research. And I guess so there was a flexibility around that structure. And I think every teacher needs to have that, because student needs are going to dictate that, and it’s different. The ways of working are different for every student.

But I do think creating a culture where those formalized check-in points are really valued, that they are seen as an opportunity rather than a threat, I think that’s really important to have an openness around that and to make it clear to students that you’re not there to judge their work. You’re there to help them to shape it.

The individual project logbook can be a bit of a bone of contention, I think, for any drama teacher. But I think a lot less so for those students who are undertaking a submitted project. I think there’s a recognition for those students that this is their process, that their process is really reflected here, and this is where they’re going to demonstrate that.

And for Martha, the logbook became particularly important because of the careful planning that went into her project. So very early on, she could see the shaping of her hypothesis. She could see the survey of the area of study and how that had led to that hypothesis.

She was able to put these vast amounts of research that she was doing– because really, the bulk of this applied research project is there in this logbook. She was able to put all of that there, and have that evidence, and feel like it was valued, even though she then had to whittle that down to 3,500 words. So I think for this project, particularly it’s important.

But I also think it’s a really, really important thing for all the projects for that point that your students come to where they forget what their intention was, where they go off track. Because it happens with every individual performance. It happens with every design project. It happens with every video drama.

And a really, opportunity to look back at why did I make the choices I made, and look at all the time I spent making those choices, and they were good choices.

And so it can be a place where they’ll find confidence and direction again. We’re very fortunate to have a very supportive community here. We’re a performing arts high school and we recognize the importance of the performing arts and structure our school days around opportunities for students to showcase their works.

But a lot of that work, when I arrived at the school, a lot of those showcases were about performance. And I guess as important as that is, the submitted project can become a little bit of an afterthought. And as a result of that, there are students who don’t know it’s an option, and it could really be the right option for them in exploring theater and becoming theater makers.

So I’ve had a very deliberate kind of strategy for showcasing the works of our students who undertake the submitted projects. And part of that has been that in classes when the other students are performing at check-in points, our submitted project students will show an abridged version of their work or talk about their work and have that opportunity to share and have a conversation about it with their peers.

Another thing that we always do is showcase those projects digitally to our community or put them in the foyer in the showcase and have our students talk about them to the audience. And even something as simple as placing the bound copy of the first applied research project at my school, which was Martha’s, proudly on the principal’s desk, just, I guess, the profile, raising the profile of those projects is really important.

Beyond that, our school community is incredibly supportive in terms of the development of our works. So if you don’t have a drama colleague– I’m very lucky we’ve got lots of drama colleagues to ask for advice here. But if you don’t have one in your school, the applied research project you might run by an English teacher or a history teacher.

Find someone else in your community who can help with that. Ask the science teacher, is this hypothesis clear? Has it been applied to this research and is this conclusion clear? Because there are a lot of cross-curricular opportunities in many of the drama projects that I think often can be not as utilized as they should be.

Another thing that we do in terms of community involvement is always getting external people in to help evaluate the works and to give feedback. And those connections have been really important. They give a sense of kind of gravitas to the moment to the students, but they also are just wonderful to have those sharp fresh eyes that come in when often my eyes have become too blurry because I’m too close to the work.

For Martha in particular, that community engagement was really important to her project. She went out and interviewed members of the community at youth theater groups and she used those connections directly as primary evidence in her applied research project.

Every individual project at some stage will have a moment of challenge. And I think for every teacher, you need to be ready for that and ready with all of the support that we can offer students. For the applied research project, I have noticed a commonality in the challenges that students face.

The first one is whittling down that research to be 3,500 words. So that can be really challenging for students. Some things that I do to support my students in that is that I will be that critical eye to say, is this actually serving your hypothesis? Have you synthesized it? Have you analyzed it by applying that hypothesis to it? If you haven’t, go back and do that and be succinct about it.

Another trick is that sometimes, placing all of that research into a visual form is going to actually communicate your findings with a lot more confidence and authority than writing it. That graph is going to maybe lend some weight to that final conclusion that wouldn’t have been there otherwise whilst simultaneously reducing your word count.

I think images can do that, too. They can do that really beautifully. So that’s some advice that I would give. The biggest challenge, though, is that inevitably, every applied research student will second guess their hypothesis. And I guess I would urge teachers to go back to that logbook– to say to students, this was your hypothesis for a reason.

Just because you’ve undertaken this amazing research that now is making you second guess that hypothesis, don’t go back. That’s the journey of this project. This project is about speculating. It’s about saying, this is what I think is true, and then applying that truth. And I get my students to express that as a statement because I think there’s more dramatic tension inherent in that.

And then applying that to all of this great research, primary, and secondary, and that can be in many different forms, and coming to a conclusion. And if that conclusion is that your hypothesis was wrong, that’s fantastic. That’s great. You’ve been on a wonderful dramatic journey as a reader of that. So I would really encourage students not to change their hypothesis once they’ve really settled on it.

I guess the other thing that I could offer is that what does application mean? That comes up all the time with the applied research. And my response is it can look like lots of different things. It might look like interviewing someone. It might look like going to a theater and responding to it or talking to the audience after a theater production. It might look like a workshop that you ran with your classmates to try and investigate an aspect of your hypothesis.

It might look like a review of the literature and an application of your hypothesis to that literature. Is it sound? Has this changed the way I’m thinking? And so I think that application, the sticking with your hypothesis, and the whistling down the words are the three big challenges in the applied research project.

We’ve made a real cultural change at our school since I’ve been here, and that cultural shift has been towards valuing feedback more than marks. And there’ve been a few things that we’ve done to kind of encourage that. We see regular check-ins as an opportunity for students to develop their work, an opportunity for growth.

And we are really careful about the steps of that feedback about managing that. And we have real luxury in that because of the numbers of drama teachers here and the cohort, the size of the cohort. But the first piece of feedback is between teacher and student. And there’s no mark attached to it. It is all about formative feedback or feeding forward.

And then after that, they might share with their drama teacher and their class. Then their work could be shared with two drama teachers and the whole drama cohort. The next step to that is sharing with an external person who comes in who hasn’t seen the work before and is able to give another perspective.

But I think having those steps, and taking away the marks, and seeing this as an opportunity for growth is really important. And I would actually say that even at the summative point, which is that final mark that you’re going to award for this piece of work, I never talk about that as a complete work. So we are always talking about that as a draft project.

There is still room for growth between that final school-based assessment and the final HSC. It’s not my job to mark that work as a finished product. That’s the job of the necessary examiners. And so encouraging your students to always see the possibility of growth is really key to the way we assess all of our individual projects and really all of our works here.

HSC drama offers students this incredible choice. It’s about freedom of choice. And we should celebrate the fact that we have a subject that allows them to follow their passions, whatever they are, to share those with an audience, whatever that audience is.

And I guess what I would encourage people to do is to– or teachers to do– is to make it your priority to educate yourself about those choices, to go out there and upskill yourself about all of the project options so that you can give that choice to your students. And most of the students in the state do performance, and that’s the right choice for them, and that’s a wonderful thing.

But what about all those theater-makers who think, I don’t want to stand up there and do a six to eight-minute performance? There are other ways for them to make theater, to express a point of view. And it’s our job as drama teachers to make them aware of that and support them through that.


And ultimately, we need to remember that we can guide students, that we can tell them honestly what we think they should do, what choices they should make. We can make those suggestions, but it is their work. And if we don’t let it be their work, they’ll never get that wonderful outcome from their switches, their opportunity to make something that they’re really proud of.

End of transcript

Content updated 22/9/2020

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