Stage 6 Drama – Director’s Folio – James Ruse Agricultural High School – Teacher reflections

[MUSIC PLAYING] AMY MURPHY: My name is Amy Murphy, and I used to teach at a coeducational academically selective high school in Western Sydney. We were part of a really beautiful and flourishing Kappa faculty, and the cohort were extremely gifted, innovative in their approach to learning, and very much working on and getting towards a wonderful emotional intelligence.

Year 11 is a particularly important year to establish foundations to ensure that your learners achieve success in year 12. So for this particular cohort that Angela was in, they were a group of learners who were very driven. They certainly took a lot of risks. They played with innovation a lot in our space, but they wanted rigor and depth in their learning.

So we decided to embrace one play for three terms. And by doing that, it really allowed them to dig deep into concepts and to also really explore the significant role that a director has because I think once you get that right, once you get the whole aspect of theatre making from the perspective of the director and their vision, everything else seems to flourish from that point.

So term 1, really we really looked at delving deep into two practitioners. And from that the kids then developed their own self-devised individual performance. So within that, they were the designer, the dramaturg, the director, and the actor. And moving forward into term 2, still based on that one play, we looked at developing a group-devised process based on concepts and driving questions that really allowed them to explore some key issues relevant to society and their own worlds.

At the same time through this, we were really focused, too, on our theatrical writing and how do we always draw experiences from our class back into our critical and analytical writing. And that was certainly done through journaling and for them to develop their own questions to drive their own writing in regards to what they were interesting because we know that when learners are agents of their own world and they have agency over their learning, we will see a significant increase in their engagement and their growth.

Term 3, we gave them the challenge of directing this play entirely, and that very much focused on bringing in all of those production elements with a unified vision, which we know is very important when we’re focused on the director’s folio. So that’s year 11. It’s a key because it’s a transition year as well, when new kids are beginning this course for the first time. So we need language to be really clear because we know when kids have access to language, they are being empowered to learn as well.

So the IP is always introduced at the beginning of term 4. But I think it’s important to really backtrack on that because it’s almost introduced at the beginning of the year 9 course when students choose to elect into drama, because it’s from that point that we start, as I’ve just said, giving kids access to the language of the theatrical world, and they’re starting to see all of the different options that these world truly offers them. So they work through that as a sequence in stage 5, to obviously jump into stage 6 with a high chance of success.

But in regards to year 12, it’s introduced in term 4, and it’s done in a really gentle way so that all students can really feel safe in an environment. And we know that psychological safety is so significant in order to take risks and to be truly creative, and we know that in drama we really want creative confidence in all of our students. So they certainly know the options long before year 12, but it’s then that we can really nourish them and help direct them to choose the best project for themselves.

One of the most significant things that we need to remember as teachers is that we must respond to students where they’re at. So pedagogies of responsiveness was key to teaching within these particular school, but key across all effective teaching and learning. So some students come in willing to thrive. They know exactly the project that they are about to engage in because they were almost born to do it, and it’s with those students that what we really need to focus on is collaborating and co-constructing a really effective success criteria so that there are clear expectations from the beginning of how we can truly nurture and nourish that student to achieve success in their project.

And sometimes when you have learners who are really unsure, which usually comes from a point of fear– what should I do, they can sometimes be paralyzed by indecision– is when we really need to step in to figure out what are your strengths. And sometimes it’s beautiful to pull on the class there to get their other peers to really identify where their strengths fall, and again, to co-construct success criteria for how we might chunk this project so that they can meet almost micro goals and mini deadlines to feel as though they are achieving success for them. So additional scaffolding is required for students who are just living in a little bit of fear about the overwhelm of this potential final piece of work for them.

Within our IP program, all of our IP work was done external to the classroom. And the reason that we decided upon this was because when we were in the space together, we really needed to co-construct and co-construct for all of the other areas of such a rich course that we offer in drama for the HSC. So the IP really operated external to class, and this would happen via chats in the corridor. It would happen by meetings that we had preprogrammed in to ensure that every child had an equal amount of time spent with them.

But it was very much offered as an informal or formal way to achieve whatever the student needed to, to make sure it met student need. So sometimes students needed rich scaffolding in order to move forward. Other times, they actually just needed a break away from their drama teacher mentors to delve deep into writing or into character work. And it was important for us to acknowledge and read the room for how and when students needed us to intervene, to stay back, to pose problems and challenges through lots of questions.

So most of our IP meetings, students would leave with more questions than they came in with. And for us, that was really important to push their thinking to ensure that they were reaching their capacity and their capability.

The IP logbook for us was very much represented by the individual student. So in order for the logbook not to become too onerous, there was no pressure for kids to do it in a particular way or to follow a particular scaffold. And this was important because kids really need to drive their learning in the HSC and they need to have ownership of it because we know that when there’s ownership, there is really beautiful thought process and really deep thinking that comes with that.

So the logbook for Angela, for instance, was a soft place to land when she had any problems or unresolved thoughts. It was a place where it became an external manifestation of her brain onto the page, which gave her drama teacher mentors greater clarity and herself clarity. It was really a place of inspiration. Angela also had multiple places of inspiration, though, but it was something that she could keep that was practical and tangible for us to talk just through her progress at her meetings. So for her, her logbook could not have been separated from her process. It was very much an integral part to her achieving such beautiful success in the HSC.

We. Were so lucky to have such a supportive school community and I must say, our senior executive couldn’t have done more in order to support all of our arts kids at this particular school. And the senior executive would show concern and interest by dropping into our drama lessons randomly to talk to kids, to help them. They would be invited in to give feed forward at particular points in time. They would always be at our showcases and our presentations. And something which was really great was that they would send to the kids emails, really personal emails, to congratulate them on their successes at various points with their IPs.

We had a very supportive student body as well, if we think about the wider aspects of community engagement. Because drama was quite a niche subject at this particular school and not necessarily the norm, all of the students who chose drama were so supportive of one another, again, by coming to showcases, but also providing additional mentoring at times. And I know in relation to Angela, Angela has wonderful parents who were very supportive of her and her sister pursuing drama and passions that really allowed them to flourish. So we’re very grateful for this school community at this school.

Complex challenges and the IP go hand in hand. With such amazing projects that require some serious thinking and matching that with human nature and all of the external things out of our control will always mean that there are challenges in IP land. But that’s why we do it because challenges are opportunities, and that’s how we have to say them.

And I’ll speak specifically to Angela and her directors portfolio because there was some beautiful challenges that I think we can all learn from. One of the most significant challenges for Angela was that, at one point, I felt like she was writing about directing, but not actually directing. And when we realized this problem, we were like, that’s what it is. The audience isn’t necessarily so involved with this particular experience. And that is key to theatre. We’re making theatre for other people in the hope to transform them.

So once we realized that that’s what was happening, it allowed us to really find Angela’s directorial voice. And I remember saying to her one day, just write. We need to write, Ang, and we might write 30,000 words in order to find a really unique voice as a director in order to tell the story of this particular play that I think finally she ended up doing so beautifully.

And another problem tangential to that was that Angela’s thinking and imagination is so phenomenal there could have been 17 productions of When the Rain Stops Falling because she was so inspired by the concepts in it. But to get her to a moment where she really understood the integrity of the play, we almost– and it’s awful to say this, but had to rein in that phenomenal imagineering that she was doing as a student to really bring this play to life.

So because of those two problems, we then had the final problem which was we had so many words. And we know with a director’s folio, we can only have 3,500. I still think it’s good advice to write, and to keep writing until you find your voice. But then how do we cut that back? How do we know what is really significant to serve the vision and to serve the integrity of the work that you are trying to direct?

And what we realized is that pictures and graphics speak a thousand words. So sometimes we can get rid of our descriptions and pull in really rich images in order to communicate the vision just as effectively. So they were our significant challenges with this particular project.

Assessment is really significant to the process and the product. And I think, as drama teachers, we need to shift our understanding a little bit on how we assess, too, because assessment could be or could happen in an informal way obviously during an IP meeting. That’s assessment happening, when you’re saying where your student is up to, reconnecting with the success criteria that you have written to ensure everyone’s expectations are met and even surpassed.

But we certainly had really key formative checkpoints to make sure that we had stakes in our assessment. So despite the fact that these checkpoints weren’t formally assessed, they were points where we could offer feed forward to our students. So in term 4 of year 12, there was a presentation that needed to happen, and external drama consultants were brought into the school, one, to raise the stakes, and, two, to offer feed forward that the drama teachers in this space might not even be able to see because we become so close to the work.

A similar situation happens, from a formative point of view, in term 1 as well, and this is really to ensure that your kids remain on track and that their learning is meeting their own expectations. But also, as teachers. I think we believe in our kids more than they believe in themselves, and that’s why we’re there. We’re there for a specific reason, to really push and challenge their thinking to see how far and how deep they can go with their work.

The end of term 2 was our official formal assessment for the IP. And again, external drama consultants were brought in. That is only ever marked at a 90% completion rate because, obviously, at that point, we still have about two months to our official HSC due date, and it’s really important that students can still access feed forward to really work on the nuance and the detail that’s required to ensure that their work is as exceptional as it possibly can be.

One of the most beautiful things about the director’s folio is that it is an exceptional piece of transdisciplinary work. So we are drawing on all of our subject knowledge, understanding, and skills to make this come to life. So research is key to ensure that this project encapsulates the world of the theatre, but also goes beyond it.

So we don’t always just need to restrict ourselves to the world of the theatre and our practitioners to complete our research. At one stage, Angela was researching hydraulics and water and waves, and this was happening within both a fictional and a non-fiction sense, too. So opening ourselves up to the broader world for inspiration in regards to research is significant.

We also need to really look at the integrity of the play. So read it multiple times, and ask yourself the question, what is this play teaching me and what am I learning from this play? And that will give you significant insight that you can then connect to a metaphor or a simile, which will then certainly add complexity to your vision.

Further to this, you need to write, and write as much as you possibly can in order to find your directorial voice because, remember, inherently, we are storytellers, and we need to tell the story of these production from all of its various aspects. So pull on your acting knowledge here to really create a strong voice in your directorial vision, and allow that voice to flourish throughout your entire piece of work.

Another point that is significant is to be across all of your design aspects and elements, and know that that metaphor or that vision that you are working towards and you are so connected to bringing to life is really important for us to see in a practical sense, in all of these design elements.

Finally, I think a key point is to pop your senses, your five senses, on a Post-It note, and stick it on your laptop or in your logbook because some of the most significant work that comes through in the director’s folio– and this was key to Ang’s success– was that she immersed her audience in the five senses. What does your production feel like? What does it sound like? What does it look like constantly?

And it’s really important to engage with those five senses from the director’s point of view because, ultimately, dramatic meaning is made when the audience experiences that from the actors. We keep our moments ephemeral and dynamic, and we allow people to have a truly transformative experience.

How wonderful that we get to teach such a special subject that brings together so many disciplines within the HSC. I think the most significant aspect of being a drama teacher is that we are never just measuring the outcomes from NESA. We are measuring outcomes that are life worthy. And we know that we can see growth in our students from the beginning of year 11 to the end of year 12 that we can map to characteristics and dispositions that will set them up for life.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

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Content updated 22/9/2020