“Miss?”, piped up one of my year 11 students, “What exactly is this play about?”.
I pretended not to hear.
“Aboriginal history…”, said the overly enthusiastic drama student who had googled the play the night before.
There was a collective groan.
Now I am going to stop here. I was with a group of sixteen-year-old girls from suburban Sydney. They are not ignorant or self-centred...ok, maybe a little sheltered…but generally an awesome bunch of kids. However, I knew deep down this would be their response.
We were about to see The Secret River by Andrew Bovell. It is a play about William Thornhill, a convict who has the opportunity to purchase his own piece of land on the Hawkesbury River. The play explores the challenges of life in Australia at the time of early settlement for both settlers and Indigenous Australians. This play is set in a world my students have read endlessly about it history books; addresses issues they have debated at length in humanity subjects; contains people whose spirituality they have examined in depth in religion... yet they weren’t interested.
“Why do we have to do this in EVERY subject?”, moans a student loudly.
“Because this is our story and story is important”, I reply.
“We know the story. We have learnt about it every year since kindy. What more is there to learn?”
I decided not to respond.
I led the girls through the door to the auditorium. They stopped suddenly.
“That's so beautiful.”
The trunk engulfed the entire back wall of the stage, spanning from the floor beyond the reaches of the visible ceiling. Cathedral like. Billowing. Breath-taking. This gumtree provoked an emotional response from my students and immediately they were hooked. We took our seats. Coals of a small campfire glowed downstage.
“Is the fire real Miss?”
“Just enjoy the magic of the theatre”, I say. “Try not to analyse it.”
They sat in silence absorbing all there was to see, hear and smell. Their senses were enlivened and it was at this moment the learning began.
As they watched the play, I saw them smiling.
I saw them gaping.
I saw them moved to tears.
I saw their fear.
I saw their anguish.
But most importantly I saw connection.
Theatre is personal.
At the end they didn’t move. For the first time ever my class was speechless. I didn’t rush them out. I just sat with them waiting for them to process all they had witnessed. Eventually one spoke.
“It is so sad.”
“I feel sad too.”
“I never knew it was that bad…”
“For all of them.”
“I get it now.”
"I didn't know theatre was so beautiful."
As they began to process what they have witnessed the discussion came thick and fast. All the way home they asked questions, posed answers and made connections with their learning in other subjects. Their history books just came alive and they were highly engaged. My students were connected emotionally to the content.
Recent neuroscience studies have begun to uncover the importance of emotional connection in learning. As Immordino-Yang (2016) writes, it makes sense that we think deeply about things we care about, which in turn has an implication for teaching and learning. She says “…we need to find ways to leverage the emotional aspects of learning in education”.
Connection has to be at the core of our teaching. Emotion fuels curiosity. Students must find personal meaning and purpose in their studies. Drama is one way that an emotional connection can be fused effectively. Students are encouraged to walk in another’s shoes or have an emotional response as an audience to the stories of others. For me it is the way into learning.
By taking students to the theatre, or on an excursion into the real world where their senses are stimulated we are leveraging the emotional aspects of learning. By sharing personal stories of our lives or the lives of others we are leveraging the emotional aspects of learning. By asking students to view the world from another perspective through reading, writing, watching, debating, research or any other means we are leveraging the emotional aspects of learning. By asking our students what they want to learn about or what matters to them we are leveraging the emotional aspects of learning. By making the content relevant to their lives and experiences we are leveraging the emotional aspects of learning.
Like the tall reaching gumtree of The Secret River the possibilities are endless, breathtaking. We as teachers need to plant the seed and continue to nurture the emotional connections of the students in our care....
and take our students to the theatre more often!
Bovell, A. (2013). The Secret River.
Immordino-Yang, M. H. (2016). Why Emotions Are Integral to Learning. Retrieved from Mindshift.