Dramatic Storytelling with Pre-Kindergarten

The dramatic arts have the power to transform classrooms into spaces for imaginative exploration. For the past three years we’ve run a dramatic storytelling program at Shoreline Children’s Center with students age three and four. Our program integrates dramatic storytelling with vocabulary retention and literacy training to create a fun experience for all learners, teachers included. One of the biggest goals of this has been to find out more about how to connect the teachers with the skills they need use dramatic arts in the classroom throughout the year, even in the absence of teaching artist support.

The dramatic storytelling program grew from a small pilot initially involving two teachers hosting a teaching artist in their classroom and a focus on literacy and student engagement. The following year, the program grew to three teachers and we began to notice the power of teachers learning from the teaching artist. This drove us to investigate this form of professional development where teaching artists impart dramatic arts skills to teachers for use in regular classroom activities. As a result, the teaching artist focused on exercises that improved vocabulary and simplified the imaginative exploration aspect of dramatic storytelling. For example, in the first year, the teaching artist largely taught in-character and in a highly active fashion. However, due to the demands of being constantly in character, this was difficult for teachers who were less comfortable with performing. So in the second year, the artist catered her style to more closely match that of the teachers with which she worked. This may have been a contributing factor to why teachers told us they felt more comfortable leading dramatic arts in their classroom after this second session, as compared to the first.

The success of the second iteration drove an expansion of the program into more classes. One of the teachers chose to bring the program to her additional class, and integrate more fully into other curricula. We’ve watched the same teachers develop confidence in their skillset and understanding of incorporating dramatic arts into the classroom over the various iterations. Each time, the teaching artists and the books and exercises have changed but the style of the dramatic arts-literacy approach has stayed consistent.

This year, the program expanded into four classrooms. Teaching artist Karina Garcia, introduced a new exercise the teachers found to be easy to replicate on their own. Karina had students choose a letter from the alphabet and then use their bodies in space to communicate an object that starts with that same letter. In this the students were becoming more familiar with the letter as well as additional vocabulary words as related to the objects. The teachers expressed to Karina that they had been using this charades-style exercise in her absence, and Karina noted the students’ increased competency with words as the letters became more challenging. She was surprised to see “they even had plenty of words for X!”

As an extension of this exercise, Karina also had students make the sound of the letter they were acting out as their vocal warm-up. “It’s reaffirming their academic skill using their bodies and imagination. Applying the physical body to the content is improving their retention.” As result, the students were able to build on the letters each day, remembering the objects from the previous classes that they had used to associate with their letters.

The dramatic arts in the classroom is also aimed at increasing imagination and comfort with language. Karina tells the students, “In ‘real true’ this is a wooden spoon but in ‘drama true’ it’s anything BUT a wooden spoon! What is it?” Students physicalize brushing their teeth and the others guess “toothbrush!” They added on layers to help students focus on their letters, for example, creating the rule that the object in “drama-true”, in this case a wooden spoon, can only be objects that start with the letter T.

According to surveys we gathered during the experience, teachers suggest that students are more highly engaged in dramatic arts class as compared to other subjects. “This is the most calm and engaged they’ve been all day,” one of the teachers, Pam, shared with Karina after class. We suspect the familiarity with the style, on the part of both the teachers and the students, is one contributing factor to this effect.

Another benefit to this program we’ve noticed, due to the consistency of working with the same teachers each year, is that they’ve grown comfortable with the style of the dramatic storytelling class. Dramatic arts in the pre-K classroom can seem chaotic as random props are dropped, colorful costume pieces fly about, students make dynamic movements, sounds, and shapes with their bodies all matching the intensity of the energy and fast pace of the dramatic storytelling classroom. At Shoreline Children’s Center, the teachers play an active role in the class, acting out letters and characters alongside their students and the artist. The engaged role of the teacher, combined with interaction with many different teaching artists has helped the teachers develop their own style of dramatic arts in the classroom. The teacher surveys suggested that their comfort with using drama, in the absence of the teaching artist, has improved each year as a result.

“We are definitely learning by doing,” Karina said, of the collaboration piece between the teacher and teaching artist. Planning time together before the program seems to be challenging to schedule but the most important in the end. Even small chek-ins after class helped Karina tailor her lesson to match the curriculum with which the teachers were working. The more programs we run, the more we see the need for teacher and teaching artist planning time before, during, and after programs. There are a few reasons we think this might be the case. First, the respective expertise of the teacher and artist combine to create stronger lessons. Second, it is an integrated approach that combines the dramatic arts with traditional classroom learning. Finally, the teachers taking an active role in both the planning and execution of the dramatic arts gives them a sense of ownership and solidifies skills and techniques. However, when it comes to planning, that time can be hard to get. In future iterations we want to explore more flexible and creative ways to handle the planning of the lessons in order to ensure the teacher/artist collaboration.

All in all, we’ve found the inclusion of more easily implemented exercises, the consistency and familiarity in the teachers, and an emphasis on planning contributed greatly to the growth of this program. In the coming months, we will continue to explore non-traditional ways of teaching using Drama, creating usable exercises for teachers everywhere, and learning more about how to effectively collaborate given difficult schedules.