Holly Valentine | April 2021

Act It Out,
Write It Out

Let’s face it, teaching isn’t easy. Teaching writing really isn’t easy. It seems like it’s at least Middle School or High School before descriptive writing happens naturally, and students get a clear sense of storytelling in narrative form, and even then it’s not always easy. We’ve all read writing from students that is simply pages of dialogue. Very often, they don’t always tell you who is speaking, and when new characters come in, it just gets even more confusing. 

Why does this happen? Think about it. In a student’s early years, their creativity hinges around imaginative play. They speak what they create. Whether it’s speaking to the Lego guys and race cars, or to the stuffed animals at their tea party, we ask kids to talk and move and imagine. We encourage it. We don’t ask them to describe what they are doing, we tell them to just do it. Then, they get to school and we tell them to stop. We ask them to write descriptive sentences. We have to help them find the bridge to be able to do that. 

Using theatre in the classroom is the perfect way to do that, no matter the age. 

Overcoming the Block

Students often seem to have a block when it comes to writing. Let them help each other. Put them in groups of three or four, and just let them play. Let them create a story together. This should all be done at first by acting and playing. No writing yet! Once they are very comfortable with the scene, including movements and entrances, tell them you want them to record their acted story on paper, so that someone else could perform it in the exact same way. 

Inevitably, they are going to do this with dialogue only at first. It’s okay and actually will help the learning process if that is the case.  Let them do it that way, and then give their scene to another group to perform. The original writers are going to see it performed by the second group. Without question, line delivery, movements, and so much more are not going to be the way they intended. Point out why that is. Reinforce the idea that telling stories involves so much more than dialogue. It involves emotions, movements, details and other important information. Good stories advance through elements that are not speaking. 

Challenge Them!

Give the groups back their original scenes. Now challenge them to revise their writing to include descriptions for the actors. Think about what elements were missing when another group performed it. Allow as much time as needed. Really circulate among students to listen to the dialogues that are happening as they do this. This might be the best part of your lesson. Repeat the process of having another group act it out, and if time and willingness from your students allows, do it all again. Be careful. You don’t want to burn them out on this. You want them to be motivated to translate their vision of the story. 

Finally, recognizing that your students have likely written a script format for the scene, challenge them one more time. This time, each member of the group can and should work independently. Challenge them to write their scene as a story, including the narration and the details that describe movements and emotions of line deliveries. Here they will naturally begin to see the flow that comes from writing a story. There is so much more that is needed to truly tell a story, and now they have the whole picture in their heads as well as how to share it with someone else. That is the piece that is so often missing when kids sit down to write totally on their own. They have the picture in their own head, so they often forget to include all the details that allow someone else to create the same picture. 

Curtains Up!

So let kids move and imagine! Writing doesn’t need to be the torturous struggle that it is for so many students. They need a door to open to start the process. Instead of a door, open the stage curtain and just let them have fun. Looking for more ways to use drama to help with creative writing or ways to get your students more involved in this process? Check out the video Using Script Writing as a Literacy Strategy for even more ways to deepen reading and writing processes in your classroom. 

About the Author

Holly Valentine is the Director of Curriculum and Assessment for the Institute for Arts Integration and Steam. Prior to joining the Institute, Holly worked as an Arts Integration and Classroom Teacher for 20 years in a suburb of Rochester, NY. She is a certified Arts Integration Specialist and has served as an Arts Standards Writer for the New York State Education Department. Holly has been a recipient of the NYC Broadway League's Apple Award for her work in Arts Education. She also serves as the Director of Education for the Rochester Broadway Theatre League, where she has created nationally recognized programs and develops standards-based curriculum for touring Broadway shows in order to bring the theatre to classrooms and classrooms to the theatre. Holly holds both a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theatre and Psychology as well as a Masters degree in Education from Nazareth College in Rochester, NY,  where she currently lives.