The plot thickens

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 March, 2008, 12:00am

One misty night, two motorists pick up a female hitchhiker on a highway only to see the girl vanish from the back seat of their car. That was the opening scene from the Vanishing Hitchhiker, used in a British Council drama workshop last month for about 20 primary and secondary English teachers.

The workshop - 'Don't like drama, la!' - was financed by the council's teacher development project network to introduce local educators to ways of integrating drama into English-language classes to enrich students' learning experience.

'I've been lost for five years already. Can you please give me a lift home?' said English teacher Franny Ng Mei-fan in a haunting voice, playing the hitchhiker. With long black hair covering her face, Ms Ng thumbed a lift standing under a dim street light - played by another teacher.

Teachers often find teaching English using drama intimidating, due to their lack of formal training. But they are being required to combat their stage fright before the new senior secondary curriculum is implemented at Form Four in September next year.

Schools will have to choose three modules from the language art and vocational language components of the English language curriculum, which will count for a quarter of the three-year course. The eight electives on offer include drama, poems and songs, short stories, popular culture, social issues, workplace communication, debating and sports communication.

'We are facing a challenge because most of the teachers in my school are not familiar with drama,' said Ms Ng, who teaches at Cheung Chuk Shan College in North Point.

'If you can't work your way around with drama [in English classes], then you can't expect your students to do the same.'

British Council teacher development consultant Rosie McLaughlin said teachers could build the confidence they needed to tackle the challenge by adopting solid teaching procedures and observing their counterparts.

'Then you can feel other people are trying to experiment things out with good solid procedures to follow,' she said. 'That will actually support your own development and you don't feel like you are out there on your own.'

Ms McLaughlin said drama was the perfect vehicle to help students build their confidence while learning a language.

'I really think the language art component is going to bring a whole different spirit to language learning, not just for English.'

With drama, students could enhance their interpersonal skills, diversify their education experience and receive knowledge about the English language at the same time, Ms McLaughlin said.

'When you break [the class' procedures] down, there are simple steps you can follow.'

She said students should first be divided into small groups and class sizes should be no more than 20 for the strategies to work. Teachers could begin by asking students to choose their favourite scenes by reading out a brief story line from a simplified script. The groups could then take turns to present their favourite scenes and gradually move on to role playing, creating dialogues and narration for the stories before performing the whole sequence.

Ms McLaughlin said students would be tricked into creating the language spontaneously during the process and teachers could ask them to document the language being created for the drama and begin working on their accuracy.

'We want to use the best practice in English-language classrooms and apply that to language arts at the moment. I think teachers need to be given the opportunity to do it themselves,' she said.

Her views were shared by another teacher at the workshop, William Yip Shun-him, artistic director of Theatre Noir.

Mr Yip also found teachers were intimidated by teaching English using drama and students were defensive when learning a second language.

'I've heard teachers saying they 'don't like drama, la!' and students saying they 'don't like English, la!',' said Mr Yip, who has been training English teachers drama for three years. 'But I think drama is the vehicle that will help students to learn more English.

'Most teachers don't believe they have the practical skills or the creative power to teach drama in their English classes.'

Mr Yip said teachers were often puzzled over how to react to creative ideas generated by students in classes. 'It puts teachers out of their comfort zones because they are too used to students being the passive learners,' he said.

He said Hong Kong teachers were not confident or dramatic enough when it came to using their voices and body gestures to inspire students.

'Often they are too solemn, too serious or too laid back,' he said.

Students, on the other hand, would often resent learning English due to a lack of interest in traditional classrooms. 'With drama, however, we are actually getting the students to learn the language in a subconscious way.'

John Wong, an English teacher at Po Leung Kuk Chee Jing Yin Primary School in Sha Tin, said he believed drama was a good motivation tool for students.

'I think the thing about drama is [students] can all participate at a level that suits them and there are no right or wrong answers,' Mr Wong said. 'When they are doing drama, the students become active learners, participating and getting involved with the role playing. It's a very good motivational tool.'

Practising drama would stop them from being self-conscious, he added.

'When they are playing that role, it's not them actually saying the lines. So then they are not so self-conscious in using the language,' Mr Wong said.

The Education Bureau is funding the British Council this year to provide one-day course for four language arts courses catering for 1,440 local English teachers before implementing the curriculum in 2009.

The bureau's chief curriculum development officer for English language Cindy Chan Yin-ping said 510 English teachers received drama training last year.

'We want to send at least one teacher from each school to attend these courses,' Ms Chan said.