While remote learning brought its hardships, NED MANNING found it also had some surprising benefits.
Being a drama teacher, I was apprehensive about how ‘Zoom teaching’ would work. Most of what we do is ‘on the floor’ practical work. There is an element of theory, but in junior years that is less important than getting up and doing the practice. Being in the room, working face-to-face, will always be crucial.
The key thing to impart when teaching drama to juniors is focus. Without appreciating the importance of focus, students are simply unable to do anything. When we focus, we concentrate on what we are doing instead of what is going on around us, including worrying about what people think of us.
This may be especially obvious in drama, but could of course be applied to learning any subject. It is incredibly liberating for young people to be able to let go of all of those things that plague a teenager’s self-esteem. How they look, how they sound, what everyone says about them. Once they have the hang of it, being able to solely focus on, let’s say, delivering someone an important message on stage, is extraordinarily freeing.
From then on, drama students learn how to shift focus, moving the audience’s focus from one part of the space to another. This is the bread and butter of drama teaching. It never ceases to amaze me just how much students prosper once they have mastered focus.
As we spent more time on Zoom, the discussions became more and more sophisticated.
Of course, all of this requires trust. Trusting yourself, your fellow performer, your teacher and, further down the track, your director. This is all relatively easy in the classroom, but how was I going to teach these principles online? Particularly when my online technical skills are virtually non-existent!
I already had a strong relationship with my Year 9 students. Most were pretty good at focusing on what they were doing. When we first met on Zoom, in our own little boxes, my students discussed their feelings about what they had taken from a video I had sent them. I wasn’t surprised that they would make some interesting observations. What did surprise me was the depth of their understanding and, most interestingly of all, the number of students – mostly girls – who didn’t usually say much in class but who had now found their voice.
As we spent more time on Zoom, the discussions became more and more sophisticated. Freed from the constraints of the classroom and working on their own turf, they were showing me a side of their personalities I hadn’t seen before. They were seeing me on my own turf too.
The real eye opener was the practical work they did on Zoom.
There is no doubt that our relationship deepened. I got to see what happened when students were unencumbered by all the extraneous circumstances that can play with their minds. They didn’t seem to be as distracted as usual, when it often takes time to leave the playground behind.
Interestingly, their research work was far more detailed than it had ever been. Because they were safely cocooned in their own worlds, they were able to discuss topics in a sophisticated and detailed way – revealing a level of insight they might ordinarily have concealed. Even more unusually, every single student in the two classes did the set work.
But the real eye opener was the practical work they did on Zoom. They filmed themselves in their own rooms or backyards. Some had costumes. Some demonstrated impressive choreography. Some students who were quite reticent when performing in class seemed to break free of the shackles and express themselves in the most beautiful and uninhibited way. Their focus was on par with that of a professional artist who had been practicing their craft for years.
I felt the ground had shifted and, ironically, we may have COVID-19 to thank for it.
Of course, when we returned to class after the lockdown ended, they were absolutely delighted to be back with their friends. But something had shifted. It was as if I had been teaching them for years and we had developed that shorthand language that enables everyone to focus on the work at the exclusion of everything else. The group work they produced at the end of term was at an outstanding level. They could have been drama students at any major tertiary institution.
I’m well aware that remote learning didn’t work for everyone. While it facilitated a new level of engagement for some students, it left others behind. It’s also true that some of the surprising benefits – in particular, reducing the insane level of admin that teachers normally have to deal with and cancelling this year’s NAPLAN tests – soon felt like hollow victories, given the increased workload in other areas.
I know that the social aspects of schooling, as distracting as they can be, are also an important part of our school years. Not all of the vital community-building can easily be done via a screen. Perhaps it was comforting that when I started wrapping up that first class back on-site after the first lockdown, the students instantly returned to being typical teenagers. They mucked around, gossiped and had to be reminded that they weren’t in the playground. Still, I felt the ground had shifted and, ironically, we may have COVID-19 to thank for it.