Transcript of The Drama written exam

This transcript has been edited slightly for clarity. Listen to the Drama written exam podcast (21:25).

Jackie – The following podcast is brought to you by the Creative Arts Curriculum Team from Secondary Learners, Educational Standards Sirectorate of the New South Wales Department of Education.

As we commence this podcast today, let us acknowledge the traditional custodians of all the lands on which this podcast will be played around New South Wales. Their art, storytelling, music and dance along with all First Nations People hold the memories, the traditions, the culture and hopes of Aboriginal Australia. Let us acknowledge with honour and respect our Elders, past, present and future, especially those Aboriginal people in our presence today who have and still do guide us with their wisdom.

Ravenna – Welcome to the Creative Cast Podcast Series. My name's Ravenna Gregory and I'm a Creative Arts Curriculum Officer with the New South Wales Department of Education. This episode is a little unusual as it's kind of a pre chat for a professional learning session that my two guests and I designed and presented this term. The conversation you're about to hear was part of our early planning for their Written Exam Bump In presentation which is now available through MyPL. Belinda Farr Jones has taught drama across three continents for 25 years. There are few drama teachers in New South Wales that have read as many HSC essays as Belinda and she is determined to find creative ways to excite drama students to write with an authentic and empowered voice. She began her new role as Head Teacher Creative and Performing Arts at Turramarra High School this January. Jane McDavitt has taught drama and English in a range of public comprehensive and selective schools and is passionate about the way drama welcomes and develops the talents of all students. She loves the magical way that making theatre in productions, ensembles, curriculum and essays can empower students to articulate and claim their place in the world. Jane is currently Head Teacher of English at Hunter's School of the Performing Arts.

Jackie – We interrupt this podcast for a very special announcement. The Creative Arts Curriculum Team announce our Creative Casting Call. This initiative provides two exciting ways that you and your students can get involved in our podcasts and earn some much needed funds for your creative arts faculty budget. First, compose our podcast music. Compose some music we could use for the intro and outro for our podcast next term. The best composition will be used in our podcast next term and win your school a $2,000 grant for creative arts. The second is design next term's promotional tile. Our podcast theme for next term is where to from here. The best tile will be used for our where to from here podcasts next term and also win your school a $2,000 grant for creative arts. Find the full brief in the Creative Arts Statewide Staffroom, entries for next term close on the last day of term three with the winning composition and tile to be featured and credited in term four’s podcasts. This initiative is only available to New South Wales Department of Education schools 2021.

Ravenna – Belinda and Jane are both very passionate about the HSC drama written exam. And I started by asking Jane about the reason for that excitement.

Jane – I think the excitement for me is twofold both as a lover of theatre and as an educator because in our drama classroom we get to create magnificent theatre and magnificent pedagogy and learning through that as well. And that carries through the exam that when we're reading the responses that students write, you're invited into drama classes around the state. You don't know where you're going to go with each essay you read and so you're invited into these worlds. You get to learn about what students have been doing in the classroom and you also get to learn what their visions and imaginings are for theatre.

Belinda – It's exciting because I got a chance to really try a few new things and to make a real difference by moving away from any kind of theory lesson. I love that the students can be so brave in our subject and can truly find ownership in their writing. I long for the chance to give kids the opportunity to be actual theatre makers. And I've come from a place that did have a lot of resources and now I have a blank space and some 30 year old lights that sometimes work and the kids have more chance to own their work. As a result, they're not relying on anyone but themselves. So that's truly exciting.

Ravenna – And I guess that's the lovely thing about that as well, Belinda is that that blank space and those 30 year old lights are all that we really need to create experiences that students can write about. And I think one of the nice things that I've heard you both talk about, because we've had a little talk prior to this chat, is that if students are making good theatre then they're going to be able to write about theatre and that lovely idea that it's not about, you know, that it is just that empty space and how we can capture moments in those spaces in those various empty spaces that you've taught in. What topics and texts have you taught for HSC drama?

Jane – So for Australian I've always taught contemporary so most recently that's been Life Without Me, Stolen, or Neighbourhood Watch and in the past Seven Stages of Grieving. In studies in drama and theatre. I've taught approaches to acting, black comedy, Irish and American.

Ravenna – What's making you make those decisions about what to teach Jane?

Jane – I think the choice is always so different depending on what the needs are of the students. In the current context that I’m in, Hunter School of Performing Arts, the approaches to acting topic, really works for those students. Not that I drove that choice. But having taught the approaches to acting, it gives a lot of space for the students with a really well developed theatrical vocabulary in our school to extend upon that. And I think it also is like one of the topics that can lend to great nuance in their understanding of approaches to the projects as well. There are quite a few topics that do that, but that's been quite beneficial from doing that topic. I really like being in that contemporary space with Oz drama because I think it's really great for students to know that theatre is alive and happening and changing all the time. And that's something that I really enjoy.

Ravenna –What have you taught over years Belinda?

Belinda – Over the years? I have taught Neighbourhood Watch and Stolen a few times. My Turramurra kids did that in term four last year. Lately, I have been doing Norm and Ahmed and The Removalists. I think that it's really interesting to look back at those traditions and look at how far or how far we have not come with various social issues. And I think the students really find that empowering and they're always to make those, those plays that have such a legacy vibrant and deeply pertinent in 2021. In the topics, I've taught tragedy and black comedy and significant plays of the 20th century. I would like to move on to multi discipline next. But right now, with a change of school, I've stuck with the one I've had most recent experience on. So, sig plays, it's kind of a false distinction as well, isn't it? In the prescriptions the traditional versus contemporary, because what the students are doing with it in the class is contemporary, you know, they're experimenting with it and playing with it every day. And so even though you're dealing with a legacy, it's always about finding how that translates for today's audience today. New staging is absolutely.

Ravenna – And that understanding for students of themselves as contemporary theatre makers. I think that is really important when we get into the written exam as well, that their theatre is a legitimate thing to be writing. And I guess that kind of brings me back to what we're actually here to talk about, which is approaching revision. And I'm really interested actually in the differences in approaching revision of a topic that has texts attached to it versus approaching revision for a topic that has practitioners. And are there differences? Is my question.

Belinda – Um, I think we all know what it feels like to finish a long run of a production or the final moment when we say goodbye to the examiners and take them to their car. We’re deflated. We have very little brain capacity left and the students feel like they deserve some time off. So, it's our job to be as creative as we possibly can be and make every piece of revision fun and exciting and as vibrant as any other lesson that you would have provided when you first taught the topics. I do a lot of filming when I'm teaching the first time around. But we are hoping to really unpacked rubric and make sure they know that the questions are not going to be wild or random, but that they're coming from a very specific place in that rubric and really trying to attach moments of theatre to individual words so that they're making stunning, evocative, powerful theatre. We film it, we go home and we create excellent half page paragraphs that describe evocative moments on the stage and take our markers to the theatre and not the page.

Ravenna – you know, motivating yourself to get back to that moment of the excitement from term four discovering that topic for the first time term one, which is what most schools are doing, what's your kind of trick for getting them back into that moment Jane? Because I've seen you do it, I've seen you get excited about it. How do you communicate that to students?

Jane – So I really, really like to take a production approach to the essay. I think it's different to the performances because the performances have a visible audience for students. Whereas the essay has an invisible audience. And so, I do like to affirm that idea of audience and everything they do when they're preparing for the written exam. One of the things I really like to do is to get the kids to really own their, their voice and their agency, in terms of the markers actually don't need to know about the plays they've studied and the practitioners they've studied because the markers already know that stuff, what the markers are most interested in is understanding the students interpretation of that work and how the students have engaged with that. So, I like to get my kids into groups and create their own theatre company that's going to be exploring these plays so that they can continue that sense of collaborative learning and the project based approach that they're kind of coming down from after performances that they've just done, but with a view to understanding, communicating their theatrical vision to this invisible audience that they've got coming up.

Belinda – I think if I can add, are short bursts. A really good idea at this point, they've been working on one project for a very long time and I think that they really appreciate variety at this point. So instead of going straight into a timed essay, that's probably the last thing I'd ever do. You might be looking at reviews of the plays that have been performed all over the world in different time periods and highlighting wonderful adjectives that describe particular moments or you might find some production stills online, so much digital theatre now for us to enjoy. You can look at some production stills and talk about proximity and costume and texture and light and sound, maybe not sound because you can't see, and really try to be as visual as you possibly can and the next day going with some evidence boxes that might be context around the stolen generation or that kind of thing. The very next day might be might be something completely different.

Ravenna – I love that idea of short bursts. I'm also interested in the student who turns up to the classroom to a revision session without any of their notes from term four and term one. How is the way you're approaching this revision going to overcome that? Kind of what could be a derailing of that revision process Jane?

Jane – It is pretty tricky because I mean a strengths based approach will still always work. So, I think it's important to affirm their responsibility but that I can also be ready. I can have scripts and give excerpts and things like that. A student might have been, you know, had a significant illness halfway through term four that they still haven't quite caught up on that experiential learning that they missed in term four last year. And so, I think thinking of revision as just repeating what's been done before is not really going to serve a lot of our kids and we might do it in a different way. Like Belinda saying that we can be taking more short sharp bursts, whereas in term four and term one, we were working towards, you know, big tasks, students were creating then and we don't necessarily need to do that now, but I think like I would always try to be prepared to support the students, however they're walking into my classroom, because having a fight with a student about not being prepared when there are all sorts of other things going on in that life is not really going to do anything.

Belinda – I guess I make sure to that I'm cataloguing or charting their learning in term four in term one. So, google classroom is my friend, I didn't use it until this year, the kids were all over it. So, every video is uploaded, lots and lots of resources, they can't lose it because it's there. So even my most disorganized students will still have a whole wealth of information, beautifully filed away in their google classroom suite of knowledge, but keeping it vibrant and brand new stuff and short bursts, little quizzes, Sale of the Century Games, you can make these things super fun.

Ravenna – I think one of the things you talked about at the very beginning was the importance of filming work. One of the things that has kind of evolved for me is the benefits of, to look at past student works because they don't always like to look back at their own work, they can get, you know, that can be detrimental sometimes at that stage, but looking at past student work can be, can be that work that they're going to talk about in their exam, depending on the question. Of course. I think one of the things that that teachers struggle with as well is that the student who will come to you and say, but what's the scaffold that I need for this exam? What does a drama essay look like, give me a scaffold. How many paragraphs should, you know, should I talk about a few scenes from the text etcetera and giving a prepared response? So, what's the difference between being prepared to improvise in an exam and preparing a response? How do you get around that? How do you get around that particularly with students who are crying out for that and needing that in terms of their learning support needs, what's the balance there?

Jane – The moving approach to a lot of the revision is very helpful in this space, because if we keep that practice of improvising of questioning things problem solving in our theatrical practice as we're revising, then that is something that transfers into an exam situation where students are being asked to improvise, and students can keep creating theatre in that exam imaginatively. If what they've done in the past doesn't serve their purpose as well as a staging idea that they have in that five minutes, then they absolutely can keep creating up to that moment. And I guess in terms of the scaffolding, there are things that I would find more useful. So, there are some things, obviously we want our students to have a balance there. Generally looking at two plays or to practitioners, we want some things to be balanced and so we need them to have that experience of writing under time to conditions in some way. So, they know that they're going to be able to craft that balance. But then unpacking that question and responding to the question is the thing that makes it authentic and going beyond, you know, a scaffold response that might be missing that individual touch because actually developing their personalised individual thesis, responding to that question on the day, the thing that makes it, you know, all tie together for me. And so, I think time at interrogating questions is really valuable in terms of developing nuanced response.

Belinda – I think our subject encourages and nurtures and celebrates bravery in every way. And I hope I can find a way to say to students out there, please be brave. We are getting better as teaching practitioners at writing questions that can't be pre prepared. Of course, you can have some very well thought out moments, but I've urged all students to try and come up with a very clear thesis in their opening sentence. Certainly, they're opening paragraph, which is like life, first impressions are everything, and that first paragraph, that's half a page will be a direct attack on that question. The very precise question that may have 1,2,3 or even four parts. I encourage we teach in a way that breeds theatre makers and we want to see that ownership and real understanding of what these plays can be on the stage and they need to have been theatre makers themselves and that means designers as well as directors as well as the audience or the performer or all of those things.

Ravenna – If you'd like to hear about more strategies for helping your students to demonstrate their theatre making skills in the drama exam, you can sign up for Jane and Belinda's Written Exam Bump-in professional learning presentation that's now available on demand through MyPL. And you can find the course details in the show notes. Thanks again to Jane McDevitt and Belinda Farr Jones who were so generous in chatting with me and sharing their expertise and also their excitement about the drama written exam.

Jackie – This podcast was brought to you by the Creative Arts Curriculum Team of Secondary Learners, Educational Standards Directorate of the New South Wales Department of Education. Get involved in the conversation by joining our statewide staff room through the link in the show notes or email our Creative Arts curriculum Advisor Cathryn Horvat at The music for this podcast was composed by Alex Manton and audio production by Jason King.


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