Dramatic Expressions - Teaching personal, social and emotional skills through drama

Moving into Theory of Mind

Posted on | May 22, 2020 | No Comments

It was always there. I just didn’t know it had a name.

When we wrote our handbook Using Drama to Teach Personal, Social and Emotional Skills (O’Hanlon and Wootten, 2007) it was clear that empathy figured in developing social interaction skills. We knew that it was important to know what a friend might be thinking or feeling, in order to make the right response, or use the right tone of voice to match the words we used. We called it empathy, and that was right.

But we didn’t know then that empathy and so much more was bundled into this new term: Theory of Mind. Until I heard Professor Gary Morgan speak on the subject. Then I knew and started reading for myself.

Since then so much has happened. I’ve written materials for our students training as Teachers of the Deaf on cognitive function, including Theory of Mind. I’ve joined a research group (Shakespeare Institute and Royal Shakespeare Company) on giving deaf children access to Shakespeare and the benefits for Theory of Mind development.

And now my latest project. Working on new materials with Black Sheep Press that link social interaction skills with Theory of Mind via a developmental framework. Materials that link story with drama and drama with Theory of Mind.

More tomorrow…or the next day…. but to end with a quotation from Carol Westby, originator of the Development of the Theory of Mind framework:

Effective and appropriate social communication/pragmatic language skills require a communicator to have a ToM.

(Westby and Robinson 2014)


Vamos puts on A Brave Face!

Posted on | April 25, 2018 | No Comments

This startling little theatre production company continues to stimulate and challenge with its latest production ‘A Brave Face’. Tackling the subject of  PTS, the production feels nuanced and careful. A young man trains up for action in Afghanistan. He sees things that humans are better not seeing, but quite what those things are is left largely to the imagination. The soundscape is quiet, rather than loud and disturbing.

Looking through the programme notes, the reason for these production decisions become clear. Triggers for veterans are deliberately avoided as much as possible, to allow those who have served to come and not be distressed, but rather to know that they are not alone in the PTS which sometimes follows.

As usual it is a nicely constructed plot which contains a lovely mirror image between the little sister and the Afghan girl.

There’s no perfect resolution for the main character but the audience is left feeling there is progress and care.

Every turn of the plot is easily understood without a word being spoken. Ideal for deaf young people upwards, this production has an advisory age of 12 upwards.



Teaching RE through experiential learning

Posted on | January 29, 2018 | No Comments

One of the great things about our office in the University is that it’s next to the room where trainee teachers attend sessions on teaching RE. The other day there was a fascinating discussion session on Bonhoeffer and the Nazis and I got to hear all of it, whilst happily getting on with my work at the same time!

Coming into work the other morning and fumbling with my office keys, I passed this same room. Something was obviously about to occur. The room had been laid out with a semi circle of chairs and there were costumes laid ready on the chairs. In the centre there were suitcases lying open. From memory the room was darkened and there were fairy lights and atmospheric music suggestive of mystery and awe. I may have imagined some of this but it seems fitting enough.

Being the nosey sort, I poked my head in and asked what was going to happen. A session on teaching RE through drama, the leader told me. The students were to land on a desert island and explore, through drama, how a religion develops to make sense of the experience and the place. It sounded very intriguing.

Sue Phillips is the inspiring teacher and originator of this approach and runs Theatre of Learning. I recommend you look at the website which is instructive and generous in its approach. There is free stuff too! And videos of the approach in action.

How stimulating and exciting for children to learn RE in this way! It sounds like a winner to me.

Sue,  I see that you also specialise in PSHE as well. Maybe we should have a chat sometime….

Deaf Explorer

Posted on | January 29, 2018 | 1 Comment

Delivering my annual workshop recently on deaf children and drama, I met Rachael Veazey from Deaf Explorer. It  happened like this.

This year I had managed to keep the workshop running to time. This may never have happened before! Consequently I had a few minutes to discuss with our trainee teachers of the deaf access to theatre and, in particular, interactive signed productions. I asked the students if they had ever seen interpreters dressed up as characters and appear alongside the actors on stage. ‘It may even be’, I said, looking at our interpreters for the session, ‘that one of our interpreters here performs this role as part of their job, on occasion.’

At the end of the session, one of the interpreters approached me and introduced herself as Rachael Veazey. It turns that she is more than interested in this subject! She manages Deaf Artists’ projects and is part of the group Deaf Explorer. Check this organisation out for yourself but, in brief, the aim of the organisation is to overcome the many barriers for Deaf people to bring their Art to fruition. Rachael brings to the organisation her experience in theatre production and direction.

Glad to have met you that day, Rachael. Please add to our sense of your important work by leaving a comment, if you have a moment.

Black Sheep resources and children with ASD

Posted on | October 30, 2017 | No Comments

I hear from one correspondent that she is using the Black Sheep Press resources (see Books and Resources tab) with children she supports with ASD. Of course. It makes perfect sense. I would welcome feedback on how this intervention has gone and what effect it has had.

Vamos Theatre

Posted on | October 6, 2017 | No Comments

September 21st and I had one day off work. ‘Do something nice,’ urged my kind husband.

Friends of ours had spoken enthusiastically about Artrix, the Arts Centre on the outskirts of Bromsgrove. Off I tootled that afternoon, taking pot luck as to what was showing. A matinee on a rainy day.

I drew up in the spacious car park. As I switched off the windscreen wipers I could see a number of older people, muffled up in raincoats and hats, either walking or being pushed in their wheelchairs into the building. Something was up.

Once inside Artrix everyone – carers and seniors alike – were being warmly greeted by staff and other people, one of whom, though relatively young, seemed to be dressed in older person’s clothes. She met one person with, ‘Hello, I’m Bidi and I’m one of the actors in the play you’re going to see this afternoon, Finding Joy’.

Finding Joy? What was this? I had a quick look round for some information. Finding Joy – a fully masked play about dementia by the theatre company Vamos

Ooh. This was a challenge.

In recent years my own father has shown the early signs of problems in this direction. You see, I cannot say it yet. He says, ‘My memory is very poor these days’ and to my sister he said the other day, ‘I’ve lost my memory’. It’s sad. We mourn. We say, ‘Does it bother you, dad?’ ‘Not really’ he says ‘but I don’t know what mum’s talking about sometimes.’

Did I want to spend my day off thinking about this? Yet, the title intrigued me. Finding Joy. It sounded positive rather than the opposite, and anyway I love a good play.

But once in the auditorium, things took a different turn to the usual. The actors stood on stage, addressing the audience, first without their masks and then with. They explained the characters and introduced the music to be used for individual scenes. These elderly theatre goers listened carefully and so did their carers.

And so the play got underway. Joy, an elderly woman, is living in different parts of her earlier life – a life dominated by WWII, air raids and evacuation. We see her in her courting days, dancing with her young man and picnicking as a new mum with her family. In the present day her daughter and grandson don’t know how to cope with her or how to react to the apparently strange things that she does. It’s beautifully told through mime. Not a word spoken. Action, gestures, props and music are all that are needed for the whole meaning to be clear.

Poignant and comic, thought-provoking and absorbing. The ingenuity is in the fact that, by the end of the play, you realise that you have learned a fair bit about how to be around someone with dementia, without knowing the process by which this has occurred. The drama shows you what to do. Very clever.

I was first out of the auditorium but already the actors had whipped round that back and were there to greet their audience. Enthusing and congratulations over, I explained a bit about my background. ‘Yes, we’ve been working with deaf actors and deaf audiences’ said the male actor I was talking to. ‘Really?’ I said, surprised. ‘Deaf people don’t tend to go for puppet-like or masked actors because they can’t see the actors’ lips to lipread.’ ‘But think about it. There’s nothing to lipread. Only mime’, he said. I thought a bit. This was true.

About a fortnight later I was chatting with an English teacher from Braidwood School for deaf children in Birmingham. ‘Have you seen Vamos?’ she asked. ‘Our kids love it.’

So, it was true.

Vamos, I see your artistic technique as having huge potential for deaf children and young people. I will be running a workshop in January on using drama with deaf children and your name and what you are doing will be up there in lights!

Shakespeare, personification and deaf youngsters

Posted on | July 8, 2017 | No Comments

When you were studying for O level or GCSE, did you learn that great speech of Macbeth’s after the death of Lady Macbeth which starts ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…?’
What an expression of the meaningless of life and Macbeth’s indifference to it!
Yet, what might this speech mean to a youngster who is deaf?
Shakespeare has Macbeth say:
‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage…’
Here, life is portrayed as a character. In other words, life is personified.
Shakespearean plays are full of personification. Here’s another example from Macbeth, after he murders Duncan:
Macbeth does murder sleep

What does he mean? Sleep is personified, but this can cause a problem for deaf youngsters approaching the text for the first time?
For some deaf youngsters, personification seems to be a problematic concept. Why is this? It seems to have something to do with the way that concepts build in the mind for some deaf children, right from a young age (Theory of Mind).
So, is this a full stop for young deaf people? An end in the road? Is this part of what deters some deaf people from approaching Shakespeare, together with other devices, for instance metaphor and idioms?
Can sign language adequately express these aspects?
Can deaf children be supported to develop these concepts?
These are questions to be answered?
If you have any thoughts, please contact me.

RSC and semi-integrated signed performances

Posted on | January 28, 2017 | No Comments

Ooh, have you seen?

The RSC ‘continues its commitment to semi-integrated British sign language performances’ where interpreters appear on stage with the actors, dressed as appropriate characters.

This was its announcement for Midsummer Night’s Dream last summer, which followed on from the success of the technique in its production of the Christmas Truce on 2015. The technique has been introduced by Erica Whyman, now Depute Artistic Director with the RSC, and formerly with Northern Stage, Newcastle upon Tyne, where integrated signed performances were also part of the access strategy for audience with special needs.

As Whyman said, as Christmas Truce was launched, ‘We are always looking for ways to offer as many people as possible access to our work and this is a fantastic way to bring it alive……..Caroline, the sign language interpreter, will be close up with the actors in the thick of the action dressed as a nurse. We hope that this will offer all of our audiences a better experience.’

I have good reason to believe that the RSC is committed to continuing its access to deaf children and adults. More of this anon….


Posted on | January 28, 2017 | No Comments

After the success of the Black Sheep Press resources Prag14 and Prag15 (see Books and Resources page), Prag16 is now out. It is the Advanced set of Social responses,developed in response to teenagers’ needs.

Social interaction in these years can be challenging! Youngsters are moving into the realms of romantic relationships, with all the associated rituals! They are coming into contact with adults as they start to move beyond the protective boundaries of home and the ‘brokering’ role that their parents once performed. Now they meet people on the bus, the cafe, the cinema- each situation demanding its own communicative response.

These situations and more are addressed through the new resource. Through a series of pictures and suggested role plays a number of situations are addressed including:

  • apologising
  • passing on a telephone caller
  • introductions
  • parting at the end of an event
  • responding to another person’s needs
  • repairing a conversation

and, thinking about the specific needs of youngsters with special needs, dealing with enquiries about an assistive device e.g. hearing aid.

Here is a resource which explores these scenarios, reassures the youngster with well-worn, well-tried responses and gives chances for practice through the various lesson plans on offer.

Learning for Peace

Posted on | March 29, 2016 | No Comments

A couple of weeks ago I ventured briefly into the Education Show at the NEC. Well, it’s on my doorstep and although it’s not really my cup of tea I did meet up with one of my bestest friends and we had and excellent lunch together.

Shimmying quickly past the many purveyors of IT related products, playground equipment and assessment materials, I managed to avoid eye contact with most.

To my surprise and curiosity, towards the back of the hall, was a small stall devoted to the West Midlands Quaker Peace Education Project. Here was something different, at last.

Something stirred at the back of my mind….Jacqui O’Hanlon, my co-author of  Using Drama to Teach Personal, Social and Emotional Skills had worked with them. We had acknowledged that some of our materials had originally come from their project and we had received kind permission to include them.

They have a lovely new book out –Learning for Peace and I bought a copy instantly. So many resources, so many techniques within this slimline book – all to deliver the message of peace-building to children. Very much worth having a look at.

Eagerly I turned the section ‘Approaches and Techniques: Drama’. The page begins with a thoughtful section on whether a circle is the right arena for all children to show their drama. This was something I had not thought of so was pleased to learn. ‘A circle is not always a safe space for everyone – safety and trust need to be built on week by week’ the author tells us.

Then came descriptions of some of the trusty drama techniques: freeze frame, thought tracking, hot seating, role play and forum theatre, role on the wall and conscience alley. Nicely described and a reminder of a greater range of possible tools.

Thank you to the Quaker Project and perhaps I will see some of your representatives again soon.

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