The drama department at Dulwich College Beijing welcomed a very special visitor recently, Emma Gordon. Gordon got her start in drama education at age 14 and is renowned in education circles in her native UK as an actress, writer, and education facilitator. Notably, Gordon’s learned the power of drama as an educational tool during her time at the University of Manchester when she trained intensively with Theatre in Prisons and Probation (TiPP) and had the chance to work with juvenile offenders on a variety of projects including workshops with the long-term unemployed, conflict resolution, and long term enrichment. She went on to do similar work with at risk youth, all the while addressing individual barriers and accessing the positive attributes of each child. Gordon eventually became self-employed and took on a range of projects within her community, especially in the realm of education and staff training.
Gordon was invited by the school’s head of drama, Kat Macqire, for a week of student workshops across all key stages. Having worked with Emma on projects in the UK, Maquire attests to Gordon’s talent and hopes Gordon’s week at Dulwich was an inspiration for Dulwich drama teachers as well as students. “It is always fabulous to collaborate with other artists, share ideas, and make creative things happen. It’s great professional development for the drama department [as well],” says Macquire. We chat with Gordon about her experience at Dulwich.
Why is drama important for children?
In an international school such as Dulwich, with children from all over the world working closely together, drama is one of the most effective means of transcending barriers and offering opportunities for language development and cultural exploration. In this day and age, with so much emphasis on grades, levels of achievement, and formal assessment, it is easy to forget the importance of play and the benefits of nurturing creativity. However, it is artistic expression which can help to individualize education; making it meaningful to everyone involved. Confucius summed it up in his own philosophies of experiential learning, and there really is no better way to explain: ‘I hear and I forget. I see and I may remember. I do and I understand.’ To offer drama to youngsters is to offer a creative outlet through which they can explore, experiment, and share in their learning as they experience it in their own way.
What were your aims for your workshops at Dulwich?
Each workshop session aimed to fulfill a set of criteria relevant to the group’s current schemes of work and programs of study. This meant that I structured my sessions accordingly. However, once the specific aims had been addressed in my initial planning, and I could answer ‘yes’ to myself when reflecting on whether I was covering enough on the individual practitioner, topic or theme, I had a greater aim to address. It is the same aim I always have in mind when planning sessions; to engage everyone who is taking part, no matter what their level of dramatic experience and grasp of language may be. This is crucial to ensure that sessions are accessible to every participant, and everyone can feel a sense of achievement by the end. Of course I always want youngsters to leave workshops feeling inspired and passionate about drama; it is my belief that the world would be a dull place without it.
What went well?
I can honestly say that the whole experience has been unforgettable. I have worked with everyone, from Keystage 5 down to early years, and I have enjoyed every single session. The buzz that has been around the drama department, and the excitement the students have demonstrated, both during and after my sessions, has been wonderful to be a part of.
What were you surprised by?
That is a big question. One of the joys of what I do is that I am constantly surprised by the responses from the youngsters and the directions creative tasks might lead us in. These can vary so vastly from one group to the next. A lot of things have surprised me over the past week and a half. Probably the biggest, though, has been just how different the students are here [compared to] England. There is an openness and acceptance that comes with being in such a culturally diverse setting, and having travelled so much, which is rare and precious. This means dramatic tasks are sometimes approached with less hesitance than in England, and group work takes on a new dimension. I had the chance to work with the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) students here during lunchtimes, an area in which I specialize at home, and I witnessed these same qualities outside the classroom as well. It is a difficult thing to articulate, but wonderful to be involved in.
What is your favorite aspect of working with children?
I began running holiday workshops and working as a classroom assistant at a deprived school down the road from my own high school when I was just a teenager. I have always taken great delight in helping children to find their own voice, seeking out what excites and interests them, so the journey through Applied Theatre Training and my post graduate certificate in education (PGCE) was a natural route for me to take. I always knew if I wasn’t acting, I needed to be sharing my passion for drama with the younger generation. In all my projects, there is no greater reward than seeing the satisfaction and sense of fulfillment youngsters get from performing. Nurturing the artists of the future, offering a ray of hope to someone otherwise marginalized, or inspiring someone with the passion to pursue a dream – each of those is priceless. So there is no single aspect which I favor. Working with childrenis my favorite aspect of the whole thing. In that sense, I am blessed.
How do you tailor you work to children of different ages? Obviously every workshop I offer is tailored to the group’s own needs, and the Institution’s own ethos. Working with the Early Years pupils, especially where English is not a first language, demands a much more physical approach. It was essential I planned something where there was less emphasis on language, and more opportunity to express and communicate ideas through sound and body. The older students present their own challenges in planning. At a school where the students are so switched on, there need to be opportunities for goals to be set throughout a session. Even where the process of exploration is the main focus of a session, the students need to feel that they are making progress and meeting personal targets. This means workshops have to be fast-paced enough to maintain interest, fun and engagement, yet meaty enough to enable personal development. Of course the content will differ greatly, the ideas and topics which arise for discussion, and the language used to do so will always vary.
Photos: Courtesy of Dulwich