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A Letter to the Federal Minister of Education

Dear Dan,


            Forgive me for saying this but about the last thing I want to be doing at the moment is writing to you. You see, I’m in New York visiting my six month old granddaughter after a typically hectic year’s teaching. You can imagine how joyous it is. She is an absolute delight and I want to spend every waking minute I’m here with her. Not writing about Education.

 But the thing is Dan, I can’t let your comment about “soft skills” go. The one where you said the National Curriculum needed to be re-vamped  to focus on basic, solid, core subjects.. I can’t let them go because I’m a teacher and, like the vast majority of teachers, I am passionate about my subject and devoted to my students. 


You see, I teach what you might call a “soft” subject. It’s called Drama. I have spent a lifetime teaching it and practicing it and, unfortunately, writing about why it isn’t a “soft skill”. In fact, I’ve written about it so many times that it feels like Groundhog Day whenever I pick up my pen and try and justify its existence as a subject.


So, this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to take you through a typical year of Drama for a Year 12 student around Australia. After you’ve read this, as I’m sure you will, you might begin to understand why Drama isn’t “soft” and stop banging on about returning to the “basics”. Out of interest, you might have noticed that your mate Matthew Guy ran the same line in the recent Victorian elections without much success.  


There are a number of facets to Drama in Year 12. They vary in detail in different States but they are essentially the same. 


Students study a number of plays or theatrical practices from different genres. Like Australian Theatre or American Theatre or Absurdist Theatre. Or practitioners like Boal or Brecht or Meyerhold. They might, typically, have to study four plays. The “study” involves reading the plays, performing scenes from them and writing essays about them. Essays that demonstrate their understanding of the theatrical importance of the works and their personal response to them as pieces of theatre. The same applies to the theatrical movements. 


As you can imagine it’s pretty intense. 


That’s the Theory. That’s one third of the Course.


Then they have to perform a Group Performance. This involves three to six teenage students getting together, devising an original piece of theatre that runs from 8-12 minutes and performing it for their final year examination. They have to organise rehearsals, corral their peers into turning up to them, design costumes and sound and do all of this on their own. Their teachers guide and support them but they aren’t allowed to direct them or tell them what to do or how to do it. 


I don’t know if you’ve got teenage children Dan but, let me assure you, getting a group of teenagers to work collaboratively and consistently on their own is no mean feat. Teenagers have a lot going on in their lives and, to complicate matters even further, may have to work with people they don’t necessarily get along with. Like you have to you, I imagine. Except that you’re an adult. There is nothing “soft” about a Group Performance.  It involves creativity, enormous self discipline and courage. 


Yes, courage. 


In all the years I’ve been teaching Drama I have seen literally thousands of students overcome their fear of standing in front of an audience and confidently perform pieces they have devised with their classmates. I have seen extraordinary generosity from students who have selflessly supported and sustained their peers through this demanding process. I have witnessed, on countless occasions, the sheer joy that these young people have experienced when they have scaled heights they have never imagined they could reach. 


Then there is the Individual Performance. This can take the shape of 6-8 minute Individual Performance where the students create what is essentially a one person show. This might take the form of combining a number of speeches from a particular play or a number of plays. It might be completely devised by the student from a number of sources. It might be a short one person show that they have written (or devised) by themselves. An IP in performance isn’t about simply learning a monologue off by heart and reciting it.


As you have possibly felt in Parliament, it’s quite daunting standing up in front of an audience on your own. Doubly so if you are a teenager being examined or judged. You know all about that Dan. But the thing is you’re an old hand at it. Many students performing IP’s need to be gently coaxed into believing in themselves by their Drama teachers. You might ask why they do it in the first place? I mean, no-one forced you to stand up in front of the microphones did they Dan? But part of our jobs as teachers is to extend our students and to help them gain enough confidence to do just that. I don’t mean stand in front of microphones but stand in front of a group of people and express themselves. It might be a doddle for you Dan but let me assure you it isn’t for thousands of young people who conquer their fears and complete Individual Performances. 


Those students who don’t want to perform an IP can choose costume, set or lighting design.

They can opt for a research projects. They can create a director’s portfolio or write a play. They can even make a film. These are strenuous endeavours. 


I can personally vouch for the fact that writing a play isn’t a “soft” option. It is extremely challenging, on every level. It requires a lot of writing and re-writing to ensure that the piece engages and challenges an audience and is relevant as a piece of contemporary theatre. 


Individual non Performance projects are anything but “soft”. They require imagination and dedication. If students choose any of the design options they are required to read a number of plays before choosing which one they are going to design costumes, sets or lighting rigs for. They have to decide which characters they are going to focus on. They have to conceptualise their production, their interpretation of the text, before embarking on the design process. 


Those making films have to write the script, find the actors, shoot the film, edit it and add post production elements. Hardly a series of “soft skills”. Anyone dedicated enough to embark on a research project has to come up with a proposition and write, what is effectively, a mini thesis.


So, Dan, when you combine those 3 elements you can see that far from being “soft” Drama is both “hard” and rewarding. As are other “soft” options like Dance, Art and Music.

 Because it’s Christmas I’m going to give you a little hint. Until you’ve spent some time really examining what goes on in classrooms around the country, I suggest you think before you spout ill informed, anachronistic, dribble about something you clearly know nothing about.  As a special treat why don’t you get yourself a copy of my book Playground Duty (New South Books) and discover what teaching “soft skills”, like Drama, really entails?

 

                                                                       Best Wishes for Christmas

                                                                        Ned Manning

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