- A UTS casual academic is combining theatre and technology to deliver inclusive education to rural students
- Perry and her colleagues received a UTS Teaching and Learning Grant for the project 'New forms of children's theatre: Alternative spaces for engagement'
If, as William Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage”, Rachel Perry could well be the stage manager.
The casual education academic and Senior Research Officer with the Australian Centre for Child and Youth: Culture and Wellbeing (ACCY) is developing new ways to use drama and technology to enhance teaching and learning at UTS and in rural and remote communities.
Though her association with the university dates back to the late 1990s, when she began studying a Bachelor of Education in Primary Education (she’s since completed an honours and PhD), her connection to drama is longer.
“My family has a background in theatre, so I was exposed to it from a very young age. My godfather, the late William Orr, was the founder of the Phillip Street Theatre, the Doncaster Theatre Restaurant and the Manly Music Loft. I grew up running around the skirts of Ruth Cracknell and Stuart Wagstaff.”
Today, Perry splits her time lecturing in UTS’s educational drama subjects and undertaking research for the ACCY.
Late last year, the centre, in collaboration with the Monkey Baa Theatre for Young People, was successful in securing a $41 000 grant from the Tim Fairfax Family Foundation; $10 000 of which will go towards research.
The project has two aims. One is to investigate the issues surrounding the inclusion of classroom drama in schools in rural and remote Queensland and the Northern Territory. The other is to better understand the professional development needs of these teachers.
“We hope to actually use this project as a springboard for further funding,” says Perry. “To prove that what we’re doing is meaningful, worthwhile and needed, because one of the foundation’s primary aims is to support the development of teachers and educators in Queensland and the Northern Territory.”
According to Perry, technology is key. “We’re using video conference, Skype, and email because obviously we can’t be there with those teachers. So it’s very much about developing an understanding of what technology’s available and how we can best use it in this kind of pedagogical perspective.”
It’s a theme that resonates in her UTS teaching. Earlier this year Perry, with colleagues Matthew Kearney and Rosemary Johnston, received a UTS Teaching and Learning Grant for the project ‘New forms of children’s theatre: Alternative spaces for engagement’.
The idea originated late last year while she was developing her teaching program for this semester’s Children’s Theatre and Creative Arts subject.
“One of the focuses in that subject is looking at different forms of drama and how we might stage them. I was looking in the outline and, based on all the work I’ve been doing with ACCY, I thought, could there be another way to bring performance to kids; one that allowed live interaction, which is a key characteristic of and success factor for children’s theatre?”
Perry’s solution: connected classrooms. Featuring an interactive whiteboard, video conferencing facilities and data collaboration technology, these interactive, web-enabled spaces are currently being rolled out in all NSW public schools and two have recently been installed at UTS’s Kuring-gai campus.
“I see it as a collaborative space for educators and students to learn from each other. Now it’s not as good as face-to-face but, you know what, it’s getting pretty close; and if that’s all you can get, it’s better than a phone call.”
In her class, Perry’s using these spaces “to bring live theatre performances, which my students are creating and performing, to primary school students in other connected classrooms.”
Early in the semester, Perry split her 15 students into two groups. She has since been teaching the subject by modelling what the students will do in their own classes after they graduate.
The performances, which took place on 1 and 2 June, were broadcast to Balgowlah and Kurrajong East. One centred around an eight-year-old boy’s imaginings of the contents of a box (a family heirloom his father wouldn’t let him open). The other is about a girl and boy who help an old man with dementia find his memories.
“So they’ve had to explore the play-building process and work on characters. But they’ve also had to figure out how we block, how we stage, how we work with two different cameras and interact with an audience when they’re not actually performing live to that audience.”
Perry’s student Alice Dalgleish says she’s excited to be among the first to develop and perform a children’s play through the connected classroom.
“Rachel's teaching style is very hands-on. She gives us a little of the theory before we jump straight into 'learning by doing'. Her class is the highlight of my week.
“We’ve learnt so much this semester, but it doesn't feel like work. The play-building process involves so much cooperation and negotiation – skills which are very important for teachers and will be invaluable in the coming years.”
Perry believes an understanding of drama and the effective use of the latest technologies are fundamental for new teachers. However, she is keen to prepare them for the realities of the job too.
“I’m telling them to start with small steps. Start making change and show success at the level you can, which is in your classroom, and slowly build from there because not every school you walk into is as forward-thinking as you want it to be.
“There’s a lot of research that’s been done on beginning teachers who are very disenchanted because they’re given all this inspiration as they come through their degrees and they get out there and there’s no support. They think, ‘I don’t want to teach this way,’ and they go and change careers and you lose the motivated, inspirational teachers. You only get those few gems remaining who say, ‘I’m going to fight the system’.”
Though Perry is adamant children need to learn basic numeracy and literacy, she questions, “Why can’t the rest of their learning be integrated?
“Drama can be used as an art form where we learn specifically about drama and develop skills in forms such as mime and improvisation as well as building roles and characters. But as a learning medium, it engages you holistically.
“It’s also integrating, so for teachers who are really pushed for time, who don’t want to teach English, then maths, then science, it provides them with an opportunity to bring all those together.”
She adds, “Kids these days have lived their whole lives with technology. We need to change the way we teach to keep in line with the way the kids expect to learn.
“They need that immediacy, that constant change. Technology gives them that.
“We’re opening up the world and that’s what kids expect. So we need, as teachers, to train our student teachers to go into the classrooms prepared to do that.”