Imaginary What?!

Imaginary Communities? Funny name, what’s that about? Well, it’s actually about something that’s very real, a new set of drama techniques that are having a huge impact in schools in Yorkshire and beyond, enabling students and teachers to be more creative, engaged and empowered in their lessons.

Developed by Chol’s Creative Projects Director Vicky Sawka, ‘Imaginary Communities’ is a set of tools that are easy to learn and apply, and can be used to help teach pretty much anything. To train me up in these new techniques, Chol has sent me to visit some of the schools they are partnered with. I have observed classes in schools in Rotherham, Leeds and Hull, where ‘Imaginary Communities’ has been used to teach about the Romans, about the Tudors, and about the novel Holes by Louis Sachar.

The core principle is that students work with their teacher and drama practitioner once a week to build a community on whatever topic they are studying – for the Romans, it can be a Roman town, for the Tudors, it can be Queen Elizabeth I’s court, and so forth. The class decide what goes in the community and where it goes – they map out their world on the floor using materials, drawings and props. There are many beautiful moments as students collectively create this map – especially when a less confident pupil stands up, carefully places her or his material on the floor, and tells the class that this is, for example, a ‘dark, eery cellar’, or a ‘massive, roaring coliseum’.

The next step is to create characters. Everybody in the room, including the teacher and drama practitioner, creates their own character that lives in the community. Through asking the children’s questions and guiding them through role play, we discover the connections between all these characters, and this is where the fun starts! The story grows and can take students anywhere – it is led by the students in collaboration with teachers, who can easily feed in ways to achieve learning objectives whilst at the same time giving pupils a large degree of input into lessons. The process is most effective when teachers find ways to extend the community into their other lessons. We would often come into schools to find that during the week we had been gone “Queen Elizabeth” had left a letter in somebody’s drawer with royal instructions, or that students had practised their persuasive writing to create a leaflet promoting their new Roman fortress to senators in Rome.

The effect on children’s motivation and enthusiasm is often astounding. Unlike some other approaches in drama education, Imaginary Communities does not rely on the pupils buying into the exercise – they have created this world themselves, so they are already on board. One of the most heart-warming moments throughout my training with Chol was in a Year 3 class in Rotherham. The drama practitioner, Carly, had asked students to write a letter to one of the other characters in the community. Three or four children in the class chose to stay behind into their playtime to finish writing their letters. Carly and I were looking forward to getting a cup of tea, but we couldn’t convince the children to go outside until they’d finished their letters! Because of the attachment that develops between the pupils and their characters, the practitioner must think carefully as to how they choose to ‘end’ a community – it is important to give students time to say goodbye to their character at the close of a project.

What I have seen through my training with Chol has been inspiring, moving and at times exhausting — the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Arts Council England have funded the Imaginary Communities work to support students at risk of exclusion, so classes Chol works with can sometimes be challenging. The beauty of ‘Imaginary Communities’ though is its flexibility and the ownership it gives to pupils. It’s a ready-made tool kit to use drama in your classroom, but it can take you anywhere. Many teachers go on to create new Communities long after the sessions have finished. I look forward to making use of the techniques in my own sessions, both inside and outside of Chol. A thank you to all at Chol for this training, and a thank you to the teachers that have welcomed me into their classes, and helped build these Imaginary Communities with us.

Written by Joe Gilmour-Rees, drama practitioner with Chol, recently trained in ‘Imaginary Communities’.

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