I’m ashamed to admit this, but incorporating dramatic literature into my 6th grade ELA class was about as low on my priority list as organizing my Google Drive. When my co-teacher told me our last and final unit would be on dramas and plays, a small piece of my soul died. It wasn’t because I had anything against dramas or plays. I quite enjoy them, actually. But it had everything to do with me not knowing a single thing about teaching the elements of drama. Are you sensing a theme yet?
Despite my sour feelings about it, I did it anyway. And here’s what I found:
My students lit up when reading The Phantom Tollbooth! We had more giggles in that one week than we’d had in a whole month, and I loved every minute of it.
You know what else? Teaching the elements of drama wasn’t half bad either. My students latched on so effortlessly that I wondered why I hadn’t taught the unit sooner.
If you don’t currently have a space in your scope-and-sequence for dramas, I’m going to make a case for why you should and show you some engaging resources that will help you do the unit justice. Sound good?
The Elements of Drama At-A-Glance
When it comes to looking at drama as a form of literature, students must understand a few key elements. First and foremost, dramas tell a story. They contain all the same elements of fiction (characters, setting, conflict, plot, theme) plus the following new elements:
- A Playwright
- A Script
- Stage Directions
- Set Design
- Costumes & Makeup
- Acts & Scenes
A theatre teacher would add plenty more to that list, but for middle school language arts, I wouldn’t go much further than this.
Why Drama Matters in a Language Arts Classroom
Most teachers love incorporating multimedia productions in the classroom because they are a great way to hook students, enrich the content, and deepen understanding. When students have the opportunity to read a story before hearing or seeing it performed, they can compare their mental imagery (formed primarily by the author’s word choice) with the playwright or media’s depiction.
I love when my students get upset at how the media portrays a character or event that doesn’t match the book. It tells me that the author did an incredible job using imagery and that my students were paying close attention to the author’s word choice and detail.
How does this relate to dramas?
The elements of sound, scenery, lighting, & costumes can drastically impact a reader’s experience with a story.
For example, Lucille Fletcher’s short drama “Sorry, Wrong Number” is a middle school favorite. Students love reading the chilling tale of Mrs. Stevenson overhearing the plotting of her murder over the telephone one evening. It’s a suspenseful story, to begin with, but when you take that experience and add sound effects (like those used in the radio play), the tension escalates to another level!
Next time you pair a story or novel with a movie, consider asking your students questions about the elements of drama in place of comprehension questions.
Ask your students questions like:
- Did the characters in the play/movie match what you had envisioned from the text? Why or why not?
- How did the set/scenery add to or take away from the story?
- Without the set/scenery, were you able to picture the scenes?
- Without [prop], were you able to picture the scene here?
- What did you learn about [character] based on his/her dialogue/tone/dialect?
- What sound effects were used? What was the impact of these sound effects?
These questions encourage students to think about live performances from a different angle – one that compliments or enhances literature rather than replaces it.
While you’re here, grab my Free Elements of Literature Guide, where I break down the elements of each form of literature and pair them with question stems like the ones above. You’ll get all of my drama questions in addition to those for fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and arguments!
A Simple & Easy Way to Teach the Elements of Drama
If you’re ready to give drama a small corner of your curricular map, I’ve got some simple and easy ways to help you get started. I’ll show you just how I lay this unit out in my classroom, and I’ll point you in the direction of resources that are perfect for middle school!
Introducing the Unit
Consistency is key, and I prefer to introduce drama in the same way I teach all other genres of literature in my classroom: with a day spent doodling a one-pager. I know that sounds like fluff, but it’s actually very purposeful notetaking.
Before class starts, I supply each table with a bucket of markers, crayons, and colored pencils, and I make copies of our “Elements of Drama” sketch notes. I make myself five copies (one for each class) to complete one with each group of kids.
Next, I look up a small clip of a play that I can show kids – before introducing the unit – as a way of hooking them in. There are a few great scenes from Shrek the Musical and The Play That Goes Wrong (though I would not show them the whole play) that work really well. After watching, we discuss what students noticed about the performance. Then, I introduce drama as a form of literature.
A drama is a story that is written to be performed. It contains literary elements and technical elements.
I pass out our drama one-pagers, and one by one, we peel back the layers of drama.
When I introduce the elements of drama, fiction, poetry, or any other unit, I teach one element at a time. We talk about it, make connections, discuss examples, etc. Then we record critical information on our notetakers. I give students a set amount of time (3-5 minutes) to sketch/doodle their notes, and I model the process under my doc camera.
Depending on class discussions, it takes 1-2 class periods to introduce the elements and complete our notetakers. I’m never sad if it takes two class periods because it means my students had a lot to say about it. That’s a good thing!
Jumping into a Script
When teaching drama in an ELA class, you don’t really need to spend a lot of time with each element in isolation (unless you have plenty of time to fill). After I introduced the elements, we jumped right into a drama. As I mentioned earlier, The Phantom Tollbooth is a 6th-grade favorite. It’s lighthearted, funny, ridiculous, and everything else. And sometimes, that’s just what the doctor orders.
Other times, your kids are begging for more scary stories. In that case, I have plenty of recommendations.
“Sorry, Wrong Number” and “The Hitchhiker” are two short dramas Lucille Fletcher wrote in the 1940s. They both have a radio play version, so they naturally make great options for an intro drama unit because you can experience the stories both ways – first by reading it, then by listening to a performance.
When teaching these short dramas, I start with reading the script. We discuss the importance of the stage directions for understanding what’s going on in the background, what the characters are doing, sound effects, etc. We also discuss the dialogue and what can be inferred about the characters. Then, we break down the elements of the story (characters, setting, conflict, plot, & theme) and start dipping our toes into the other dramatic elements. I invite students to:
- Create a set for the story,
- Identify props that would be important,
- Consider what costumes and makeup might look like.
The part students (and I) love comes next. We experience the story through a radio play! Sound effects are incredibly effective at establishing mood, and in this case, they are effective at elevating fear and anxiety. Students are quick to pick up on this and can now pinpoint why they prefer listening to the play as opposed to reading the script.
Watching a Live (or Recorded) Performance
Many short dramas have been performed before a live audience at some point, so it’s always a good idea to do a quick search on YouTube. If you can find a recorded performance for students to watch, they will be able to analyze the set, costumes, props, lighting, etc.
If you’re fortunate to work in a district that supports field trips and you have the funds to do so, this is a great way to experience a live performance as a grade level! We’ve been able to pull this off by attending performances put on by the high school, and we’ve also been able to secure grants to take our students to professional performances at performance halls.
The last and most crucial element of a live performance is audience etiquette. If you can take your students to a performance, I strongly recommend taking time to cover audience etiquette. The performance hall and the cast will appreciate it!
Drama Analysis Brochures
Whether you’re reading The Phantom Tollbooth, Sorry, Wrong Number, The Hitchhiker, or some other play with your students, I’ve created drama analysis brochures that make it easy to analyze the different elements. There are three different versions, one for reading a script, one for listening to a teleplay, and one for watching a drama. Since these brochures are non-specific and open-ended, they can be used at any time and for any drama! Use them for a sub day, use them for wrapping up a field trip like the one mentioned above, or use them to feel less guilty about showing a film in class. No judgment here!
Teaching drama can intimidate ELA teachers who have never taught it before. However, I think you’ll find that you’ll be just fine if you approach it just like you would any other genre of literature. You’ll find ways to appreciate and enjoy it, and so will your students.
I hope this article has given you confidence in incorporating dramas in your ELA curriculum, along with a few ideas to make your planning a bit easier.