Actors keep us engaged as an audience from a stage through sustained periods of time without us really interacting. Certain things actors do to achieve this can be translated to educational settings. We talked about these with Susan Hillyard. She is an experienced teacher, teacher trainer, with a broad background in theatre, who has developed her own pedagogy, SPICE, which puts together Second Language Acquisition and educational drama.

If we conceive our remote classroom as a stage, we can learn from certain things actors do to keep our educational audience hooked. Educational drama is a facilitation medium that can help us make our classrooms more engaging for our learners, which will in turn result in enhanced motivation, more learning, and therefore will positively affect their self-esteem. 

Teachers are akin actors when teaching remotely in the sense that they appear through the screen, making it more challenging to engage learners than in face-to-face contexts. The sense of presence is closely related to skills actors have learned over many years through practising: use of voice, use of body and blocking. Blocking means how you use the space that you are in to put across meaning. Teachers need to put across the meaning of what they are teaching and those who can do that can ‘jump out’ of the screen and bring students in. Some of the ways you can do this:

  • Reach before you teach. Reach out to your students and bring them in with you so ‘they are present with you’. Presence relates to being in the present. This means not having any distractions: ask learners to switch off their phones, turn them face down, and get them to be in a room on their own, if possible. You want to be alluring to them, as much as their phones are, and engage their whole selves.  
  • Include breathing exercises. ESL classrooms are intimidating as they usually involve public speaking, which many people dislike. It can be embarrassing, it puts learners on the spot, they can be afraid of making mistakes and saying things people think are silly, or are very different from what other people think. We have to make sure we calm them down. Including breathing exercises and mindfulness techniques in lessons are ways to achieve this. Many mindfulness strategies can be found online (e.g. this site focuses on using mindfulness techniques in ELT settings). 
  • Encourage students to interact. Explain to the students that for the lesson to be successful, they have to interact. You can’t learn a language just by listening to the teacher. The teacher has to be a facilitator of learning. Students have got to engage and they have got to interact. Let students know we want to establish telepresence and that it involves their active participation. You need them to participate and you need them to want to participate so they will progress. If they don’t see they are progressing through interacting, they won’t do it. 
  • Explain the importance of turning their cameras on. Showing what it feels like not to see each other by switching your own camera off can help learners understand the importance of having their cameras on. Teachers need to be able to read students' faces to get clues about how they are thinking and feeling, to read their body language to get information to take action e.g. if you notice your students are bored, intervene through a change of activity, change of pitch or other strategy to wake them up. Students should be advised that your teaching will be less effective if you cannot see them and use those clues to make decisions. 
  • Ask students to trust you as a leader who is an expert. Learners need to be aware that teaching decisions are informed by extensive training and experience and trust that this is the case when the teacher makes requests. 
  • Co-design a class contract. Agree on classroom rules with the students, collectively design a contract that lists what is expected from each other, which everybody can sign and put on a padlet or a similar tool. Include the elements discussed above such as use of cameras within it.
  • Do lots of things with microphones open. Even if it means a noisy environment. It will create an atmosphere of participation. 
  • Make a conscious use of your voice. Use of voice is extremely complex. You should make conscious decisions about the way to use your voice which can help to keep learners’ attention. There are three ways to change your voice: volume (shout, whisper), pitch (high, low) and pace (fast, slow). Remember to make pauses, and use a speed that allows for people to process what you are saying, silences are important to give thinking time to the audience. Be aware of what you sound like when you are teaching remotely. Some teachers may have a pitch that is too high. They should learn to take it down in those cases. You have to control it, and you have to know when to whisper, when to shout. 
  • Use your body language. Actors change their bodies, voice, gestures and facial expressions to fit with the characters they are portraying. It is important to become aware of the message you’re putting over with your body language. Body and voice should echo the meaning of what you are saying. Ask yourself: how do I make you feel I’m bringing you in with my body language? Body language is even more important than actual words. Smiling also helps make students feel welcome and accompany your meaning when you are inviting them to engage with the lesson.
  • Make sure students use their body in the lesson. Educational drama techniques actively involve learners’ whole bodies into the learning process. 
  • Propose high quality interactive tasks. This is another essential ingredient of an engaging class. Proposed activities have got to be tasks, they have got to have an objective and they have got to be enjoyable and worthwhile.

All the elements mentioned above are learned through practice, by doing, and trying them out, reflecting about lessons, keeping a journal and working with an action plan towards improving. For Susan, the main components of this subject have to do with quality: quality of your thinking, of your motivation to improve, of your voice, of your body language and of your proposed interactive tasks. To further understand these ideas, watch this video in which Susan walks us through them.

To learn more about how to integrate these ideas into your teaching, check out the second part of our conversation with Susan Hillyard here

Keep exploring the subject!