Occupation: Coordinator, English in Action, Ministry of Education, City Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Location (barrio): Saavedra, CABA, Buenos Aires, Argentina
1. What is the aim of English in Action?
English in Action is a special programme, designed in 2009 in collaboration with the Department of Special Education and the Department of Foreign Languages at the Ministry of Education, City of Buenos Aires. It was launched in the year 2010.The project relates to the new Law of Inclusion which demands that a number of students from Special Education establishments be included in mainstream education and that all students be entitled to equal access to mainstream curriculum subjects.
It is a project to teach English through Educational Drama techniques to SEN students at the “primary level” in state special education. English in Action is designed by a coordinator and a group of 15 teachers contracted by the Department of Special Education, Ministry of Education, City of Buenos Aires to promote inclusion and equal opportunity for students presently attending special schools.
These students have not been exposed to any formal English classes in their state education system so far, but if and when they are included in mainstream, they will be in class with the same age level students who may have had between one and four years of English language classes already completed.
The aim is to prepare these students to feel comfortable in mainstream classes in English and to have the confidence to express themselves communicatively. The emphasis is on the listening and speaking skills and using educational drama techniques to develop confidence, self esteem and fluency. The definition of educational drama includes role play, improvisation, song, story, music, TPR, art and craft, puppets and language games. It is about developing language and the self through the use of creativity. And moving the students on the inside and the outside into imagined worlds.The teaching of the language includes social education, pragmatics and personal development through interaction and active language acquisition.
2. Who is the project aimed at? How many people does it affect?
English in Action is aimed at learners between 5 and 16 attending special schools (escuelas de recuperación), hospital schools, a school for wheel chair users, orphanages, transplant units and children receiving home tuition. These students may be suffering from phobias, emotional problems, physical disabilities, dyslexia, Asperger’s Syndrome, autism, Down Syndrome, general learning difficulties, long term illnesses such as cancer, HIV or they may be waiting for heart or liver transplants and cannot attend regular school for a period of time. By December 2014 we were working with more than 500 students in 24 establishments scattered all over the city.
3. How long has the project been operational and how did it come to be?
We have now completed five academic years, March to December, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014.
The project developed from a number of proposals I had made to the Foreign Languages Department on October 22nd 2009. I have been travelling to an average of 7 countries per year since 2005 when I first went freelance, often working with ministries on curriculum reform. I felt that I needed to offer something to the Ministry of my adopted country. I have been in Argentina for 25 years and my own children have married Argentines so we have decided to stay forever. I felt I was working more outside the country than inside the country.
4. What is your role in the project?
I am the coordinator in charge of designing the project, both methodology and contents, finding the teachers, training the teachers, observing classes, liaising with the Directors of the schools and reporting to the Director of the Special Education Department at the Ministry of Education. I also designed and directed the First Annual Festival of English in Action at the Berlusconi Institute last December, which has now become an annual event which the students look forward to from the first day of term each year.
We have a 4 hour workshop once a month on a Saturday morning, at Joaquin V. Gonzalez Training College, where the authorities kindly provide us with a classroom. In addition I run a PLC (Professional Learning Community) on a private NING platform where we are in constant contact, sharing problems, ideas, videos, materials, successes, links, activities and planning. I set up the NING in December 2009 for the 20 teachers in the team, who all have moderator power. To supplement the face to face meetings I teach sessions on-line on the WIZIQ platform where the team has uploading and speaking rights.
5. Can you outline how the sessions work? I.e. How many children, exercises used, methods towards teaching grammar/vocabulary, different dramatic techniques, etc
The class number and age depends on each school’s needs and in the case of the Garahan Hospital, my teacher may have one child one week and eight learners the next week; it all depends on the admissions to the hospital and the state of the learner’s medication and health. In some schools the class is totally mixed ability and with a wide age range and learning difficulties, so my teachers must be very flexible.
There is one important rule and that is NO DESKS. The class works in a circle and does not hide behind a desk so that we can really work through educational drama, a pedagogy which emphasises a holistic approach to both language learning and education.
Each teacher designed their own “ActionSack”. This consists of materials for action, starting with a story or a theme and developing the language of the stimulus through many educational tools, techniques and resources such as drama, role play, improvisation and mime, puppets, art and craft, singing, movement and games. Each unit should end with a short dramatic performance from the class.
We do not teach in traditional ways; we do not teach grammar rules; we do not yet teach reading and writing. We are working with language acquisition rather than language learning. The lessons are dynamic and very much an extension of childhood creative play.
We work on Bruner’s “routines and excitement” theory, incorporating the pioneering work of Dorothy Heathcote in Drama for Education, Robert Fisher’s research model on Teaching Thinking in Language Learning, Jim Cummin’s Four Quadrants of “embeddedness and demand” and Peter Jarvis’ model of Reflective Teaching and Learning.
6.Why do you feel that drama is an effective education tool, specifically for languages?
I could write a whole book on this question alone!
I am a trained teacher in Dramatic Arts with a specialism in the Sociology of Education from Warwick University in the UK and have had 40 years’ experience in 5 countries, teaching English through Drama. The literature detailing the benefits and effectiveness of the genre is developing worldwide and is increasingly being accepted at governmental levels e.g. Hong Kong, where it is part of the new Curriculum.
Suffice it to say that Drama is the SPICE of ELT (English Language Teaching)
S for social development
P for physical development
I for intellectual development (cognition)
C for creative development and
E for emotional development
The great advantage is that Drama acts as a rehearsal for real life situations which the language learner will face spontaneously later on. Apart from the wide ranging developmental processes embedded in the SPICE acronym, drama deals implicitly with pronunciation, intonation, register, contextual vocabulary, chunks of real language and all in character, either real or imagined. When students get “LOST” in the drama they find the classes memorable, learning how to work together, using just their own multi-sensory faculties and therefore learning to communicate in the foreign language in a dynamic and lively way.
7. In your opinion, why is English such an important language for Argentine children to learn?
Well, all the research I have read (and I can suggest an extensive bibliography if you want it!) points to the real worldwide fact that English is becoming an international language. It is the language of the media, the press, of international negotiation and of aeronautics.
Ministries, all over the world, are bringing down the starting age for English language learning to grade 1 or grade 3 and many universities not only have admission examinations in English for undergraduates studying other subjects but are actually teaching Masters level subjects (the sciences, business studies, economics etc) through English (EMI) and using English-only bibliographies.
If Argentina misses out on this bandwagon, the country will be left behind academically, technologically and economically.
In any case it has been suggested through research that learning a second language benefits the poor and the vulnerable and the disadvantaged due to the development of new cognitive paths to learning. It also steers them into the globalised world where they may be able to find doors opening to new job opportunities.
8. What other techniques/qualities are honed by the project?
This is a really interesting question and really needs a lot of time to be devoted to it.
As I explained in my answer to N°6, Drama is ideal for education and, I can add, that it should be used in mother tongue education in all the subjects across the curriculum. It constitutes the ideal strategy for teaching communication, expression, critical thinking, cultural and intercultural understanding and personal well being.
9. Does the project specifically focus on language or does it expose the children to cultural movements too – for example, is English taught by using appropriate material from famous playwrights, dramatists, writers?
Remember we are working with students with learning difficulties of all different kinds and who may be illiterate in their mother tongue or who may be immigrants who arrive with a different dialect of Spanish or a different first language altogether.
We do not use drama scripts at all but we do introduce authentic illustrated stories from young learners’ literature and popular songs and poetry to develop an enriched vocabulary through the drama activities derived from the materials. We also use internet sites for young learners if such resources are available in the schools. We try to appeal to all learning styles by addressing the visual, auditory, tactile and kinaesthetic needs of the students in our care.
10. How do the children respond to this method of teaching?
Of course, we have had lots of different responses: from adolescents complaining that they do not want to move or sing or use their bodies to others who have relished the removal of the desks and who have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into the constant dynamic in the classroom of interacting with each other and with the teacher. It was also the case that my teachers had to TRAIN the students to respond to this very different methodology and so responses changed over time as the students began to realise what fun it was to learn a language like this, how their relationships changed and how they could really learn to respond effectively in English.
We actually had more than 190 students performing on stage in English during our recent Annual Festival of English in Action last October. At first we were rather afraid, imagining that it would be very tricky to have hundreds of Special Education Needs students seated in the audience, waiting for their turn to line up in the wings to present their work. However, we were thrilled to find that we did not have one discipline problem either in the auditorium or in the wings. We even had a surprise visit from two students who were not permitted to attend (as they belonged to the morning shift and the festival was conducted in the afternoon) who had found their own way right across town on public transport to see the other schools presenting their work.
Many of the Directors of the schools and other authorities who attended were pleasantly surprised at the quality of the presentations, the students’ ability to concentrate and their enjoyment and pride in performing in English.
We really felt we had developed our aim of changing deep personal attitudes from “No, I can’t” to “Yes, I can!” In fact, our motto has now developed into “making Visible the Invisible and Giving Voice to the Voiceless”.
11. How does the Ministry of Education fund this project? Are there similar initiatives either in BA/Argentina or the rest of Latin America?
The whole team is on contract with the Ministry of Education according to the Resolution which was passed in July 2011 and which dictates the number of hours dedicated to each establishment.
There are other projects in Spanish at the Ministry and a further two in English: Teaching English to the Blind and Teaching English in Primary through Literature.
As for the rest of Latin America, I have not found any other similar initiatives. In fact, I am having trouble trying to find such a project, endorsed by a Ministry Department, anywhere in the world.
12. If you have any additional comments, questions or if there is a blog or website that deals with English in Action please write them here:
I would just like to thank you for giving me this opportunity to describe our project.
Also I want to thank the Department of Special education, and especially the Director in 2010, Vanesa Casal, for having such faith in the project from the outset. Also, all the Directors of the Schools who admitted us into their establishments and allowed us to work with their students. The students, themselves, who ended up trusting us even though we must have seemed like total “foreigners” at the beginning. And most of all, heartfelt thanks go to my team of teachers who dedicated themselves with joy and commitment to a pioneering project in the service of students with learning difficulties, proving that they CAN learn when the methodology is right and the SKILLED teacher believes in it!
Susan Hillyard, B.Ed.(Hons) Warwick University U.K. Susan has work experience in seventeen countries as a teacher, HOD, director, speaker, workshop facilitator, consultant, researcher, materials and article writer, on-line tutor. She was Prof. Language IV in Lenguas Vivas and UTN Teacher Training Colleges, Bs As., Argentina. She has co-authored a Resource Book for Teachers Global Issues for OUP and TDI-TKT On-line Course for Pearson, New York. Tutor on-line Masters in ELT for Language and Globalisation at La Sabana University, Colombia and EVO Drama for TESOL. Member of the C group. Coordinator: English in Action, teaching English through Drama in Special Education, Ministry of Education, City of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Article in HLT-The English Speaking body in the Empty Space: http://hltmag.co.uk/apr15/less02.htm
Revised June 2015