Learning from Othello – Shakespeare’s tragedy provided professional tools for future teachers.

The instructors of the drama pedagogy course Maaret Malhonen, Pirjo Vaittinen and Esko Nikander take off their masks. It is time to ask what is really going on in the pupils’ heads instead of just demanding that they absorb more information.

The instructors of the drama pedagogy course Maaret Malhonen, Pirjo Vaittinen and Esko Nikander take off their masks. It is time to ask what is really going on in the pupils’ heads instead of just demanding that they absorb more information.

Mediterranean scenes from the 16th century became familiar to future teachers in drama rehearsals at the University of Tampere. The rehearsals were a part of teacher training and they were based on Othello, the play by William Shakespeare, and Otellopeli, a performance by the professional Ahaa theatre.

Othello, written by Shakespeare in 1603 (Othello: The Moor of Venice), is a tragic tale of jealousy, which takes place in Cyprus after Venetian troops have conquered the island.

Otellopeli by the Ahaa touring theatre is based on Othello and written and directed by Marika Vapaavuori. It tells the story of a group of young top-level athletes who practice eastern martial arts. But instead of in the past, the events take place in an imagined country in the future.

Thinking about the teacher’s role

The drama rehearsals and the Ahaa theatre performance offered the students a wide spectrum of interpretations whereby they were able to reflect and work on their own roles as teachers.

Teacher training students from a wide range of subjects participated in the rehearsals, including history and civics, plus the English and French languages.

“The drama rehearsals addressed the different elements of the play before the students went on to see the performance, which they found really impressive,” says University Lecturer Pirjo Vaittinen, who teaches didactic methods in the subject of the Finnish language.

According to Vaittinen, drama entails a “drama contract” that helps the participants to know that they are operating in a fictional world and in the characters’ fictional life.

“Venetians understand straight away that the masks come off when the carnival is over, and after that nobody is called what they were called when in their roles. This enables the freedom and a more permissible atmosphere.”

Drama as part of historical awareness

“Drama and teaching through drama are an essential part of historical awareness,” says university lecturer Esko Nikander, who teaches didactics in the subjects of history and civics.

Through the ages, drama has been used to teach history, although perspectives have changed from the antiquity to the present. From the point of view of civics, drama offers a means to overcome boundaries and to combine the perspectives of different school subjects.

“This is pedagogy that links the various subjects. Drama takes into account values, attitudes and principles, and the interests and intrigues of individuals and groups. It creates tension. This is what actually happens in societies regardless of time or age.”

Nikander thinks that drama is particularly well-suited for the investigation of teacher identity in this particular group of school subjects. A further aim is to give the students tools that encourage experiments.

The non-verbal signals of bullying

In one drama exercise, the students went to an imagined Venetian square and communicated with each other non-verbally. They had roles from all walks of life, from generals to servants and fools.

The only indication of the character’s social standing was given on a piece of paper pinned to the student’s back. The students were able to deduct their own position from the non-verbal signals the others were giving. After the exercise, the students realised that they were able to interpret their own social standing quite accurately on the basis of the other people’s behaviour. People bowed to the general but a servant was passed indifferently.

“The source of present-day bullying is just this. We also have non-verbal ways of communicating in our society. Bullying is not just related to how the pupils behave in school or the classroom but to how people behave in the society in general,” Nikander says.

Drama liberates language learning

“Drama pedagogy is well suited for language teaching,” says university lecturer Maaret Malhonen, who is in charge of language teaching.

“Some students may have negative experiences of language learning, but drama exercises make them feel liberated.”

Learning grammar by rote and being afraid of making mistakes are typical of the learning experiences of many generations.

“We Finns have a problem in that we require that everything is always said in the correct way. Maybe the younger generations are no longer like this, but some of us teachers still had this experience. Drama can provide a new way of learning,” Malhonen says.

Not just knowledge but experience too

Drama pedagogy offers a comprehensive tool for teaching, but according to Esko Nikander there is nothing new in the method as such.

“The question is of making the teachers realise the significance of this working method or thinking for in-depth learning. This is not about performing a great play because there is a lot of variation in drama.”

Cooperation and social interaction are important, not doing a full theatre production.

“The old school system did not take account of people’s experiences, just knowledge. Drama and the related reflection offer pupils a way of experiencing their own feelings and thoughts. This was not something that was demanded of us who went to school at an earlier time. We were just asked in which year the Peace of Westphalia took place.”

Upper secondary school and UTA produced a series of exercises

The School of Education has cooperated in drama pedagogy with pupils in the study programme for music theatre at the Hatanpää upper secondary school. This cooperation has resulted in a series of exercises that can be used at school. An English language version for use in English classes is also in the making.

“The high school pupils from Hatanpää are charming to work with. Students in subject teacher training work together with the high school pupils in doing these exercises. The work has resulted in poems that are like Shakespeare’s Willow song, which portends the tragic ending of Othello. The students wrote poems together and the results are wonderful,” enthuses Pirjo Vaittinen.

Ahaa is a touring theatre troop that often performs at schools. Now it can also offer exercise packages to schools.

“Ahaa theatre gave us this performance and we got the opportunity to admire their actors for a short while after the performance. Then we gave them these exercises,” says Vaittinen.

Cooperation with the Hatanpää upper secondary school is a new opening because the subject teacher training has traditionally cooperated with the Normal School at the University of Tampere.

The instructors of the drama pedagogy course Maaret Malhonen, Pirjo Vaittinen and Esko Nikander take off their masks. It is time to ask what is really going on in the pupils’ heads instead of just demanding that they absorb more information.

Text Heikki Laurinolli
Photograph Jonne Renvall
Translation Laura Tohka