A boy sits nervously listening to the first question, he leans forward and replies, “Ignacio.”
“How old are you Ignacio?” the examiner asks.
“And can you tell me about the penguin?”
“Yes.” He shuffles in his wheelchair to get comfortable. “The penguin knocks at the door. I open the door and I can see the penguin. The penguin is lost.”
“A penguin in downtown Buenos Aires?”
“Yes!” His eyes open wider in mock surprise. His eagerness of expression is only accentuated by his bald head and puffed out face – both effects of recent chemotherapy.
As the Drama in English exam continues, Ignacio gains more confidence. Despite suffering from a rare form of cancer, he is acting and chatting away like any other child.
Ignacio is also the recipient of rare form of education, without which, he would never had the opportunity to sit in the Ministry of Education, taking an exam on the English Language. You see, before the English in Action program began in 2010, learning English was not available for children like Ignacio in Argentina.
“Special needs and education students have never been taught English because they couldn’t think of a way of doing it that would suit these kids,” explains Susan Hillyard, the co-ordinator of English in Action. “We teach English through drama to these students… using techniques that are completely unique in Argentina.”
By taking away the desks and using pupil interaction, Susan’s network of 20 teachers has successfully tapped into an innovative way to engage and get children learning – through drama.
“The problem with schools is they don’t understand how the child’s brain works, and they have this methodology they’ve been using forever. They kick out the creativity and the individualism, and try and get them to be the same so they can teach the same level. When you do that it stops children developing.”
So how is Susan’s methodology effective? “What do children do? They imagine!” Susan exclaims, as though she’d hit upon the most common-sense answer. Drawing on a natural behaviour, drama acts as the catalyst for children to understand English.
English in Action came about after the Argentine government created the Law of Inclusion, calling for equality of opportunity and inclusion for all children despite their ability. The Department of Special Education and the Department of Foreign Languages at the Buenos Aires Ministry of Education recognised the potential in one of Susan’s similar, previous projects to fulfil this pledge. Together they created English in Action, opening a new world of learning to disadvantaged students.
Two years on, the group now teaches at least once a week to around 400 students in 20 institutions – including children suffering from phobias, emotional problems, physical disabilities, general learning difficulties, long term illnesses such as cancer, HIV, or those waiting for organ transplants who cannot attend regular school for a period of time.
To teach these children, the teachers use concentration exercises, role-play, songs, and acting out authentic stories. Each teacher creates their own ‘action sack’ made entirely by themselves full of props to engage the children with. One sack contains puppets for example, where each child has to act out the role of the puppet. Another has hats and wigs.
“We use ‘masks’, and paradoxically, in hiding behind the mask, you really find yourself. It’s cathartic,” Susan explains. “You’re actually playing out your own emotions.” She recounts the story of one boy who, before beginning the lessons was a self-imposed mute, and now talks away in English, even building a relationship with his teacher.
And this technique has proven to work academically too. Besides from Ignacio, the Trinity College London recently granted scholarships for five more pupils to enter the English in Drama exam at the Argentine Ministry of Education. All passed, and Ignacio and Millie – who is school phobic and suffers intense anxiety whenever separated from a parent – gained merits.
Although she is evidently glowing from these achievements, Susan is keen to emphasise the English in Action program is more than just exams or even teaching a subject. “The teaching of a language promotes social and personal development through interaction and active language acquisition. But through drama, the pupils get an idea of human behaviours and the world we live in.
“Our motto is, ‘From I can’t, to I can’. All these kids in special education have very low self esteem, and lack confidence because they have always been told, ‘you cant do it, you’re lousy at this, you can’t learn.’ This is the message they are getting. Maybe subliminally, but that’s the message.”
Susan clearly has an immense amount of drive and is passionate about English in Action and the effects it has on the children. “I think we need to get into many more special schools, and I would like to see the program reach primary schools and take off in the mainstream. It needs to happen because many students are failing to learn English – basically because the methodology doesn’t work.”