Joe is a boy who entered my sixth-grade class with a rap sheet as long as Randy Johnson's All-Star pitching arm. "He won't read." "Troublemaker." "He's ADHD; probably LD." Though Joe resisted and even refused to do much of the work in my class, he did enthusiastically read several texts: Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry (Taylor), The Incredible Journey (Burnford), almanacs, and collections of weird and wonderful facts like Dragon Bones and Dinosaur Eggs (Bausum and Andrews). It left me thinking: what textual features were the ones that engaged Joe and my other reluctant readers? Since there were some things they would read with enjoyment, was there a magic key I could use to pick open the lock of resistance and turn them all on to reading?

Michael Smith and I recently found that though there are features of texts that tend to engage boys, I have probably spent many years asking the wrong question (see our new book Reading Don't Fix No Chevys, Heinemann, 2002). The reason certain text types (like nonfiction) and features of texts (visuals) tend to engage boys has much less to do with the text itself, and much more to do with the connection these features encourage readers to make to the world. Certain text features are more applicable and easily connected to the lives of students, and that's the reason boys tend to enjoy texts with these features. The ability to see oneself and one's concerns in a text, and to take the substance of one's reading to the world were significant contributors to engagement and to achieving "flow" (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) — a total immersion in the immediate experience of reading. Indeed, this kind of immersion is the most basic fact of engaged reading.

Teaching for Total Immersion

Since the conditions of a flow experience assist readers, we need to consider teaching tools that encourage this. Drama in education offers a variety of just such inquiry-driven, action-oriented instructional strategies. Despite the research supporting the use of these strategies, they are rarely used by American teachers. Here are ways in which we used drama strategies to support student inquiry projects in ways that engaged especially boys — but girls too — with reading and writing.

Recently, after reading a number of books about survival, a group of my sixth graders asked the open-ended question: Who will survive? This is a rich inquiry question that allows students to find out (which develops and expresses competence) instead of being told (which is the opposite of finding out). To help get at the central concepts about survival in the books kids were reading on the topic, many drama strategies were used.

Stranger in Role

First, to help students summarize the key details of their reading, I played the "stranger in role." In this technique, the teacher creates a situation in which the class has 1) need of an expert's knowledge (the stranger in this case would be an expert, for example, on survival), 2) a need to have their ideas challenged by another perspective (the stranger in this case would represent new viewpoints, e.g. that allowing the weak to die strengthens the species), or 3) the stranger needs information or some kind of service from the students.

I used the third purpose in my role of a scientist from another galaxy studying survival on earth. I needed to know enough to predict whether life will survive on this planet, and if so, who will survive and how it will be achieved. I approached students and asked them to summarize what they had learned about survival. I prompted them to think like scientists, to explain phenomena, and to get at general principles. This role allowed me to guide students' thinking and to find out what they knew and how they were doing.

In the Hotseat

In this technique students take on a role representing a character, expert, or perspective on the issue being studied. They brainstorm what they know about what this character would know and feet. Then a student is put on the hotseat (though he or she may be able to get help from a group of other students playing the lifeline or brain), and is interviewed, interrogated, or worked with by other students in a role that is seeking to learn from or help the hotseated character. For instance, when reading Cod by Mark Kurlansky, students were asked to play a role (e.g. author, character, expert, environmentalist, fisherman, lobster) and then interact in some fashion. In hotseat, students need to know who they are, and then confer with other students to consolidate their knowledge and perspectives on the issue at hand (e.g. How would an environmentalist feel about the diminishing stocks of fish in the Atlantic Ocean? How would an environmentalist interpret the data and stories in Cod?). The rest of the class also needs a role (e.g. that of the press, of a presidential commission, of anyone who has a need to know or express information).

A variation I like is to have students come up to whisper advice to the hotseat (e.g. in the role as a threatened species about what to they could do to survive).

Creating Tableaux

By the end of our survival unit, students created tableaux. The word "tableau" derives from the French word for visual presentation, and in enactment this can be done in a variety of ways with the body or a combination of bodies. Tableau (singular) generally means a frozen scene or pose that captures a physical, psychological, or emotional relationship. The technique can be adapted to include some movement, speaking, and other features, or several tableau can be strung together to form "tableaux" (plural) to give several key events or points from a text.

To create tableaux, students must review the important ideas, events, and/or details that an audience will need to know regarding each concept or scene. They then have to work as a group to consider how to present these scenes visually in a way that will communicate the important details to the audience. When done, students should be sure that the audience will have been helped to "see" and understand the whole story, or the importance of the concepts explored.

I had my students create physical statues that visually or symbolically expressed the main ideas and themes of their reading to other groups. The statues could be unfrozen and asked to speak.

Students concluded the unit by creating a representation of what they had learned about survival that included a social action plan for ensuring some form of survival. The tableaux and other drama techniques used throughout the unit were often included in the students' culminating project of a video documentary, a museum exhibit, a website, or another student-designed artifact (see Wilhelm and Friedemann, 1998).

Drama and Inquiry

Throughout the unit, drama was used to assist students with their inquiry by helping them engage and read-to ascertain and express differing perspectives, to identify and represent main ideas, and to use these ideas in representations and social action plans that could be shared.

In this way, reading, drama, and inquiry were married in a context that provided for the conditions of flow experience. The content areas of math, science, social studies, and language arts were meaningfully integrated as students kept track of data, crunched numbers, and attempted to understand and act on their understandings of complex phenomena. During the eight-week unit, the majority of our most reluctant students read and wrote more than during the previous 26 weeks of the school year. When asked why, Joe had this to say: "Unlike most of school, I was interested in this, you know. And unlike most of school, I had my own reasons and purpose for doing this. So that was fun. And what I read, I could use. Use to think about our question with. And use to make and do things that other people were going to see and use."

Works Cited

  • Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Basic Books, 1990)
  • Reading Don't Fix No Chevys: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men by Michael Smith and Jeff Wilhelm (Heinemann, 2002)
  • Hyperlearning: Where Technology Projects and Inquiry Meet by Jeff Wilhelm and Paul Friedemann (Stenhouse, 1998)


Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, Ph.D., will soon teach literacy education at Boise State University. He has written many books on teaching reading, including Improving Comprehension With Think-Aloud Strategies: Modeling What Good Readers Do (Scholastic, 2001).