Drama from Picture Books

I often use children's picture books as lesson starters in my classroom.  Below are some suggestions, based on the kind of approaches I have taken, for how you can turn a picture book into a Creative Drama lesson.


Simple Story Dramatization

Works best with Kindergarten or elementary.

This is the most simple and straightforward approach, but it often does not yield a simple result.  After reading a story to the class, you can have them act out the story.  This requires both careful planning and flexibility.  With older kids, I use the blackboard but with very young children this is counterproductive.  Still, you have to plan who will play each character, and which parts of the story to act out.  Usually I will not go back and fix things, but simply forge ahead until the end is reached.  As I said, while this is the easiest approach to think up, it is not so easy to do.  Usually I prefer to take a more carefully structured approach, like one of the ones below.


Problem-Solving Exercise

Works best with elementary.

Before reading the story, I tell my students that we will be acting out some of the scenes from the story afterwards.  In order to do this safely, following the classroom rules, we may have to be pretty creative.  I tell my students to be thinking, while listening to the story, about what some of the problems might be when we try to act out the story.  I choose for this exercise a story with a lot of physicality, and some knotty problems.  The Story of Ferdinand is great because it has a lot of "violence"--bulls butting their heads together, etc.  Once the story is finished, we discuss the problems we will have to solve before acting out the most exciting scenes.  Usually I have every child act out the scenes in unison rather than trying to "cast" the story.  (In the case of Ferdinand, we might decide to act out the head-butting in "super slow-motion," which children love, or to use our own two hands to represent two bulls crashing into each other.  Whatever the problems--and they need not be safety-related--the class brainstorms solutions, and then tries them out.



Works best with Kindergarten and lower elementary.

I read the story, showing the pictures, fairly quickly, stopping at every picture if the book is short or at the most exciting ones if it is longer.  When we stop at a picture, I ask my students to imagine what are all the sounds we might hear in the depicted scene.  I try to coach them to really get in-depth.  In a picture of a cow in a farmyard there are lots of things besides "moos."  Chickens, a rusty weather-vane, boots in mud, the farm dog, the cow's bell, a creaking gate, birds overhead, all make a complete soundtrack.  We practice making the sounds while watching me "conduct"--indicating louder or softer, and eventually cutting the sound off like an orchestra conductor.  We do this with each picture.  Then we return to the beginning of the book and I read it again, but this time the sounds happen automatically when each picture is revealed.  (I still ordinarily do the "cut-off" with younger students, but older ones cut off on their own when the page is turned.)  This results in a smooth telling of the story with a running soundtrack.


Narrative Pantomime

Works best with elementary.

This is a simple activity that can be done with any story, whether from a book or not, but I put it here because a book is a good source for a story.  At its simplest, it works like this:  Each person finds his own personal space in the room.  There will be no interaction between the children--each is in his own story.  As the teacher reads or tells a simple story, each person, on his own, "acts it out."  Ordinarily there would be no sound, since that would make it hard to hear the story, and there are no props of costumes.  Each student simply goes through the physical movements of the protagonist of the story, and concentrates on the five senses--on really "experiencing" the character's adventures.


Instant Illustrations

Works best with lower elementary.

Read a book to the class but don't show them the pictures.  Explain to them that while the illustrator has one idea about how the scenes in the story might look, there are many possible ideas.  Periodically--once per page if the book is short, less frequently for a longer book--stop and have the students create the illustration, using their bodies in frozen tableau. This can be more or less involved, depending on the age of the children.  With young ones I just have each student make his own illustration, but sometimes with older children I expect them to work together to create one definitive picture.  (Sometimes it works better to read the whole story through first, then go back and make the illustrations--it just depends on the complexity of the story.)  I like this activity because it will work with literally any book, and needs no preparation or planning, so it is a good fallback if whatever I have planned is impossible for any reason--if I've planned a lesson with music and left the tape home, for example.  I can just grab up any book off the shelf and go.


What's Up, Tiger Lily?

Works best with upper elementary or older.

Woody Allen once made a movie by taking an old Japanese spy movie and dubbing it into English--but with an entirely different plot.  This film is the inspiration for this activity.  It can work with a familiar book or with one the students have never seen, although there are necessary differences in approach if the book is familiar.  The idea is to create an original story that works with the illustrations of a picture book.  This project takes several lessons.


Begin by showing the class the book, but not reading the words.  (If the book is familiar, it is probably better to go ahead and read the words, so that the whole class is on the same page, but if it is unfamiliar to everyone, don't read the words.)  Then go through it again, and brainstorm what might be happening on each page.  It is not necessary to settle on one interpretation of each page--what is important is to stimulate a lot of ideas.


When you have gone through the whole book this way, it is usually time to end class for the day.  If not, go on to another activity so that the ideas have a chance to ferment.  Return to the book project next class.


Divide the class into small groups--four to six in a group seems to work best.  If you have multiple copies of the book, give one to each group.  If you own the books, obscure the words in some way, with tape or something.  If not, though, there's no real harm in letting them see the words at this point.  Each group must come up with a story and dramatize it, using whatever props and costume pieces you have available, or finding their own.  I often do this activity with no props or costumes at all, beyond the desks, etc. in my classroom.  This might take all of one class period or more, but with younger children it will probably take less.


When the groups have had a chance to rehearse their scenes (with the teacher, of course, side-coaching as needed), they share their stories with the class.  Once the project is over, you can read the original story and discuss how it is similar and different.


Simple Role Drama

Works with any age, but adjustments must be made to the level of sophistication.

Role Drama is a complex form which originated in Britain, in which students take on roles, either of their own creation or suggested by the structure of the activity, and then enter into the drama as thinking participants.  It can be a little frightening for teachers because the outcome is not preordained, and because it frequently involves the teacher in role, but it is highly enriching.  Students in Role Drama activities must make choices, must react and interact in role--making decisions based not on what they personally would do or what they think would make a funny story, but rather based on the real situation into which their characters are placed.  There is a short discussion of Role Drama on my Discussion of Terms page.  This exercise is a very simple, one- or two-day Role Drama activity.  It can be done with any number of books, but I'll use a specific example because it is the easiest way to describe the process.  What follows is a description of a Role Drama lesson I use with Kindergarten, based on the book, The Little Baby Snoogle Fleejur, by (of all people) Jimmy and Amy Carter.


I begin by reading part of the book.  I don't show the children the pictures.  I even turn the dust jacket inside out so that there is no picture visible on the cover.  In the story, Jeremy, a young crippled boy, is playing on the beach when some sort of sea monster is sighted in the water.  In telling/reading the story I lay great stress on the fact that no one gets a very good look at the monster--if it is a monster--and that there are several different versions of what it might be.  Then I stop and close the book.


I tell my students that we are now going to pretend that we are all local inhabitants of the town in which the story takes place.  Each student may decide for himself who he is to be.  Each of us has seen something in the water, or has seen some evidence of strange phenomena, but no one has gotten a clear look at any monster.  We have become alarmed and called a town meeting.  I will play the Mayor, and conduct the meeting.  Each person will have to tell the group what he has seen and why it alarms him.  When I turn around, I will have become the Mayor.


I then turn around and assume the role of Mayor.  "I want to thank you all for coming.  I understand there is a lot of concern about some odd things that have been happening, and some strange sights in the surf.  Would someone like to tell me what he has seen?"  I call on the students as they volunteer, and, still in role, interrogate them.  All the while I am coaching them to flesh out their characters with as much detail as possible.  "Excuse me, sir, but before you go on, would you mind identifying yourself?  Who are you and what do you do for a living?  Where do you live?  All right, now what is your concern?"  I try to keep the discussion moving logically, while at the same time giving everyone a chance to speak.  "My, that is worrying.  Has anyone else seen something like this?  Has anyone a suggestion about what it might mean?"  We continue until everyone who wants to has had a chance to participate actively.


To continue the activity, and bring in some other kinds of activitites, I may say, "Now, ladies and gentlemen, there is a reporter here from  the Daily News program, and he wants to interview some of you.  Would that be all right?  When I turn around, I will be the reporter."  Then as the reporter I might interview some students briefly.  (Something I do that seems to entertain my students no end is to constantly interact, irritably, with an invisible cameraman named Bob, who seems unable to do anything right.  But there is no real necessity for acting fluency here--it shouldn't scare a teacher away from this type of activity.)


As the reporter I  sometimes announce that we've been trying unsuccessfully to get video of the creature.  "Since most of you have seen it, I wonder if you would mind drawing some pictures of it for us?"  This way we bring another kind of creativity into play.


At this point at least on day's lesson has been used up, often two.  Next we go back to the story and read further, to a part in which the monster turns out to be friendly.  (Or to the end.)  Then we can jump from there into an activity in which we create the monster using our bodies, either individually or in groups. (See Sculpture Gallery.)  Or we can act out, as in Simple Story Dramatization above, the ending of the story.  If I have stopped before the end we might try to finish the story in several different ways (as in the film, Clue).  I usually don't, with Kindergarten, because of time, but you might have another town meeting, at which Jeremy tries to persuade the terrified townspeople not to destroy the harmless Snoogle Fleejur.  Or you could all become Snoogle Fleejurs and try to decide what to do about the threat from the townspeople, or what to do with the member of your species who has brought on the trouble by showing himself to humans.  There is literally no limit to the directions this lesson could go.


The point of Role Drama is to let the story suggests all sorts of different related activities, so each story will necessarily produce different activities.  But I hope this description will help you to see how you might approach a story and create Role Drama.