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The art of drama: How Australia’s largest theatre company educated hundreds of migrants and refugees

7 September 2022

Since its inception in 2016, Connected: Adult Language Learning Through Drama, an adult learning programme providing English-language and emotional support for migrants and refugees using imaginative stories, process drama, role play, myths and folktales, has addressed the needs of over 700 learners aged 18 to 70. This notable initiative is just one of the best-practice case studies featured in an upcoming publication by the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL), From Radio to Artificial Intelligence: Review of Innovative Technology in Literacy and Education for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons 

Developed by the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) and delivered in partnership with organisations such as the University of Sydney’s Refugee Language Programme and the Asylum Seekers Centre, Connected annually coordinates around 100 workshops for more than 350 learners, comprising over 2,000 hours of activity-based learning. The workshops’ alumni include learners from Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the People’s Republic of China, the Syrian Arab Republic and Viet Nam, among others. From an elderly grandmother who learned to read and write in English, to learners articulating their thoughts on the Swan Maiden folktale, the programme has seen participants excel at learning the language of their new home using drama scenarios.  

Raad, for example, arrived in Australia from Iraq. He enrolled in the course to help with his English-language learning, social connectedness and information retention through creative expression. He says the platform has given him and his fellow learners the confidence to feel comfortable in their learning. ‘I like the drama classes a lot. Everyone has fun. We’re all very happy and speak better English. I’m not scared to make mistakes and my teacher and friends help me. I want to learn more every day.’ 

Prior to the pandemic, Connected provided drop-in face-to-face services at organizations hosting migrants and refugees, at no cost to the learner of the partner organization. Following the national restrictions imposed as a result of the pandemic, however, Connected sessions adapted to include online workshops using Zoom. To combat the digital access divide, programme partner Asylum Seekers Centre (ASC) donated laptops and USB sticks for those learners who lacked a computer or internet access. In some cases, ASC conducted home visits to set up this technology and teach learners how to join Zoom. For learners who wish to join the workshops via their smartphone but do not have a strong internet connection, the programme pays for their phone data so that they can participate. 

The incorporation of online workshops has, in fact, increased Connected’s outreach, enabling a more diverse group of learners who would have been otherwise unable to participate in the sessions. Kate Worsley, a teaching artist at STC, believes the Connected workshops were also important for promoting social interaction during the pandemic. ‘A number of our learners were in local government areas of concern for COVID-19, which meant they were limited to a 5 km radius and very restricted as to what they could do outdoors and for how long,’ she explains. ‘The opportunity not only for the learners but for myself to connect with one another and share laughter and stories was definitely a fulfilling teaching experience.’ 

Research shows that education grounded in the arts can be an effective approach to English-language learning, allowing for key social skills, emotional growth and the ability to adapt to impromptu ‘real life’ interactions and conversations. The benefit of learning using drama is reinforced by one of the students participating in the programme, who says, ‘I have been learning English for four years. It’s all grammar, grammar, grammar, but I cannot memorize grammar. I think it is a good idea to learn English naturally, with our bodies, like we learn our mother tongue, with people.’ 

Learning through drama has also helped some learners to better manage the impact of trauma on their learning experience. According to Zoe Hogan, Director of Education and Community Partnerships at STC, Connected has empowered students to significantly grow in confidence too. ‘We will see a shy student much more likely to make that leap to speaking English because there’s not such a focus on getting things right,’ she explains. ‘The process frees them up to take more risks.’  

Connected practises ‘translanguaging’, a process that recognizes a multilingual person’s full linguistic repertoire and honours their first language in the second-language learning process. The educators are a cohort of paid STC ‘teaching artists’: actors, directors and community artists who have a diverse range of performance skills and usually have a background in working with children and youth through STC’s primary school drama literacy programme, School Drama. For Ms Worsley, the aim to increase participants’ sense of social connectedness and well-being was extremely important: ‘Watching learners share laughter and stories despite the barriers of differing English-language levels was very satisfying,’ she says. ‘Observing learners gain confidence and share more as workshops progressed was also very satisfying. Students often wanted to continue chatting to one another online, after the workshop had finished, which was an indication that they were, in fact, developing strong connections with one another throughout the programme.’ 

In April 2022, STC and Currency Press, a leading performing arts publisher, published Connecting Through Drama: Drama and Literacy for Learning English as an Additional Language, a resource for language teachers of the programme. In-person classes are resuming, and scaling up, with plans for the digital course to also continue following its success. 

 

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