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Six tips for teaching in role.

A little while ago I shared a post with suggestions on how to introduce children to a teacher in role for the first time. Here’s the promised follow up – six tips for teaching in role. This includes advice on what seems to be many teachers’ greatest fear – what to do when children resist, or reject the teacher in role.

Tip 1 – assume the best. In my experience, children challenge a teacher in role very rarely – much less often than teachers fear they will! So the first piece of advice is not to use your fears as a reason to write off teacher in role as ‘not for me’ or ‘not for this class’. You may be surprised how readily children are prepared to ‘buy in’. And if you don’t try, you’ll never know!

Tip 2 – give it time. Don’t dismiss the approach if children don’t ‘get it’ first time. As with any other new set of skills you ask children to adopt to help their learning (using a new digital device, for example), you need to be prepared to give them time to become familiar  with it. It gets easier with practice!

Tip 3 – explain the rules of the game. Using the three step transition into role will set you and the children up for success. By explaining the rules of the game you make it more likely that children will get on with the game rather than focussing on working out what the rules are – what’s real, what’s not and so on. Often it’s this ‘figuring out’ process that can be disruptive.

Tip 4 – pull out don’t push on. If you’ve clearly signalled the role, you are protected by the ability to transition OUT of role at any time. It doesn’t mean you have ‘failed’. This is not a naturalistic theatre performance where you are on stage and must stay in character. There is no pressure to ensure ‘the show must go on’ in that sense. Rather, it’s a feature of process drama and mantle that the fiction stops and starts. Participants spend more time OUT of role than in it… So, if a child responds to your transition into role by saying “you’re not really a police officer.” DON’T reply “Oh yes I am!” unless you want a power struggle or a chorus of “Oh no you’re not” like an old fashioned panto…! Instead, step out of role for a discussion (see below). This ability to step between the worlds of the fiction and the classroom, renegotiate and revisit is all part of the approach.

Tip 5 – get past the giggles. Children will often respond with giggles or laughter when they experience teacher in role for the first time. This is a natural response to something strange and new. How you respond to giggles is a matter of judgement. If it is only one or two children and if it seems more important to progress the drama (for example, if you are bringing an important message from the client or introducing a key tension) you might trust that the giggles will gradually subside as the children engage with the tension. You could appeal to them from within the role (‘I’m sorry – I thought I was dealing with a professional team here, was I mistaken?’) Or, if the children seem to be stuck you could pause the drama, step out of role and take the opportunity for a discussion about the tricky feelings that come up in drama work. Be careful of your language though. Rather than ‘telling off’ a child for laughing or resisting a role, try asking them what’s going on for them. Acknowledge that it does feel strange at first to work this way (‘It’s tricky, isn’t it?’) and suggest that if they can work out how to use their imagination and work with you within the drama then interesting things might happen. I remember hearing one teacher saying to her class, “You know, I’ve got the feeling that just the other side of that giggle there’s something really interesting, let’s see if we can move on and find it!” – a lovely way to appeal for focus without demeaning the children.

Tip 6 – treat resistance as a teachable moment. Just occasionally, despite your best efforts and clarity, children will resist the role.  This will probably be for one of two reasons. Either a) they genuinely don’t understand what’s going on or b) they are interested in subverting the usual authority structures of the class and having a joke with the teacher. It’s sometimes hard to tell which of these lies behind the resistance but in both cases the situation can be handled in a similar way. The scenario below illustrates this. Imagine a teacher (female) who has just stepped into role as a male (Wiremu). A student (Alex) challenges the role. Here’s how the teacher could respond and turn the situation into a learning opportunity.

Alex: I didn’t know Wiremu wore lipstick and earrings!

Teacher: I’m just going to stop for a moment and come out of role.

Removes signal prop – a hat

Teacher: Now, someone just raised something quite important there that I think we should talk about. Alex, can you repeat what you said a moment ago when I was in role.

Alex: No, it doesn’t matter

Teacher: I think you were saying it’s tricky to see me as Wiremu when I go into role …?

Alex: Well you aren’t Wiremu. You’re not even a man.

Teacher: Alex is quite right, isn’t he? I’m NOT really Wiremu. That’s exactly what ‘taking on a role’ means. Like I said before, this only works if we agree to use our imaginations. And that’s quite tricky … So,  perhaps  there is something else I can do to help you imagine that I am Wiremu. What do you think?

Alex: Maybe use a deeper voice…

Teacher: OK, let’s try that. I’ll put the hat on and use a deeper voice and you remember to work with me as if I’m Wiremu. Ready to try again?

Alex (nods)

Teacher goes back into role….

This example is from a real classroom interaction in which I was the teacher. In this case Alex (not the student’s real name) was very familiar with the teacher in role strategy and I think he was resisting the role as a way to explore his agency in the situation. He was grinning as he spoke and then looked a bit embarrassed when I came out of role and asked him to repeat himself. His statement, ‘no, it doesn’t matter’ was a signal that my authority as teacher had been restored without ‘telling him off’ and we could probably have finished the conversation there. However, the next bit of the conversation also served a purpose. By reframing the exchange as a positive thing (‘that’s exactly right – that’s how role works!’) what could have been a ‘behaviour management’ moment turned into an opportunity for discussion about drama techniques and how these help us work with someone in role. If you re-read the exchange again, I think you’ll see that the same approach would also be appropriate where participants are resisting the role because of genuine confusion. I have certainly used the same tactic in such situations (though this has only occurred a handful of times in many years).

So there you have it – six tips for teaching in role, including what to do if children resist or reject the role. If you have other suggestions or pointers, please share  in the comments!

Summary of key points.

  • Tip 1 – Assume the best Don’t assume children won’t accept the Teacher in role – most do so really well.
  • Tip 2 – Give it time Understand that working with a teacher in role, like any new skill, takes PRACTICE.
  • Tip 3 – Use 3 step transition  Explain the rules of the game so they can get on with the game.
  • Tip 4 – pull out don’t push on If children resist the role – step OUT of role to renegotiate expectations before stepping back in
  • Tip 5 – get past the giggles This might happen naturally or through acknowledging ‘it’s tricky isn’t it!?’
  • Tip 6 – treat resistance as a teachable moment Say ‘yes you’re exactly right’ not ‘no, you’re wrong’. This reasserts your authority AND reinforces how role works without telling children off.

Mantle of the Expert introductory workshop in Auckland

After requests for a workshop in the Auckland region, the IPL is running this ‘Introduction to Mantle of the Expert’ workshop on 12th October in West Auckland. If you are new to the approach and keen to learn more – especially if you are considering enrolling for the January summer school at University of Waikato – this is the session for you! Participants will experience a taste of Mantle in action and be introduced to some key elements of planning and implementation. Cost is $50 plus GST. For enrolments – click here 

For PDF of flier click here Mantle of Expert



Summer school 2018

Delighted to confirm details of the 2018 Mantle of the Expert summer school at Waikato University.

Please see flier below for dates, information, and lovely testimonials from past students. I understand enrolments will be open soon – with a cut off date of 17th November. In the meantime, please email to register interest or reserve your place.

For PDF click this link SUMMER SCHOOL 2018


Teaching in role – the importance of clear signalling

One of the key strategies used in Mantle of the Expert is teaching in role – used to introduce a new tension, deliver the commission or present a new perspective. There are many ways a teacher can take on a role (see Dorothy Heathcote’s list of role conventions) but the most common is for the teacher to move into ‘full role’ – ie act, speak and move around as if they are another person.

If you are using teacher in role, it’s important for this to be clearly signalled – in other words, for children to know exactly what you are doing. It’s very exciting for children to hear they are having a visit from a spy, an astronaut, a kaumatua or whatever – and it may seem to ‘spoil the fun’ if we spell out that this person is ‘only’ the teacher in role. However, not to do so runs the risk of ‘spoiling’ things in a more serious way.

A teacher who does not signal the transition into role is denying themselves and their learners the special benefits that can only be found from learning in the overlap of fictional and real worlds.  Drama can only do its job where it provides a safe, no-penalty zone for learning in.  Unsignalled role is ethically and aesethically unsafe as it risks confusion and resentment from the children. As John O’Toole & Julie Dunn succinctly put it: ‘The teacher who trusts the power of the drama does not need to use deceit’ (O’Toole & Dunn, 2002, p.6)

Where children understand what’s happening, they can frame the experience correctly and feel more confident to adopt the behaviour and speech appropriate to the fictional context. There’s a big difference between what a child will do or say when an adult visits the classroom and the way experts in a team will respond to a visitor – and exploring this difference is kind of the whole point of Mantle! As Brian Edmiston states, ‘One of the core reasons why as a teacher I use drama is because when we create an imagined world, we can imagine that we frame events differently so that our power and authority relationships are changed. A long-term aim of mine as a teacher is as much as possible to share power and authority with students. I want students to have more opportunities to use words and deeds to act appropriately but in ways that are often not sanctioned in classrooms’ (Edmiston, 2003, p.225). If the teacher’s role is not signalled, the power and authority is not shared in the way Brian is describing here. For a fuller discussion of the arguments for clear signalling, check out this article Borat FINAL copy


So, how to signal clearly? Here’s a simple three step transition that can be used each time the teacher moves into ‘full role’. The same three steps can be used to set up the ground rules for any role or drama convention. The three steps are particularly recommended when using teacher in role for the first time. Note that the transition takes place in the classroom in front of the children.

Step 1: Tell them what is going to happen. “In a moment, I’m going to take on a role”

Pause – check understanding (you may need to clarify what ‘role’ means)

Step 2: Tell them how they will know. Declare and demonstrate the signal. “You will know I’m in role when … (I’m wearing this hat, or sitting in this chair, using this special voice, or carrying this kete)”

Pause – check understanding (model a couple of times) “Hat on – who am I? Hat off – who am I now?”

Step 2: Spell out the expectations. “For this to work you need to accept me in role and talk to me / work with me as if I am really X”.

Pause – check understanding.

Note that step three is not phrased as a question, such as “can you agree to behave as if I am X?” Only open up a negotiation if you are actually interested in negotiating with the children. If you simply wish to establish the groundrules for an activity then it is more authentic to state your expectations directly. If you only want children to listen to the teacher in role – say so. If they can talk, ask questions etc, make this clear.


Once these three steps have been followed, the teacher is as secure as they can be that children understand what is going to happen and what is expected.  Children are less likely to disrupt the drama by challenging or questioning the role. Having explained the rules of the game, they can get on with playing it – If the rules are not explained, they will focus on working out what they are – possibly out loud. This, according to sociologist Erving Goffman (1986) is human nature.

This is not to say that children will all instantly accept and work with a teacher in role. You can expect them to giggle, or laugh and find it a little strange. You can expect some to ‘push back’ and test the boundaries of the new relationship.  When this happens, try not to write off drama as ‘not for me’ or ‘not for this class’. Instead consider it just like any other skill you bring in to the classroom and give children time and practice to become familiar and comfortable with it. In a later post, I will share some tips for dealing with resistance to the teacher in role.

For now, though, here’s a recap of those three steps again:

Step1: Tell them what is going to happen

Step 2: Tell them how they will know

Step 3: Spell out the expectations



Edmiston, B. (2003). What’s my position?: Role, frame and positioning when using process drama. Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance, 8(2), 221–229.

Goffman, E. (1986) Frame Analysis: An essay on the organisation of experience. Boston: Northeastern University Press

O’Toole, J. & Dunn, J. (2002). Pretending to learn: helping children learn through drama. Frenchs Forest, NSW: Pearson Education.


Top reasons for using drama in your classroom

Drama New Zealand recently posted a list of ’12 reasons for integrating drama in your classroom’. It arrived in my mailbox just days after I’d shared my own ‘top 10’ values for process drama at the Tai Tokerau Literacy Association. I thought you might be interested to see these two lists side by side. Mine focusses on process drama rather than other forms but I think you’ll agree there are many synergies between the two lists …

Before reading them – how about jotting down your own thoughts …  What are YOUR top 10 reasons for including drama in YOUR practice?


Cornett, C. & Smithrim, K. The Arts as Meaning Makers. in Drama NZ Newsletter 13, 2017 p.9

Aitken, V. ‘The benefits of drama for literacy.’ Keynote address at Success for all  Tai Tokerau Literacy Association Seminar Day 20th May, 2017

Click here to open ‘top ten values for process drama’


Introduction to Mantle of the Expert workshop – Gisborne

The Institute of Professional Learning at the University of Waikato is hosting an Introduction to Mantle of the Expert session in Gisborne on Thursday 22nd June. Details are on the attached flier.

Mantle of the Expert

You can also enrol via this online link.

I’m delighted to be taking this session to Gisborne, where there’s a fair bit of interest thanks to colleagues from the area doing great work with dramatic inquiry in their schools.

Please spread the word to anyone you think might be interested in attending. Cost is $50 per person.



May PD in Mantle in Whangarei and Christchurch

Kia ora colleagues

I’m excited to tell you about two mantle PD opportunities coming up in May at opposite ends of the country – one in Northland and the other in Christchurch.

Saturday 20th May Te Tai Tokerau Literacy association is holding its seminar day. Details are on the flier below. As well as my keynote, I happen to know that one of the workshops is a drama-related one, to be led by the lovely Renee Downey. The organisers tell me that everyone is welcome to attend so please contact them if you’d like to sign up. Their email is

Tai Tokerau Literacy Association Seminar Success for All 2017 (1)

But wait, there’s more!

Monday 22nd May Drama New Zealand Canterbury is hosting the second of its Mantle of the Expert introduction sessions. This long form workshop will take you through a step by step process for planning a Mantle of the Expert experience. It will be suitable for interested beginners or more experienced practitioners. For more information, see the flier below.

DNZ planning workshop 22.5


Interview with Tim Taylor on podcast

Enjoy this podcast from The Teachers’ Education Review Forum (an Australian podcast channel) in which Dan Haesler interviews Tim Taylor about Mantle of the Expert.

Tim talks about:

  • His first introduction to Mantle of the Expert through Luke Abbott and Dorothy Heathcote [26.51]
  • What Mantle is and how it works [31.23]
  • The ‘paradox’ of Mantle – real vs fictional expertise [33.00]
  • Engaging all students in the fiction [35.00]
  • Negotiating with students – asking permission & preparing for work in role [37.00]
  • Importance of collaboration and dialogue [40.45]
  • Possibilities for teacher in role – 1) as collaborator  2) as an ‘other’ from the fiction with a different point of view or status position 3) as helper [42.30]
  • Impacts of Teacher in role on learning – power shifting, safe risk-taking, exploration, dialogue and collaboration [46.25]
  • Using Mantle with different ages [51.30]
  • An example of Mantle with older students – Titanic [54.33]
  • Practical activities for Titanic context – creating artefacts, using drama conventions [58.55]
  • How drama conventions work – setting limits & prompting philosophical discussion [1.03.29]
  • How long should a Mantle be, and how is learning assessed? [1.05.50]
  • How Mantle enhances learning dispositions – authentic purpose, student agency, enduring understandings and passion for learning [1.10.10]

After the interview, Dan continues with his own reflections on learning through Mantle of the Expert and suggests it’s the sense of emotional attachment that deepens memories and retention of content. He muses on the importance of narrative in sense-making and concludes with a personal anecdote of how using role and positioning strategies helped him engage an unwilling class in a novel study. Well worth a listen.


Two Mantle of the expert PD opportunities in Whangarei – next week!

Thanks to Renee Downey and the team from Otaika Valley in Whangarei who are hosting two PD sessions for local teachers with an interest in Mantle of the Expert. It’s short notice (sorry) and places are limited but here’s the information in case colleagues from the Northland region would be interested in a last minute registration … Haere mai – all welcome.

Thursday 23rd March is a session focussed on Mantle in the Junior school…. This will follow on from our session in November last year – with an introduction to planning and some further drama conventions. Even if you didn’t make the previous one, it would be great to have you along.

Tuesday 28th March is a session designed for those with a little more experience in Mantle… though once again, anyone is welcome to attend. Participants are asked to bring questions or problems of practice, which we will explore together.

For more information about either of these workshops, including cost, start & finish times and directions to the school, please contact Renee on