During these strange times when we – and many other educational institutions – have had to re-think the way we teach, we take a look at how a trailblazing pilot program became a linchpin of Trinity’s Foundation Studies program back in the 1990s, and share the story of one of the teachers who founded it.
‘Imagine a pompous group of men towering over me, saying my idea was ridiculous,’ says Rosemary Blight, jumping up on her chair to demonstrate the point. Rosemary is recounting a moment in the early ‘90s when she had to convince a group of Trinity College and University of Melbourne stakeholders that drama be included in Trinity’s soon-to-be-launched Foundation Studies program, which would be used as a pathway for international students wishing to study at Melbourne University.
Rosemary had been employed by Trinity as an English lecturer but, given Foundation Studies was an uncharted concept at the time, she first had to come up with the curriculum. ‘I was part of a small team and we were tasked with working out the impossible – the unknowable. You couldn’t just Google things in those days,’ she says.
While trying to determine the best way to structure English classes for a group of young international students – most of whom would speak English as a second language – Rosemary couldn’t help but wonder how students would ‘own their words’ if they were just sitting in lectures and reading books.
‘I’d lived in Europe for 18 months and speak French and German, so I knew what it was like to not speak the native language in a country – it can be difficult to express yourself,’ she reflects. ‘When the Foundation Studies program director at the time found out I had a drama background, he encouraged me to be myself and not feel like I had to teach formal literature.’ It was the blessing Rosemary needed to take the curriculum in an unconventional direction, and amid some heavy persuasion, the boards of Trinity and the University agreed to trial drama as a pilot program.
Rosemary’s title soon shifted from English to drama teacher as she drew on her experience performing in theatre productions to teach a classroom full of ‘blank faces’ a subject that most were completely unfamiliar with.
She admits to having often felt like a comedian struggling to get a laugh in those early years, but constantly adapted the classes to suit the needs of the students. ‘Many spoke very good English, but I noticed that when they’d talk to a shopkeeper for instance, they weren’t understood. I realised it was because of their body language.’
That’s where Rosemary’s time on the road performing mime and magic shows in the 1980s came in handy, as she integrated non-verbal activities into the program to encourage self-expression without the pressures of grammar and pronunciation. Coupled with performance planning through teamwork and speaking practice through monologues, drama began to have a transformative effect on many students.
Haida Hazri (TCFS 1992) was one of the first students to partake in Trinity’s drama program. Now a CEO of a company in the oil and gas industry, she credits her drama lessons with having helped to build her confidence.
‘I had come from Malaysia where there was a very structured education system based on a lot of reading and rigorous teaching,’ says Haida. ‘We were very smart children, but many of us lacked the self-confidence to speak in public and express our ideas because it just wasn’t what we did. It’s a common theme for lots of kids with Asian backgrounds.’
Haida says that many of the other subjects taught through Foundation Studies were necessarily an extension of her home schooling, but drama was a totally different concept. ‘Those classes broke down the idea of what drama was in a traditional sense, too,’ she continues. ‘We learned that drama could be far more than just acting on a stage.’
For Haida, a side benefit of Trinity’s drama program was the friendships it helped build. ‘In other classes you were usually in observational or input mode, but in drama you had to get together to do activities and brainstorm with others,’ she says. ‘It really allowed us to make friends with people from all over the world.’ Many of Haida’s classmates still stay in touch, and Haida even visited Rosemary on a recent trip to Melbourne. ‘I was so excited to see her,' says Haida. 'So, clearly, those classes that I took more than 25 years ago had a big impact.’
Given 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of Trinity’s drama program, it’s safe to say Rosemary’s idea wasn’t so ridiculous after all.
This article first appeared in issue 88 of Trinity Today.
Check out our news stories next week, when we'll share how our drama program has been adapted to the online teaching environment.