Secondary education in Turkey comes in the form of a lise, this is a school that lasts for four years after ilköğretim (primary school) which finishes at age 14. The Turkish education system is very exam heavy and the last couple years of ilköğretim are spent preparing for the exams which will determine which lise you go to. The different kinds of lise’s are: meslek lise (profession schools); anadolu lise (which you need to score good exam marks to get into); or a genel lise (which you can get into with any exam marks). Anadolu lise’s have an hour longer school day than genel lise’s and in the first year there is a strong emphasis on English. The government are currently making all of the lise’s meslek or anadolu within the next few years.
The school I worked at in Sivas, in the central eastern region of Turkey, was one of the few genel lise’s left in the area. It is a lise funded by the Turkish lottery and the department of education in Sivas thought that the project would suit is as it is one of the more ‘disadvantaged’ schools in the area. The school is a bit outside of the city centre and for many families who want to move away from villages and closer to the city it is a half way point before house prices rise too much.
The school counsellor chose 13 students who she felt would benefit from the project and they attended a drama workshop I held everyday during the school lunch break for two weeks. I appreciated the dedication of the students guzzling down their lunch within 10 minutes so that they could make the workshop on time. In lise students have constant exams at school, as well as attending extra school sessions (dershane) after school and on the weekends. For a group of students, most with very little interest or experience in drama, it was great to see that they were willing to give up their precious time to take part in the project.
I had an absolute ball working with this group of 15-18 year olds. They were the oldest group of mainstream participants to be involved in the project so far and they came to the workshops with the maturity of drama university students. The first week of the residency revolved around getting to know you games, frozen images and the beginnings of improvisation. Where we hit a block was at the start of the second week when the group realised that the day of their final performance was creeping closer and they decided that everything they created the first week was ‘saçma’ (silly). What they wanted was for me to provide them with script (preferably a Turkish comedy) which they could memorise for the final performance. As I have mentioned in previous blog posts the ‘old’ education system in Turkey focuses on memorising facts. Even though the system is supposed to be changing to one where children take the lead in researching topics (rather than memorising) this new system is far from settled. With the strong focus on exams I personally think it is impossible for teachers to teach in the ‘new way’ because they simply do not have the time and resources as well as prepare the students for the exams they have to take.
The issue with learning through memorisation is that students have no opportunity to exercise their imagination. From what I have seen from participants in this project so far, there is a fear to give ideas, and the fear that any idea you may have would be ‘silly’ or ‘wrong’. Improvisation is crucial for building self confidence and imagination. In our lives we are not given a script that we can memorise how to live day to day and we in fact spend a huge proportion of our lives improvising. This is why it is important in particular for those students with confidence issues to work on their improvisation skills so that when it comes to moments such as meeting new people, going to a job interview, doing a presentation, that they have a skill that can help them through it. How I overcame the resistance towards improvisation was through giving praise. Many of the students had confidence issues because everybody knew they were in one of the least academic schools in the area. Teachers would speak openly in front of them about how they weren’t as ‘good’ as the students in anadolu lise’s. By repeatedly telling the students that the work they had created wasn’t ‘saçma’ I felt that they began believing in themselves and trusting their own in a very short period of time.
I was able to attend several other subjects whilst at the lise and I enjoyed learning more about the secondary education curriculum. In terms of the arts students are able to study art and music. Philosophy is also a compulsory subject which fascinated me. I began asking teachers how long these subjects had been in the curriculum for and everyone’s response was ‘forever’. When I asked teachers why they thought drama wasn’t in the curriculum I had several responses but the one answer that kept creeping up was; ‘Theatre has never been a part of our culture’. I find this an extremely interesting yet infuriating response. Storytelling and shadow puppetry have been a part of both asian and islamic culture for centuries. The music of the folk-poets of Anatolia, who are usually referred to as ashiks, have wandered the plains of Anatolia since around the tenth century and shadow puppets in Turkey were in use from at least the 14th century. Not to mention the many amphitheatres scattered around Turkey which have been there for a couple of thousand years. Theatre is clearly a strong part of Turkish history and coupled with the fact that drama fits in with the new curriculum ideology of learning through living it seems like it should have a place within the education system.
Comments from students in Sivas (translated from Turkish):
‘Before I went on stage I was extremely nervous, I even considered not going on. But once I got on stage and I started doing the actions and I knew that nothing bad was going to happen, so I just continued. I feel like my confidence has really grown.’
‘Improvisation is something that can really help us because we might need it at any time…. it is something that everyone needs.’
‘Previously I have avoided taking part in performances because I felt ashamed… I knew that I had to beat this so I worked hard and I feel that I succeeded…. I think I was able to beat this fear because we worked together really well as a group and as friends… I am a social person but I have always suffered from stage fright… there are times when I know in class I will have to go up to the board and say something in front of the whole class and I always try and memorise what I will need to say. When when I stand up I forget what I was going to say because I get nervous…. now I am able to get up in front of the class and I know what I am doing, I have beaten my fear. I don’t get nervous anymore’.
‘In rehearsals I kept telling myself that I would not be able to do this, I thought we looked stupid. But after we did our performance today, the audience were laughing because they were enjoying it… I didn’t think I would have the courage to stand up in front of other people, I didn’t think that I could do it… I know that my confidence has grown because I was able to go out in front of a crowded audience and express myself. ‘