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Rolling Role in the Primary School

Over the course of an extraordinary week in 1994, Dorothy Heathcote worked on a Rolling Role project, with eight classes from different primary schools. She saw that Rolling Role, while designed originally for secondary schools, was also "an ideal vehicle for teams of teachers to work in the primary school curriculum."(1)

She said:


The context for all this work is exactly the same, every day, for all the different classes, in that there is a village, there is a place, which can contain the whole of human culture. Therefore, it can contain every kind of study you would wish to make. So it's the careful building of that [culture]. Schools do not function at all like real communities function, which is a great sadness; and this is an attempt to make a community function. (2)


The project took place at King's Norton High School, and it was coordinated by the drama teacher, Claire Armstrong Mills (who worked with Dorothy on the "Rolling Role" videos). Three different contexts were invented: a brewery; a canning factory, and a dress shop. These were chosen to enable curriculum work in the three "domains" - the humanities, arts, and sciences.

The "point of change" was: "The 'Rising Sunne Inn' and the initiative to stop the ancient feud."

So we have one central problem, which is a terrible boiler disaster in 1860. This is [based on] an authentic boiler disaster, that happened in Bass’s Brewery … when eight schoolchildren were killed in the school yard from the steam.

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But it struck me that in a place like that, in 1860, if eight kids were killed and four men killed the boss, there would be family feuds go on, that through the years could grow quite bitter - but people would have forgotten why. So you’d get things like, “They’re not coming to our wedding”; “You're not mixing with that lot”; and so it would go on.


It struck me that it is a possibility for moving into the nature of how cultures can make and mend, and develop bondings... (2)

She created a map with elements marked such as the rhubarb canning factory, the brewery, the Rising Sunne Inn, and Madame Lingard's dress shop.

You can watch a video of Dorothy Heathcote discussing the choice of domains, here.


The week began with a day with Y5 children from Kings Norton Primary School. They were positioned as "recorders": their responsibility was to “to work out what happened to some children who got killed in a terrible accident”.


Among their tasks, she told them they would interview two people who


were there when those children were killed, so we have to find out as much as we can from them. Right? And then, we’re going to have to try to reconstruct from that evidence [what happened] … We’re going to put it together … and when people come in tomorrow [i.e., the next class], they’ll have all your evidence. (3)

First, Dorothy invited the class to look at a map of a village, that was on the wall; and then told them, "It starts to be our village now. Right? So from now on, when we need to, we can live in this village." (3)

The Point of Change

Here is Dorothy discussing the “point of change”:

... we've chosen that the point of change that makes this important to be got into and lived with - because it becomes ours as we work on it - is that the Rising Sunne Inn … is starting a initiative to stop a feud that has lived in this village for 150 years, when there was a terrible disaster in the Brewery.


So the initiative to bring this whole thing to the curriculum, is that somebody’s got to stop [the] quarrelling round here; and so our innkeeper is really going to initiate all the changes, because the modern people are carrying all this history in their very souls. (1)

In the project in school, after Dorothy introduced the children to the map of the village, she showed them a large mock-up of a local newspaper. One of the items in the "newspaper" was a "Letter to the Editor," from the owners of the Rising Sunne inn.


Dorothy gave the children copies of the letter, and asked them to  see what sense they made of it...


She then asked them to mark things that seemed important. She told them:

I’m marking all the things that seem to me very important. For example, this word “forgive” and this word “forget,” seems to me to have something to do with the trouble. What are they forgiving and forgetting? … Are there any other words you think should be – are really important, that we ought to understand properly? (3)

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The children next encountered a “portrait” of the owner of the brewery at the time of the explosion; he was brought to life and they questioned him about his attitude to the event. They became very suspicious that he was not telling the truth about it.

Then, Dorothy introduced a new piece of evidence – an account of the disaster as told by a witness, a road sweeper called Obediah.


Dorothy argued: “If you want people to penetrate a difficult thing [like a text], give them a human being to take evidence from, with it.”  The report was “a very long one” and deliberately contained a “very vivid picture” of the disaster: “Every word adds to the confused horror of it.” There was a “tension” for the children in reading the text: they needed to find out more about what had happened, so they could “get the truth out of the owner of the brewery”.

That is what makes them read that document. It's not abstract … So here they are; they’re reading that piece of paper like they could eat it.  (2)

She told the children to mark the text


straight away with things you want to ask Obediah. … Now, I warned you: the first letter you tackled very well because it was a hard letter. This letter tells a story, so it’s a lot easier. … And you’ll find: if you don’t want to read it all, start there [at “Obediah’s Story”]; that’s where Obediah starts talking. (3)

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The story of the disaster was introduced through the use of different conventions: the letter, the portrait, the newspaper report.


The iconic and symbolic here preceded the expressive: the children observed the portrait, or read the newspaper report, before they encountered the “role.”

In the next stage of the drama, the children met Obediah (Dorothy in role).

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Teacher in Role: Obediah

Obediah was “signed” in the room, firstly, by a large image of a wheelbarrow on the wall, and a picture of him (see images).


When she took on the role, Dorothy first showed the class the image of Obediah, and urged them to use their “drama eyes” to decide, “this is the person … you’re looking at.”


She told them: “So when you talk to Obediah, use your drama eyes, and I’ll use mine, and I’ll think for him”. She stood by the wheelbarrow image, with a shawl over her shoulders, to represent him.

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The children’s task, as we have seen, was to obtain information, in order to reconstruct exactly what happened. But this was not simply “hot seating.” She urged them to “get the picture in your mind of what it must have been like”, to be there, at the event: “The quality of the reconstruction you do, depends on the pictures you get in your mind, from talking with Obediah.” 

She told them: “I’ll try to help you with images [as Obediah]. You will have to do the seeing.”


At one point, she switched in and out of role as she spoke to them:

OBEDIAH: You couldn't see right. There were steam everywhere.

[Can you see the image? … See in your mind what I'm telling you.]

OBEDIAH: And there were pieces of metal, flying past.

[Can you all see that?] …

OBEDIAH: And it were right noisy. Have you ever heard steam come out of a valve? It screams at you.

[Put your drama ears on and hear it.]

OBEDIAH: It screams! ...

[Now, are you seeing anymore pictures? Are you beginning to see?]

Then, out of role, she asked them to think through and note down “how many different moments” or incidents happened in the event.

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Note: the "letter" and "newspaper report" here have been reconstructed from the texts used in the 1994 project. Images of DH working in Kings Norton High School. Sources: (1) “Rolling Role: Applied in the Primary Classroom” (University of Newcastle, 1994) ; (2) Recording of teacher training session at King's Norton High School, 17.5.94; (3) Recording of teaching session at the school, 16.5.94.

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