Development & Alumni Relations Office 

MEET TANYA KEMPSTON, QUEEN’S GRADUATE, LECTURER AND CREATOR OF E-LEARNING RADIO DRAMA, HEAR THIS!Three images of Tanya Kempston, left and right in blurred black and white and in the middle in full colour.

22 February 2021

Tanya Kempston, BA English Language and Literature (1995), PGCE English and Drama (1996), works as a Lecturer in Education and last year picked up an Outstanding Teaching Award for online teaching.

“I recently received my Faculty’s Emergency Remote Teaching Award for my work in 2019-20 and one thing the panel thought especially worthy of mention was a project I set up in May 2020 called Hear This! – Festival of Radio Drama on Zoom,” Tanya told Queen’s.

Based in the Faculty of Education at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), the oldest tertiary education institution in Hong Kong, it is a long way from her Northern Ireland roots in Omagh, County Tyrone, which Tanya still calls home.

“My elder sister Dawn (Small, née Kempston), BSc Biological Sciences (1989), always spoke so enthusiastically about the fantastic time she was having at Queen’s when she came home at the weekend. I thought – well, if my sister is enjoying herself that much, then that sounds like the right place for me!

“Having an older sibling at the University was just such an encouragement to start to think of it as a possible ‘home away from home’ for me and she was a major influence on putting me on the tertiary-level ‘flight path’ towards Queen’s.

“My A-level English Literature teacher at Omagh Academy, Michael Murphy, strongly recommended English at Queen’s to me and as soon as I walked through the Lanyon Building during the sixth-form tour of the campus, I knew this was the place for me; I didn’t go on any other university tours after that!”

Tanya admits to having so many fond memories of her time at Queen’s that it is almost impossible to single out just one.

“When I took my Australian husband on a walk through the campus in 2016, I was really struck by a very vivid memory of having a Medieval Literature class in the Quad with Professor John Thompson (from the old School of English) on one of those rare sunny spring days when it is warm enough to sit outside and enjoy the flowers in bloom.

“There was many a good night of craic in the Students’ Union as well!” she added.

Early career

Following her undergraduate degree, Tanya took the full-time Postgraduate Diploma in Education English and Drama with the School of Education at Queen’s and, keen to pursue a career in a field related to literature, drama, education, ‘or all three’ she went straight to Osaka to work as an English teacher on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Scheme for three years after completing her PGCE at Queen’s.  

“I wanted to get another experience of living in a different Asian setting after finishing my time on the JET scheme and so applied for the Hong Kong government initiative recruiting English teachers from other countries.”

Tanya has been working in Hong Kong for over 20 years, initially as an English Literature department head in a secondary school, then as a Curriculum Development Officer for the Hong Kong Education Bureau, before moving to her current lecturing role in HKU.

“I really enjoyed Hong Kong from the moment I set foot here; you walk down a street and immediately there is a sense of everything being intensely alive, from the smell of food being cooked to the sounds of Cantonese being spoken. Also, my secondary students were really diligent, lovely people and I am still in touch with them now. I was visited during the last Chinese New Year by some of the girls from my A level Literature class of 2003 and their children!”

How useful were all those hours spent over 6,000 miles away in Belfast in guiding Tanya in her current role?

“Although I didn’t put everything I learned at Queen’s into action right away, I had many great lessons from both my BA and PGCE courses that started to make sense as I began progressing in my career.

“The foremost of these is that teaching has to be wholehearted, well-planned and prepared and passionate in order to be effective. 

“So much of what I learned and did during my time at Queen’s has been of great use to me in my professional life and the idea that ‘drama always finds a way’ – which was something reinforced by Professor Thompson – really inspired me.”

Hear This!

The emergence of the coronavirus early last year changed life irreparably for millions of people around the world, and transformed working practises for millions more, among them those working in education.

One community outreach project impacted by the COVID-19 restrictions in Hong Kong Hear This! It was aimed at bringing HKU Faculty of Education students together with younger Hong Kong senior secondary school students, to them understand, make and appreciate radio drama in English.

“At the time of its conceptualisation in March 2020, with no face-to-face classes having occurred in Hong Kong for several weeks,” said Tanya, “I felt that secondary school students not only needed opportunities to practise English in an enjoyable way and enhance their speaking and listening skills, but also exercise their creative and collaborative abilities.

“Having used Zoom since November 2019 when Hong Kong was undergoing an intense period of social unrest, I understood that the platform allowed participants not just to ‘e-meet’ but, through the use of breakout rooms, enabled students to create and perform a short radio drama in an online environment.”

Tanya recruited 18 HKU undergraduate Student Drama Mentors (from a variety of years and Faculty double degree programmes, including English, Chinese and Science, as well as Speech and Hearing Science) and trained them over an 8-hour period to create radio drama, as well as coach secondary school students how to do so.

They then supported 56 secondary school students (divided into 13 small groups) in mid-May 2020 through the process of creating and performing their own radio drama on Zoom. These radio dramas, staged at Performance Morning in May, included a wide range of scenarios from a zombie apocalypse starting at a school camp, to a diamond being found in a patient’s stomach mid-operation.

Hear This!, which Tanya believes was the first event of its kind in Hong Kong, has since received a HKU teaching Development Grant to extend the project to primary school pupils as well as secondary school English learners in 2021.

Feedback from the student participants was hugely positive, with many of the undergraduate Student Drama Mentors saying that they were delighted to have a solid achievement in terms of contributing to society in the first wave of COVID-19. One individual has since gone on to set up her own organisation, ArtPeace, in which she took what she learned on Hear This! and trained Myanmese students living in Mae Sot, northern Thailand, to create and perform their own radio drama online.

The initiative not only made an impact on the students but also on the Selection Panel responsible for deciding the HKU Outstanding Teaching Awards for 2019-20. Made up of Faculty colleagues and students they were ‘deeply impressed’ with the awardees’ wholehearted commitment to their teaching, their innovative and tireless efforts to engage with students and curriculum development and the impact that they have on students’ learning and personal growth.

Tanya was one of two recipients of an Emergency Remote Teaching Award, set up to recognise and share the good practices of staff during the suspension of face-to-face classes.

Commenting on her achievement the Selection Panel judges said they:

‘…Unanimously recognised the tireless work that Tanya has done this year to make online teaching and learning more effective and inclusive for students and in an area such as drama which many might feel is simply too challenging to transfer to an online mode of delivery.

‘Her critical reflection on her practices and a clearly articulated vision of how she might further improve them demonstrated her striving for teaching excellence. Her Hear This! Radio drama was such an impressive initiative and showed how her innovations with e-learning can also bridge with local schools, teachers and students.’

Tanya wasn’t the only member of her family to have been singled out for praise for work carried out during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It really meant so much to me to win my Faculty’s Emergency Remote Teaching Award. It is a very new award in the Faculty, having only been set up in 2020 and I was so happy as well as humbled to receive it.

“It was also so nice to be able to share some good news with my family in Omagh for a change, as so many of our texts and calls are around how many COVID-19 cases there are in the UK and Ireland vs Hong Kong.

“That said, I feel that the work done by my sister (a research nurse) on the Novavax trials featured in the January edition of eGraduate is truly amazing – dedication to her work tackling COVID is really inspirational to me.”

Lockdown and home

While the current restrictions make it impossible for her to get back to Northern Ireland Tanya is looking forwarded to that being possible – and to the restrictions being lifted in Hong Kong – in the near future.

“Not being able to get back home – and not knowing when I can next get back home to see my Mum and all my family in Northern Ireland – is just awful,” said Tanya.

“We would otherwise in ‘normal’ times visit every single year and spend a month in the summer enjoying going to country parks and catching up with family and friends.”

“I am cautiously optimistic as regards the COVID-19 situation here in Hong Kong. Lockdown is starting to be eased with government facilities such as basketball courts in public parks being able to open again. It is just wonderful and almost shocking to see people doing ‘everyday’ things like playing basketball.

“More classes here at HKU are starting to be taught face-to-face, with everyone properly masked up and socially distanced of course, although some are still being taught in online mode.

“Quite understandably, many students are tired of so much online teaching and learning, as we have been doing it for such a long time now and if all classes are online, they feel quite exhausted – as do I, I must say! 

“However, the dedication of the undergraduate Student Drama Mentors all through the Hear This! project makes me realise that our students don’t just see the online environment as one of ‘Zoom and gloom’ and are more than capable to taking online teaching and learning forward to the next level.”

In addition to her qualifications from Queen’s, Tanya has an MA in Drama and Theatre Education from the University of Warwick. As well as teaching English Language and Drama in Education, Children’s Literature and Child Development, her research interests include Drama in Language Learning, Process Drama and Education, and Play and Child Development.

Click this YouTube link to find out more about Hear This!

For enquiries about this story, or to submit graduate news items, please contact Gerry Power, Communications Officer, Development and Alumni Relations Office, Queen's University Belfast.

Photo credit: headline image by carloyuen from Pixabay; main picture © Tanya Kempston. 

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