Financial Slavery

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Musings on Why We Do Applied Theatre - Written by a student

I wanted to take a moment to post some reflections written by one of my students.  This young man has been in my program four years now.  He'll be off to college next year (and sorely missed).  I asked all of my students to stop for a moment and reflect on why they like this type of work, what it means to them and why public schools should try to implement it.  I asked because every year, they tell me it is there favorite project.  I wanted them to try and articulate why.  (Not to mention, we are getting yet another new principal - fourth one in seven years - and I will have to start the education process again with a new administrator).  I found this young man's reflections particularly poignent.

"Applied theatre is an educational experience that transcends what we know as the classroom environment and expands our knowledge of the world on a 1st person scale. It allows every individual of a student body to participate in almost every way possible. From research, to audio-visual skills, to performing arts, it is a process that includes every different sort of obscure talent that you could find in a public school atmosphere in the present day. The integration of these fantastic abilities gives students an outlet to express themselves while keeping a focus on important social studies. I learned a vast amount of information about the advancement in social activism in our country's history, about the detrimental effects of bullying on our modern society, and many more influential life-lessons because I was able to live them. Opening one's mind can be difficult to do in a classroom, but bring them to the stage and they will never forget the level of intimacy, wisdom, and acknowledgment that touched their souls."

Eloquent, isn't he?  I'm pretty sure he is a far more powerful writer than I am!!

I'm going to continue blogging about our ongoing Year of Respect.  I met with my colleague who teaches Social Studies, and she is going to have her students create an "action plan" for our high school for this project.  I also am trying to get permission to get murals painted on our (very boring) white school hallway walls about diversity, respect, acceptance, etc.  I'll keep everyone in the loop as we go forward.

Happy Fall All!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Doing Applied Theatre to Fight Bullying

So I think I mentioned that the school I work in is a large, extremely diverse public high school, with such a range of religions, ethnicities, ages, and economic backgrounds represented that it’s often jokingly referred to as the United Nations. When I joined the district seven years ago, I was given the mission of creating a drama program. (The school, although not an arts magnet, already had programs in dance, music, television, and visual arts.) Initially I approached this task in a very traditional manner, looking to infuse my students with standard theatre history, theory, technique, and opportunities to perform and direct. But our school wasn’t a traditional school: our students were from all over the map, literally and figuratively. The issues they struggled with were so wide-ranging, and their academic and dramatic skills were so varied, I found myself seeking new ways to reach them, not just as a theatre artist but as an educator, mentor, and guide.

This journey led me to explore applied theatre. The practice is often traced to Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, in which non-conventional actors working in non-conventional spaces tackled issues of social significance. Today, around the world, the power of live theatre is helping to rehabilitate prisoners, integrate immigrant communities, and heal the wounds of war and displacement, among many other worthy purposes. Recent years have seen a surge of interest in this type of drama here in the United States—particularly in our schools.

Four years ago, our drama and television departments joined forces on a first venture into theatre with a social objective, integrating history, social studies, and civic responsibility into one dramatic event. The students’ experience, with this and subsequent projects, has been stunning. This year, we expanded the journey into device drama, where students have an opportunity to explore issues close to home and write their own piece of theatre to help create dialogue and change. The students created a list of issues they thought were key in our community, including: bullying, teenage pregnancy, substance abuse, immigration and racism. The choice this first year was bullying. In order to tackle this issue in any meaningful fashion, we were required to do preliminary research. The students spent the summer creating a list of open-ended questions for other students and adults to answer. The teachers spent the summer doing research – national research on the issue, school district policies, statistics, and long term ramifications? Then in September, we met again and started an incredible, emotional, exhausting and exhilarating ride.

Over one thousand surveys were given to students and well over five hundred returned. The students from our district wrote. And wrote and wrote. Some of what we read was heartbreaking. Some was terrifying.

I stayed and watched as this guy was being taunted by a group of others because he was from Pakistan and they said he was a terrorist. Anonymous Survey

Some were just jaded. But we started to get a sense of what was happening in our school and who our primary targets were. And after compiling the information, we began devising the drama. The drama students started writing monologues, scenes, spoken word and transitions. They used the surveys, the interviews, the national research, the creative writing from the English students and their own experiences. The final piece they titled “Shadows.”

Since the creation of “Shadows,” the students have performed for over 2000 people, including small groups of students with follow-up dialogue and discussion; for the entire faculty and administration of the high school; for area universities; and have created an anti-bullying toolkit which includes curriculum, posters, pledge cards, DVDs with scenes from “Shadows,” and a music video written and performed by students.

Applied theatre is risky. It’s tough to do well. Administrators, students, and parents have to be taken on a journey to see the value in this work; they don’t immediately jump on board. But it can get entire schools and communities excited about art for change—and students excited about history, justice, politics, and the real people living among them. It can be used to explore global, state, local, and school issues. And it can be liberating for teachers. As Allan Creighton put it so well in Helping Teens Stop Violence: A Practical Guide for Counselors, Educators, and Parents (Hunter House, 1992):

“Giving up the role as the omniscient teacher with all the answers gives us a chance to be learners ourselves. Cultures across the world have always turned to young people for inspiration. Their hope that the world can be different, their outright insistence on justice and fair treatment (sometimes mislabeled “rebelliousness”), their insight and irreverence are essential to our own freedom.” 

The most exciting path in this journey may be ours, as we listen to the young people we work with, discover their perspectives on the world, and witness the power they gain simply by having their voices heard.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Year of Respect

So, I was starting to feel like a lone voice in the wilderness again.  I spent all of last year researching bullying and how to make a difference in school districts.  After working with my students to read and speak with leading experts in this country (many of whom are divided) and reading research from around the world, my students developed an award-winning, original device drama, entitled "Shadows," which was created as an educational piece to encourage dialogue and debate among students about changing school climate and making the hallways and classrooms less friendly and supportive to a bullying atmosphere. 

We had realized through research that a zero tolerance policy based on punitive measures was not being backed up by research.  It didn't seem as effective as what Finland was doing (for example), which was climate change through working with students on developing empathy and understanding, changing the bystander effect and creating an overall safer environment for bystanders and victims and less rewarding environment for bullies. 

This is actually really difficult to do in today's climate, when we turn on the television and watch our politicians bully each other (and the people they're supposed to represent); when we watch "reality" television and watch bullies get huge rewards (more airtime, longer stints on the "competition"); when we watch sitcoms and watch bullies get huge laughs - it is not easy to teach kids that bullying doesn't pay.  They look around and of course it pays.  It pays on the highway (people move), it pays in restaurants (people get comps), it pays everywhere.  Hard to fight that type of environment!

So, we had spent a year creating a thoughtful, evocative, empathetic piece to promote dialogue and awareness.  I spent my summer writing curriculum to support it.  And then... the school wanted to just do some stern threats to students about the new bullying laws here in New Jersey, another assembly (with Shadows) as part of the state mandated Week of Respect, put up a couple of posters and call it a day.  I almost jumped off the GW myself in frustration.  But after going home and stressing overnight, I came up with a plan.  And the next day I went into my principal with a strategy. 

I sat down with her and started with a simple statement.  I told her I felt we were approaching the Week of Respect as an obligation and I felt we should look at it as an opportunity.  I proposed A Year of Respect.  We're supposed to be the innovators and leaders in anti-bullying.  Let's lead.  I proposed focusing primarily on the freshmen (we're a very large school and we needed to start with baby steps).
  •  I offered to take the curriculum written (primarily applied theatre work) and go into our US History classes once a month (during traditionally lull times - testing weeks, post vacation weeks, post exam weeks, etc) and do 1 activity a month with the kids.  If the teachers were feeling pressed about Social Studies curriculum, I would do a half period.  I just need coverage for my classes.  I would do it. 
  • I also would coordinate with the visual art teachers and request a little money (a few hundred dollars) to have the kids create posters that visualized Respect.  The winning designs would be copied in color and displayed all over the school. 
  • I would contact the English teachers and some local newspapers and see if we can a contest at school for poetry or short essay, would the paper publish the winning piece?
  • I would contact the Dance Team (very popular at our school) and ask them to do a song about Respect for the pep rallies this year.
  • The Acting for Film and Television class (which I co-teach) would create PSA (public service announcements) all year to support the effort and play in the cafeteria.
The principal got so excited, she immediately said 1) YES!  and 2) she wanted to order a big banner for the school.  We started talking about other ways to innudate the school with the message.  Suddenly, something that had felt like a burden to her and like the wrong way to tackle anti-bullying to me - felt innovative and fun and exciting and MOST IMPORTANTLY - has a possibility of actually creating a difference.

Of course, she's asked me to spearhead the entire project, but this seems important to me.  So instead of doing a traditional "hall duty" or "cafeteria duty" or "study hall" duty as required in our contracts - I'll be doing this.  I'm excited.  I know it is going to be a lot of work but I can't wait.  If you have ideas, suggestions, ways you are doing things in your district, PLEASE share with me.  I'd love to hear from you.

Thanks!  And happy school year!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Prologue to Changing the Way We Think: Using the Arts to Inspire, Empower and Change Your School Community

Book is coming out this fall!  Check for updates.


I certainly got a large dose of reality splashed in my face today.… This journey is going to be quite difficult if this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Those prophetic words were texted to me by one of my high school students in the fall of 2010. We had just started the process of working on our first devised drama, a look at bullying in our school district. We didn’t know it would be the year that the bullying issue would become national news. That suicides would make headlines from Texas to our own backyard here in New Jersey. That kids would be killing themselves out of desperation from the bullying and isolation they felt. That President Obama would decide to make it a federal initiative to fight with federal and state laws. That the nation would start prosecuting young people as “criminals” for bullying others. We just wanted to look at an important issue in our school and try to make a difference.

My students were excited. They felt empowered. They were going to create change. They were going to use their art to make people think and feel and listen. They were going to impact their little corner of the world. And then…we started the journey. And real life is never as clean or as easy as we hope. Not for my students, not for me, not the teachers in our school who watched as our district went through a transformative experience…together.

Based in central New Jersey, our high school is extremely diverse, often laughingly referred to as the United Nations because of our wide diversification in religion, race, politics, economic backgrounds, and pre–high school educational opportunities. We’re  challenged meeting the needs of a student population that ranges from middle class suburbia teen to fresh-off-the-boat immigrant, with many students living in the projects dealing with little or no family support, parents serving time, and some parents barely older than their children. On the flip side of this equation, we have extremely traditional ethnic and religious families, with the gender and race expectations that walk hand in hand with this upbringing. And, of course, in the middle, the kids who are Middle America, many mixed races, many different religions and beliefs and economic levels. Put all these young people together, add hormones, and stir—this is our school. It creates segregation as well as opportunities for integration. It creates racism and opportunities to discuss race in a unique environment. It creates a true melting pot of religious diversity and all the stereotypes that accompany them—and all the problems, violence, and fear that are proliferated by media, politicians, and peers.

And here we are. A population of twenty-four hundred high school students, some honor roll, some repeating ninth grade for the third time. Yet our school has been honored as a “model school of excellence in the arts.” The arts! In central New Jersey, during an economic recession, in a district fighting to keep its AYP scores up, the arts continue to thrive. So this brought up some intriguing questions. How do we use the arts to help our kids be better students? How do we use the arts to bridge the gap between religions? How do we use the arts to combat racism? How do we use the arts to tackle the ongoing and seemingly unbreakable problem of bullying?

Faced with these questions, I approached my superintendent with a simple premise: The arts can do more. Our high school can do more. We can build an applied theatre program to foster health and self-esteem, and build a better community for all of our students. And he agreed to take the leap of faith. This book is my attempt to help other teachers and districts take this journey as well. It is daunting, it is tiring, and it is the most exhilarating ride you will ever experience.