“The dramatist should not only offer pleasure but should, besides that, be a teacher of morality and a political adviser.”
– Aristophanes, as quoted by Augusto Boal in Theatre of the Oppressed
I was told that we needed to be careful.
Careful because racism was “political” and we shouldn’t be doing or talking about anything “political” in the classroom. So, we had to be creative. We decided to start by first exploring the students’ own ideas of what it meant – and what it looked like, felt like – to be racist.
To do this we used a technique called Theatre of the Oppressed.
Theatre of the Oppressed was created by Augusto Boal (1985) as a way of engaging in the pedagogy of the oppressed, as articulated by Paulo Freire (2006). Freire was an educator and leader particularly interested in emancipatory educational approaches. For Freire, liberating people from oppression meant raising people’s awareness and helping people discover new ways of knowing, acting, and being. Boal argued that our awareness can shift and we can experience moments of consciousness-raising, discovering the wisdom to act and live in new ways by using theatre to explore social events and issues (Dennis 2009). By finding new ways of acting in particular situations, we could find new ways of being in this world, and by being different we would free ourselves – as both oppressors and oppressed – from the oppressive relationship (Dennis 2009).
To engage in this approach, the SSS students wrote out experiences they had had with racism at their school or in their community. Once they had the experiences written down they sat in a circle in the classroom and students volunteered to act out each experience. As is typical for this approach, at first each scene was acted out without any interruption – the group just got familiar with the storyline. Then students acted the scene out again, and this time other students were invited to comment on what was happening, ask questions, or challenge an action that was taken.
Students enjoyed challenging each other and asking each other questions, saying things like, “Well, that’s just how that teacher is – you have to ask her in this way instead of how you did,” or “What did YOU do before that that might have caused her to react that way,” or “I don’t think he meant what you think he did,” and so on.
One student reflected on the experience:
Yeah we all had like, we all talked about bad experiences that we’ve had with teachers, and so we kind of…What we did was we acted it all out and then we asked each other like, what do you think the teacher was thinking and that moment, and what do you think he, the student, was thinking at that moment. Or the people around, and stuff like that, and…I feel like it was a good exercise because it made me think about things that the teachers could have been thinking about if I was in their place or something like that.
I actually was one of the ones that presented like, an act. Like, we acted out, yeah and it was when. It was with [my teacher] and I had gone up to ask him a question and he was like, I don’t remember. It was a question. I had a question, I have no idea what. One of like, one of the words in the question I had no idea what it meant. Because it was about [inaudible] and all that kind of stuff, and like so I went up and asked him what it meant, and he kind of didn’t really pay attention to what I had asked him, so all he said was like, go look it up on the iPad, that’s what they’re for. And I was just like what? And after that I’m like what a jerk. Like, he’s so rude and after that…But then I kind of thought what he might have been thinking like. I mean I probably could have looked it up on the Internet, but I just thought it was easier to just go ask him. Because like, he had made up the study guide and he had made the word sheet, so I thought he could have helped, that’s all.
Yeah but I think it was good, because after that I wasn’t really mad at him, I was just like, oh whatever it’s just some small incident. Instead of being like he’s rude and I’m not going to deal with him anymore. (Mila, SSS student)
Another student said about the experience:
It’s taught me that the way some teachers say things negatively, or the way they say things but they don’t mean it that way, we can also do that. And I didn’t really see our teachers, I just saw them as adults. But I never really saw them as a human. I saw them as a teacher. Like they should know what they’re doing.
But after the whole research I realized that they are human that you can’t just like, “Oh, well, she’s this, she’s that.” No, you kind of have to give them a chance, you kind of have to give it some effort. (Suehey, SSS student)
Tear Down Racism, Build Up Unity