“Yo Mister, that ain’t right!”
I’m teaching test prep in a Title I High School, in a part of Brooklyn that’s not portrayed on Girls, leading a rambunctious group of previously failing students through a content-review of the Cold War; exploring the difference between capitalism and communism. One particularly volatile student, Jonathan, is decrying the fact that he didn’t get M&M’s as a reward for giving the correct answer, like his classmate Kamar.
The class is split in half, and both students are on the side of capitalism. Kamar answered the question correctly, and because in a capitalist system hard work rewards the individual rather than the group, some students, like Jonathan, are going to miss out on the rewards. However, when someone from the communist half of the class answers correctly, M&M’s are shared by the whole group.
Some teachers might be alarmed at the sudden outburst between Kamar and Jonathan, but what it shows me is that the level of student engagement in the room is high, and my students are connecting with core content in an emotional way.
We know that students retain content best when they are emotionally engaged. Yelling, in this case, is a good sign.
The above exercise showcases that and is the essence of what can be defined as process drama: instead of lecturing on core content, students live it.
Process drama is an interactive approach developed by British arts ed pioneer Dorothy Heathcote, in the 1960’s. Heathcote’s innovations in teaching are centered around creating a classroom experience in which students are working through an issue or challenge, making important discoveries about themselves, and learning more about their world along the way. While process dramas has elements of theatre, it is not theatre–it is a living environment that asks students and teachers to think critically and deeply about the subject at hand.
We finally manage to barrel through my introduction to Capitalism and Communism, and now it’s time for the deep dive.
I am going to ask my students to role play history.
First, we must introduce students to two characters — President Truman and Josef Stalin, played by the classroom teacher and myself. Partly to ease the classroom teacher into the experience of role-playing, I’ve written scripts for both characters. Still, the work requires a level of improvisation that is inherent to the experience. The images of Truman and Stalin are projected on the wall so that the students can, literally, put a face to the name.
Within a few moments, the students will also be asked to work in role, as diplomats forced to make a choice about policy. It is important that the students are also given the chance to role play because it deepens their experience and understanding, allowing them to think empathetically as characters in history.
Students already know how to be students, but, through process drama, they are learning more about how to collaborate, cooperate, and form opinions. The objective of this part of the exercise is to create a back and forth between the two characters who try to persuade students towards their political ideology. Although we are improvising a situation that never happened, the themes and concepts are real, and our role-playing provides a catalyst for further inquiry.
“Who wants to be communist?” I ask. Because I have spent much of my adult life as an actor, I am, of course, speaking with Russian accent.
Silence in the room.
“Do you want die in a ditch, or do you want to be guaranteed food shelter and a job? Capitalism makes people poor and those people die. They are pigs. Who wants to be with me?”
The students are now starting wriggle in their seats.
My partnering classroom teacher, now fully in the game, passionately extolls the virtues of capitalism. “Capitalism means if you work hard, you are rewarded. There is no laziness and no handouts. Sure, you may fail, but you may also rise to the top!”
The students begin to murmur amongst themselves. “Shoot, I don’t want to be broke and homeless…” and “That’s true but if you work, you can succeed…” but “guaranteed food and shelter..?”
Students are asked to vote by arranging themselves on either side of a dividing line. Despite the fact that I think the capitalist system in America has left many of our students and their families stuck in a cycle of poverty, I notice that it is by far their favorite choice.
I rationalize this by concluding that capitalism is the easy choice for a teenager with no money, one that reflects their hope that if they work hard, they can actually graduate, get a job and become a successful adult.
The final sequence of the lesson asks students, still in role, to defend their choices by making a piece of art. I like to give students choices, so, for this part, they can craft songs, write poems, design brochures, or create scenes with the goal of persuading their peers to move to their side. The only requirement is that they use evidence pulled from some of the primary sources that have been shared with them in class.
The evidence can be taken from speeches that Truman and Stalin have delivered, some of which I have adapted to craft the script that was delivered earlier in the lesson. While they are working, it is pedagogically important that the students stay in-role and in the world of the drama we’ve created together. This allows them to imagine themselves as people from different regions and classes around the world. The role also acts as a security blanket, helping students be more comfortable speaking in front of their peers. Jamillah may be shy, but because we are in the drama world, it’s not Jamilla presenting, it’s “a Russian soldier.” It’s not Kamar performing a poem, it is a “diplomat.”
Process drama gives students of all dispositions the chance to bring more of themselves into the classroom. Loud voices are allowed, even encouraged. Lessons are fluid enough that teachers can incorporate a little bit of something for everyone. Students involved in a process drama develop an emotional connection to the work. Thinking and Feeling, students in an effective process drama are more engaged, excited, and receptive to learning.
I wish every class incorporated elements of process drama. I have seen the approach change lives. It changed mine.
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