Teachers Act Up!

Thoughts on Teaching, Language, and Social Change from Melisa "Misha" Cahnmann-Taylor

Teachers Tell All: Theatre for Social Change in Our Educational Communities”

Teachers Tell All: Theatre for Social Change in Our Educational Communities”

When I decided to teach two summer school courses–one poetry course for creative educators and one theatre course for reflective language practice–I don’t think I knew what I was getting myself and my students and colleagues into.  Summer courses are always compressed, fast-paced, and challenged to get a semester’s worth of material into their confines.  So I compressed further–shortened the weeks into days and stretched the hours from early morning to late at night.  After all, this is how artists work during workshop experiences–like beans in a pressure cooker, where the cook is a working mother and has to get dinner on the table.   Why shouldn’t teachers on their precious summer time off- immerse themselves in artistic experience, and live as an artist?  And haven’t I felt the magic of intense, daily artistic practice on writers’ retreats and summer stock theatre productions? Surely, we could add a few readings, class discussions, and educational applications into the mix!  Teachers are artists and we need opportunities to exercise our complete and utter creativity–but we don’t have all summer to do this!

It might have been enough to have introduced the craft of poetry and applied theatre to the two groups of novice teacher artists; enough to make connections to K-12 interdisciplinary practice; it would have been enough to have read the foundations of this work from Paulo Freire, Augusto Boal, Dwight Conquergood, and Michelle Boisseau, among others (dayenu).  But in each class I (and in the theatre class, “we”–my colleague Dr. Emily Sahakian and I) asked for more.  While I was in my element directing a poetry reading which featured an ensemble of teacher poets, I was much less certain about creating, directing, acting, and “joking” (Boalian term) in a theatre piece by, for, and about teachers.

Today is the “day after”–our ensemble featured on the front page of our local newspaper and still glowing in the aftermath of the joy and celebration of putting on an interactive show that elicited tremendous audience participation and feedback.  I’m so ecstatic, I had to write about it!  I know there is more to say about our process and our final product–for now, I simply add the link to the newspaper article and encourage readers to see pictures of our class and event on the Facebook events page.  When the incredible videographer, Ron Braxley, completes the video segments from the show, I will post and perhaps be newly inspired to write some more!

I am left with questions, generating more questions:

1) When the actors, spectators, or  “spect-actors” (Augusto Boal’s term) can all feel the power of performing social struggle and collective rehearsals for social change–how does the researcher document this experience? What counts as data? What is convincing evidence for this kind of creative professional development for teachers?

2) When a teacher participates (at various levels–from ensemble participation, to witness and interactive performance during a showcase, to reading about the work or seeing a video), to what extent do varying levels of participation affect practice? Can the affect be measured?

3) Why do we need measurement? What other ways, e.g. arts-based research ways, might illuminate the empirical outcomes of such an experience, beyond what any other methodology (discourse analysis, survey or interview data, test outcomes, etc.) can do? What can words alone accomplish? Video? Being there.

When we know the arts matter, but if we are lucky enough to be faculty and have the resources and motivation to do research, it is our responsibility to document and illustrate why the arts matter. Listen or read the compelling comments form Adele Diamond about her research and activism regarding the arts and learning.

She says,

Vygotsky and Luria were giants in Russia in psychology and in neuroscience. And Vygotsky emphasized that social development and cognitive development were intimately integrated and if you want to develop one you need to develop the other. So we develop cognitively by interacting and being in a social world. And if you think about social dramatic play and the three executive functions I mentioned, first of all, let’s say you’re playing Cops and Robbers. You have to use working memory to remember what role you picked and what role your friends picked, right? Because if you want to go to the cop you don’t want to accidentally go to the robber. That could be disastrous. And you have to inhibit acting out of character. Let’s say you’re playing Mommy and Baby. You may know exactly what Mommy should do and she’s not doing it and you want to terribly go in there and correct the situation but you’re the baby. You can’t. You have to stay in character. And then your friends may take that scenario in new ways that you never expected. So on the fly in real time, you have to flexibly adjust. So in this play, you’re exercising working memory, you’re exercising inhibition, and you’re exercising cognitive flexibility. And you’re doing it in a natural situation.

So this is why we should add more creativity to teacher education and K-12 (16+) education:

School should be joyful. Why not? Then the children will want to be there. You learn more. Your brain works better. Your prefrontal cortex goes offline if you’re stressed, even mildly stressed. So the more you stress children in school the worse their executive function is going to be and the worse their higher cognitive functions are going to work. They work better if they’re not stressed, if they’re happy. And you can do things joyfully or you can do things making somebody miserable. Why not do it joyfully?

As to research, she adds:

You know, to the naked eye people give you testimonials all the time about how it’s changed their lives and you can see how amazing it is when you look at the video. But we need research to show that it does this. So I keep trying to encourage people to go do the research about this.

I agree–thank you Adele! We are compressing our data and here we go!


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