Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find: Playback Theatre and Character Education
Discussion and Recommendations for Future Research
This chapter integrates the analyzed data gathered from the focus groups, survey cards, interviews, observations, thank you notes and informal discussions, and seeks to determine how it informs the primary and secondary research questions. The focus groups conducted with the teachers and students prior to the start of the project served as a vehicle to determine the content of the performances. They also presented information on current character education practices, and the students’ and teachers’ attitudes regarding its effectiveness, as well as the overall school climate. This baseline of information was necessary to avoid erroneously attributing changes in school climate, student/teacher empathy and cognitive knowledge related to character education, to the Playback Theatre performances.
The data gathered from the teacher focus group indicates that the teachers believe the parents don’t support character education, although there was no indication that significant parental input was sought in developing and implementing the program. This lack of parental involvement in defining culturally appropriate program goals is an example of the lack of democracy in education today (Edwards, 2000; Gregory, 2000). Conversely, at least one 5th grade teacher and one specials teacher sit on the committee, and only the latter evidenced significant knowledge or enthusiasm for their school’s character education program. Their discussion regarding the high level of poverty, homelessness and drug addiction among the families following the comments about lack of parental support for their program, indicate a potentially unrealistic expectation of the parents. There seemed to be a “disconnect” between their knowledge of the social problems they reported that these parents face, and the very real outcome these issues present for the families. If viewed in the context of Maslow’s (1970) Hierarchy of Needs, one can not possibly meet social or even emotional obligations if basic needs for food, safety and shelter are not being met. The teachers’ comments that different family values constitute an impediment to character development at school seem legitimate given the diversity of the school’s population; however, they really haven’t investigated this issue. Helping the teachers develop their empathy for the parents, as well, as seeking a broader base of input from parents regarding their character education program, would likely address some of their frustration with low parental support of the program.
Staff buy-in was another factor mentioned as an impediment to character education at this school. None of the teachers received character education training in their pre-service teacher programs or in graduate school, however, all stated that they had attended some sort of in-service program. A more uniform and/or on-going training for staff might increase interest and focus on this topic. Social learning theory emphasizes the importance of modeling (Kearsley, 2003) in shaping positive behavior. Additionally, Edwards (2000) postulates that teaching is a moral activity, but teachers are not supported in achieving adequate knowledge and the high levels of moral sensitivity which are a necessary precursor to modeling good character. A discussed in both the teachers’ and the students’ focus group sessions, it is equally important to mandate character education training for all of the staff, not just the teachers and assistant teachers. Both groups noted there were discrepancies in staff behavior in regards to the various character traits that are part of the program.
It would be relevant to investigate how much total staff input goes into planning the character education program. The traits that are emphasized are chosen by the school district as opposed to each individual school, again suggesting a lack of cultural sensitivity or consideration of each school as a separate community of learning. There was no evidence that students had input into the planning process, either. This lack of a democratic process would seem counter-productive to promoting citizenship (one of the CMS character traits) and has been cited as a criticism of schools by educational philosophers and researchers (Dewey, 1938/1997; Gregory, 2000; Noddings, 1995).
The final challenge noted by the teachers about character education related to time constraints. While it is true that teachers are expected to accomplish more in the same amount of time (Lumsden, 1998), this is an easy excuse for those who also are not truly invested in this aspect of education. Mandatory training for pre-service teachers would set the tone for the value of character education in our schools, yet this would not address the issue with current teachers. It does support the notion of integrated character education in the curriculum. Promoting morality and ethics in the context of other subjects such as English, history, science and social studies is feasible. Character education should also be viewed as the driving force in classroom management. Lumsden adds, however, that teachers need to be recognized and rewarded for their creativity and modeling of good character.
The teachers cited poverty, homelessness, parental substance abuse/abandonment and crime ridden neighborhoods as the predominant social ills affecting the moral development of their students. I was bemused by their lack of affect when discussing these issues. I believe that Weissbourd’s (2003) theory on teacher depression and disillusionment would partially explain this apparent emotional detachment regarding their students’ dire situations. It is possible the teachers who participated in this study have so many students facing so many problems that they distance themselves emotionally in order to cope. I am not aware of any type of support group for teachers who work in high-poverty schools, but as a psychotherapist whose staff deals with a high number of abuse and neglect cases, I understand the need for support and on-going peer supervision in order to prevent burn-out when working with children and families with many challenges. Supporting teachers in a similar manner might also facilitate their emotional development.
The teachers did demonstrate some understanding and concern for students in their choice of topics for the three performances. Only the first topic, responsibility, is an actual character trait promoted by the school system. The other topics chosen were self- esteem and bullying. They discussed concerns about students’ lack of self-respect and self-care. Additionally, bullying was cited as a major behavioral problem with the fifth grade students, and one that they thought students were struggling with openly. This issue is widespread in American schools and a recently completed study found almost one third of 6th-10th grade students have been victims of some form of bullying (Coy, 2001). Another study reports that children of lower-socioeconomic status were more likely to become involved in bullying behavior and to be victims of bullying behavior (Dake, Price, & Telljohann, 2003). Characteristics of children who bully include; depression, difficulty adjusting, physical and social aggression, low academic achievement, poor parental relationships, harsh home environments, propensity for negative moods and a lack of adult role models.
The brief research I conducted on bullying in schools to help prepare the troupe for the third performance indicates that character education programs should include specific strategies for addressing this issue. Coy (2001) cited drama and storytelling as appropriate methods for promoting anti-bullying policy in the classroom.
Overall the teacher focus group session demonstrated a lack of teacher empathy for these students and their families. The teachers blamed parents, separation of church and state, elimination of corporal punishment, time constraints, and multiple social problems as barriers to promoting moral development in their students. Only one teacher vocalized a consideration of how he might be contributing to the difficulties with the parents. It is unrealistic of teachers to expect students to take responsibility for their actions if they themselves don’t take any responsibility (White, 1998). In hindsight, I wish I had scheduled informal observations in some of their classrooms, as I strongly suspect from our discussions that they periodically fail to demonstrate the behavior they expect from their students.
The student focus group interview yielded a different perspective on this school’s character education program. The students’ comments indicate that they view character education as a valuable component of their education. I can only speculate on the level of enthusiasm they might exhibit if they were involved in planning and evaluating the program. They demonstrated content knowledge of their program by naming all of the character traits, and they could cite all of the aspects of the program from delivery of content to reward and recognition. They gave the most detail, however, when discussing the play that some of them had been involved with earlier that year. This is congruent with studies cited earlier regarding active learning and the use of drama as an engaging method for promoting moral development (Dowling, 1994; Krajewski, 1999).
While they had many positive things to say about their teachers, students reported that there is inconsistency in behavior toward students from all of the staff. They complained of a lack of empathy and at times, respect, and of teachers difficulty listening and demonstrating patience when students are frustrated. While the students didn’t cite their own shortcomings as part of this problem, their responses indicate awareness that they need help with their emotional and moral development. They astutely recognize that teachers and other staff inconsistently model the behavior they expect from students. In spite of this incongruence, the students spoke fondly of the teachers and they clearly appreciate their teachers’ positive attributes. This supports the notion that students want to feel connected to their teachers and to feel a sense of belonging at school (Mendes, 2003). It also underscores the importance of modeling in social learning.
There was sufficient evidence to support the idea that Playback Theatre promotes empathy within its audience. The comments from the student survey cards indicate a range of empathic responses across the three shows. Given the fact empathy is not a character trait or term that these students are familiar with, I believe the number of responses to be significant. In contrast to Pardun-Johannsen’s (2004) study, the lack of previous exposure to the concept of empathy suggests that empathy was more likely generated spontaneously by the performances. Overall, the rate of responses for the first two performances lends credence to the idea that Playback Theatre promotes empathy (Wright, 2003). Unfortunately, I was not able to find a similar study using Playback Theatre where the rate of empathic responses were recorded with a pre-adolescent population as the audience, so I can not determine if the rates are average, below average or higher than average. Indeed, even the most similar study I found using drama to teach character education with fifth grade students (Pardun-Johannsen, 2004) did not offer a quantifiable comparison.
Another caution in considering the student empathy response rate is that the three shows were not identical in format or content. In traditional Playback Theatre performances, there is typically a conductor, a musician, and three to five actors on stage together (Salas,1993). The conductor serves as the director and is responsible for selecting and interviewing the tellers, and in our case, due to the limited experience of most of the actors, the conductor also dictated the specific format for each retelling. Our conductor was also given license to stop us in mid-performance and make a suggestion or utter some other comment to help guide the actors or move the story along. I did not anticipate her discomfort with some of the students’ painful stories or experiences, or that it would alter the flow of a performance, which happened on at least two occasions. As a former teacher herself, the conductor seemed invested in “teaching” and spent a significant portion of the third show lecturing and promoting the idea of empowerment as a solution to being bullied, the latter concept being more consistent with Theatre of the Oppressed or sociodrama.
The conductor was also adamant that we needed to be entertaining, and in retrospect, I think she promoted this agenda excessively at times, to ensure we met this criterion. She advocated for a predetermined storytelling based on a popular children’s book to introduce the topic of bullying for the third show. While this allowed us an opportunity to recruit audience actors for bit parts, thereby ensuring teacher involvement, one of the teachers who participated refused to follow the story line as it was being read, and proceeded to create her own. This had not been considered as a possible risk, and subsequently this discussion altered the flow of the story. There may be a relationship between these differences and the much lower empathy rates for this last show than the previous two. This makes sense as there was much less use of Playback Theatre techniques and very few personal stories or disclosures were offered as the opportunity to do so was quite was limited.
In future studies it would be pertinent to determine ahead of time if a conductor is comfortable with the kinds of issues that students might present and probably prudent to limit the conductor’s authority to change the course of the show without group consensus. Even though I experienced some misgivings about these changes when they were proposed, my concern about the lack of Playback Theatre or improvisational theatre experience of some of our troupe, and my deference to the conductor, who has far more PBT training than I, kept me from advocating for a more traditional PBT format. The reader should note that the actors were all volunteers which I believed influenced the conductor’s willingness to push them for additional rehearsal time.
Any type of improvisational theatre troupe needs on-going rehearsal to learn how to read each other’s offers in role and to have some sense of how each person uses their body, voice and allotted space (Salas, 1993). My experience in PBT training classes has been concordant, the more connection I feel with my fellow actors, the better I am able to intuit their performances and thus adjust mine accordingly. During the rehearsal process, different levels of acting abilities become apparent and while it isn’t necessary for everyone to be at the same level, better actors in general give better performances. Therefore, in PBT, the ability to empathize with the teller and his or her story is critical (Fox, 1994). It was obvious that some of the actors were challenged by this requirement of Playback Theatre, which in turn affected the overall performance. In one instance, when three of us were asked to create a fluid sculpture depicting a student’s feelings upon receiving some important test scores, he responded that only I had portrayed part of his internal experience by correctly identifying one of his emotions. The skill of empathic responding is pre-requisite before completing a counselor training program, so I had a definite advantage over the other actors in this respect. Additionally, having completed two classes in PBT, I had more experience than all but one of the other actors in this type of improvisational performance.
There was little evidence from the teacher evaluations to indicate that the performances promoted empathy for their students. As stated previously, there are several possible explanations for this, such as their absence at the second show, which generated the highest number of empathic responses from the students. The scheduling of the performances may have also contributed to the problem. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools system mandated that the performances take place outside of instructional time. This meant scheduling them during the specials class time, which is a planning period for the regular classroom teachers. This time is so crucial for the teachers that I literally had to plead with the principal to allow them to attend the third show as she had planned a meeting during this period to discuss the impending End-of-Grade testing. It is also possible that Playback Theatre is not an effective medium for promoting teacher empathy.
Some of the actors had observed teachers’ body language and facial expressions that indicated annoyance or resistance, and this may have been due to resentment at being required to acquiesce this planning period. Perhaps if we had held the teacher workshop on Playback Theatre prior to the start of the student performances, they would have been
more amenable to attending all three shows. They certainly would have had a more thorough understanding of PBT and why their attendance and participation was crucial to the project (Salas, 2004).
The students’ interviews further supported the hypothesis that the Playback Theatre project promoted empathy for their peers and teachers. It is often difficult for children to imagine adults as once having been children themselves. Indeed we adults often behave as if we were never children, both in our behavior toward and expectations of the children who are part of our world. There are many adults in my profession who assume young children can participate comfortably in talk therapy, and they ignore the fact that play is a child’s natural language (G. Landreth, personal communication, April 9, 2005). Having the teachers share some of their childhood stories both delighted and humanized them to the students. It illuminated the connection between students and teachers through the sharing of common experiences. This in turn planted the idea that teachers can relate to students and have some understanding for the students’ life experiences and challenges.
The teachers’ interviews, much more so than the teacher evaluations, indicated some facilitation of empathy for the students. One teacher was surprised that his quiet, shy student was able and willing to be the first student to tell a story. He commented on her nervousness and his pride in her courage at pushing herself to tell her story. I suspect she may have been inspired by his willingness to tell a story that morning as well. He did not mention this possibility in the interview, yet, he definitely modeled courage in his sharing and she verbalized her appreciation of his story in her interview. (Please note that this was coincidental as I did not choose either the students or the teachers for the interviews.) Ms. L also shared she believed that one of her students who had been the victim of bullying was empowered by his role as an actor in the third performance. Similar findings of student empowerment are reported by Rowland (2002), and Schnapp and Olsen (2003) in their drama programs that promote social skills development.
There was a third teacher who reported that she had learned nothing from the student tellers, claiming she had heard these stories before. This same teacher sat with her arms crossed and a bored expression on her face during the first performance, and interrupted the focus group session by leaving to obtain drinks and snacks, held unrelated side conversations during the focus group, interrupted the follow-up interview demanding that Mr. A and Ms. L turn in paperwork immediately to her, and then joined in on the interview half-way through without invitation. These observations indicate her lack of interest in the project and possible resistance to participating in a meaningful way. This probability reduces the significance of her responses and raises another issue as it highlights the challenge of engaging all school staff in character education programs. Staff commitment and meaningful participation should be addressed in future studies.
The last piece of evidence supporting the potential of Playback Theatre in promoting empathy comes from the thank you notes I received after the final performance. My favorite comment is “I learned that you can use the way you feel and act it out,” an eloquent statement for a child with limited exposure to such concepts. The hand-made thank you cards from the students were also visually expressive with bright colors depicting both abstract designs and theatre scenes. I could ascertain from some of the messages that they were written by third or fourth grade students who only attended the encore performance. Another student stated, “I would probably fit in there.” in relation to being on stage with the student actors. His was not the only comment indicating an eagerness to be directly involved in drama, but his phraseology suggests his yearning to also be a part of a community. This need to belong is emphasized in (Kessler, 2000; Noddings, 1995) by educators and is one of the tenets of Playback Theatre’s composition (Salas, 1993).
The second research question I hoped to explore in this study was if Playback Theatre is a potential method for teaching character education. When I think of “teaching” character, I think of content transmission and skill building. While this school clearly was teaching some of the content, most of their program appeared to be about recognizing and rewarding student displays of specific character traits rather than actual skill building. This is another criticism in the literature on character education in general--that teachers tell students what they should strive to do, but don’t offer them enough guidance on how to do it (Shapiro, 1999), most likely because they have not been trained in this subject themselves..
While the percentages of responses that indicated content learning were very encouraging, there were marked differences between the three shows. The rate of content-related responses for the first show on both the second and third questions was fifty percent. For the second they dropped to 35 and 13 percent respectively. The third show’s percentages were 41 and 47 percent. It is probable that the higher rates of content responses in the first performance are due, at least in part, to students’ prior learning. Responsibility is a character trait that is highlighted every year. Some of the specific responses indicate that a portion of the students broadened their definition and understanding of this trait. For the second and third shows, there appeared to be an inverse correlation between the content learning and empathy response rates.
While self-esteem is a nebulous idea to many, the students were able to relate to some of their peers’ stories regarding times when they felt good about themselves or times they were unhappy with themselves. One student attempted to tell about his feelings of worthlessness when his mother abandoned him, but the conductor quickly cut him off and moved on to another student. She stated later that she believed his story would have been inappropriate for our setting and his disclosure would have made the other students uncomfortable. The lack of clear boundaries for tellers that Rowe (2005) discusses in his research, become problematic in such a situation. Unlike the adult tellers he describes, children have less awareness regarding personal disclosure. Her decision also supports Rowe’s observation that PBT practitioners alter their performance to accommodate the setting, however, I am certain she was projecting some of her own discomfort with his story. We had previously discussed her avoidance of “negative energy” and her desire to promote laughter and entertainment. While it might have been uncomfortable for many to hear, I had discussed with the site coordinator how we might provide support for a student in such a situation, and had also discussed this with the company. Though the conductor’s intentions had merit, I believe many of the other students in that audience might have related to his story due to similar circumstances experienced because of divorce or neglect. I have also considered the disallowance of this type of story may have sent a message to the audience about what kinds of stories were acceptable. The irony is that the primary goal of the project was to promote empathy, and this can not be accomplished if a personal distress response is allowed to direct the actions of the actors.
Many of the comments that were made regarding the content learning about bullying indicate that respondents had gained a new perspective or skill. Comments from the students of this nature included:
Don’t be afraid; say something nice to settle the person down.
When the bully said something, ignore them.
I learned that there are all kinds of ways to stop a bully.
Instead of arguing with a bully, say something to make them happy.
Again I remind the reader that we started the third show with a predetermined skit based on the book The Recess Queen (O’Neill, 2002), which has a positive outcome between the bully and her victim. We also used a sociodrama technique at one point where we presented different examples of bullying and “tried out” various solutions, many of which were generated by the audience. It would seem that the incorporation other styles of theatre might increase content learning, but perhaps at the expense of empathy development. I advocate for more of a balance if the goal is to achieve a significant amount of both content learning and empathy in a performance for character education purposes. Another solution might be to have smaller audiences so that a higher percentage of students can participate as tellers, and to allow time for some discussion at the end of the performance.
I also believe having an adult relay a story about bullying would have had a corollary on the empathy and understanding of the students. An adult teller would be able to discuss with the conductor (which is done in front of the audience) how she or he felt about being bullied, being the bully, or witnessing the bullying of a peer and doing nothing to intervene, or conversely defending a victim. For example, I could tell a personal story for each of these scenarios. An adult teller could also discuss motivations for how they chose to behave and offer suggestions for how to “re-write” the story if unsatisfied with the outcome. Some of these tasks or responses would likely be more difficult for a fifth grader to generate without practice.
Additional information gathered during the follow-up interviews indicated that Playback Theatre is an effective method for teaching character education concepts. As one third to one half of the students made content related responses to questions two and three on the survey cards, it is apparent that drama and theatre techniques are an appropriate instructional method, however, the highest content learning responses resulted from the first show, which was themed on a familiar character trait, and the third show, which included other forms of theatre than Playback Theatre. Therefore, determining the most effective format of Playback Theatre to teach character education concepts requires further experimentation.
The teacher evaluations indicated that one half of the respondents believed that the students had demonstrated cognitive understanding of character education concepts through direct application of ideas that were presented during performances. A significant number also perceived that the performances had increased student interest in character education, and as students were discussing the performances afterwards. There might have been a stronger response if more of the teachers had actually followed up the performances with a discussion or related activity. While half of them indicated that they had expanded on the topics or tellers’ stories, only two offered description of how they did this, suggesting that others’ attempts at follow-up may have been less extensive or purposeful. In the future, a handout on suggestions for follow-up activities for the teachers might increase the actual learning stimulated by such theatre experiences.
Other evidence that supports the efficacy of this method of teaching character education is found in the student and teacher interviews. The students reported that they had discussed the performances at school and at home, and that they had overheard staff members’ discussions as well. They specifically described how a known bully in their grade level had ceased his bullying behavior in the lunchroom following the final show. One of the teachers made a similar comment in his interview, describing a student who had changed her behavior after attending the performances, and stating that he had noticed several of the students attempting to apply concepts presented during the performances. As noted earlier, a third teacher disagreed with her peers, commenting that this was most likely a temporary phenomenon. Further research is warranted to determine if a combination of Playback Theatre, Forum Theatre and sociodrama formats would yield the best results for both empathy development and cognitive learning, but the findings from this study indicate that this is well worth the effort.
My third research question was how the project might affect the school climate. This is a more complex question to answer, and requires a longitudinal design. Indicators that the performances had a positive effect overall can be found in the student and teacher interviews and the teacher evaluations. The evaluations completed by the ten staff members indicated that the majority of them concluded the project had a positive outcome on the students and staff. Seventy percent felt the performances had been very effective in promoting character education concepts. The students who were interviewed actually requested an encore performance. One of their ideas for a theme related to the stress they reportedly experienced due to the EOG tests that were looming in the near future. Their belief in the power of this type of performance to reduce stress in a playful, yet respectful, manner suggests they felt they and their peers benefited from the project.
Mr. A asserted in his interview that the program had given his students an opportunity to experiment with new behaviors, and he expressed an interest in learning how to incorporate more drama techniques into his teaching methods. My impression of him during the focus group session was that he was the teacher most receptive to the project and indeed he appeared to absorb more of the experience in comparison to the other fifth grade teachers. If his response is an adequate barometer, then I conclude that Playback Theatre has potential to positively affect school climate. To fully ascertain this project’s effect on school climate would necessitate more interviews and observations across a longer period of time. The potential would likely increase if more shows were scheduled and other grades were included, but I believe we planted some seeds for change, if only on a small scale.
The answer to my fourth question regarded how students would respond to live theatre. This seems relatively easy to discern, especially in comparison to the effect on school climate. Less than seven percent of students from the second and third shows reported that they didn’t like the performance at all. In the student interviews, the students offered ideas for future performances, and one student commented that the school should make drama a regular part of the curriculum. Both of the students interviewed enthusiastically discussed the details of the performances and proclaimed their eagerness for more interactive styles of theatre. They also proposed the encore performance and gave several suggestions for themes.
The teacher evaluations supported this conclusion as well. Sixty percent affirmed that the students’ interest in drama had increased as a result of the project. This belief was reiterated by the teachers who were interviewed. The thank you cards that followed the encore performance also punctuated this finding. Many of students stated they hoped we would return this year and perform again. Finally, my own observations of the students both during the performances, and when working with them afterwards, indicate that they were excited to be a part of the project. They were anxious to share ideas and stories. The transformation in their moods on the day of the encore performance was quite gratifying. Ms. Z later informed me that the principal was so pleased with the outcome she was looking into grant opportunities to fund more drama programs.
This information also provides evidence for the answer to my last question regarding the influence the program might have on the teachers’ perceptions of drama as a teaching tool. While I have not queried the principal about this, her pursuit of funding for an on-going drama program posits her affirmation of drama’s potential benefit in the curriculum. In the teacher interviews, all three said they would participate in another Playback Theatre project, and Mr. A expressed a desire to learn more about drama as a teaching tool. Ms. Z was also enthusiastic about future drama or theatre programs, however, as she demonstrated this from the inception of the project, I can not conclude that this project drove her interests, but rather it complimented her goals and objectives.
Limitations of the Study
The study was conducted with a small group of students (approximately fifty-five) and teachers. The students were all of the same grade level and primarily the same low-income, minority background. These facts limit the potential to generalize the findings to other schools or grade-levels. The small number of interviews is also a draw-back. Ideally, I would have been able to interview all of the staff and several more of the students involved in the program, to allow for more breadth and depth of perceptions of the program’s effect on this school.
Other limitations of the research are the short-term nature of the study and the reliance on self-reports. While immediate follow-up suggested some success in promoting empathy and cognitive knowledge of the character traits presented, there is no way to confirm if these findings would remain constant over time. The results did not inform as to the students’ ability to apply their empathy or knowledge of the character traits. Additionally, the results did not indicate if teachers’ empathy would be more evident to students, or if they would increase modeling of specific character traits. This could only be determined by a long-term study and recording of observations of student and teacher behavior.
There is the possibility that a halo effect occurred during the student interviews. I had several contacts with students that involved positive interactions. These interactions may have prompted a desire to please me during the interviews. They may have also been persuaded to do so because they admired my performances and found me entertaining. Having a different interviewer who is not directly involved in the performances would solve this problem in future studies.
Recommendations for Program Improvement
While my findings support the use of Playback Theatre as vehicle for promoting student-teacher empathy and character education concepts, there are multiple possibilities for modification of the program that would likely improve the outcome. As my review of the literature indicated, creative drama engages the learner through all three learning styles, namely auditory, visual and kinesthetic. Skills of cooperation, creative thinking, spontaneity and elements of empathy are developed by participants in drama programs and theatre productions. Playback Theatre has combined the aesthetic components of theatre arts with the therapeutic qualities of sociodrama and psychodrama in order to honor personal stories and build community among its participants. While only a brief number of projects have investigated this phenomenon (Salas, 2004; Wright, 2003, Rea, 2003) the early findings support the Playback Theatre founders’ beliefs.
In applying theories of active learning with the data gathered in this study the next step would be to work directly with the students and interested staff, to teach them Playback Theatre techniques. Once the group has mastered some of the forms, and worked with some of their schools’ character traits, they could perform for other students and educators at their school. This would likely provide a more diverse group both in culture and age, which was not possible with this project. There would be opportunity for a musician to participate, as well, which we were also not able to have and which likely would have enhanced our performances as music often evokes emotion. Both the staff and the students repeatedly suggested that more active participation in the program would enhance the benefits for the students. I believe this would also hold true for the staff. Accordingly, having some of the staff more directly involved might address some of the teacher-related isolation that has been briefly discussed as an issue related to character education implementation.
As Playback Theatre was not originally designed for youth audiences, it is reasonable to assume that such a program geared for elementary students around character education concepts would continue to evolve over time and with further evaluation and research. Modifying the program by bringing it “in house” would reduce costs after initial staff training as the performances would not require a professional Playback Theatre company. Props and equipment are minimal and costumes and scenery are not necessary, effectively making the program quite affordable for schools with limited budgets. The program could even be designed as a school club so that rehearsals take place outside of instructional time.
Another option would be to incorporate different forms and techniques of Playback Theatre throughout the curriculum and across several grade levels. For example, Pairs could be used in a literacy unit to highlight the conflicting feelings of characters in a story. Tableaus could be used to recap a history lesson or a Fluid Sculpture could describe the varying aspects of an issue presented in problem-solving. The possibilities are truly endless.
Subsequent programs should experiment with other grade levels to determine the range of ages this type of program might be appropriate for. A study that included a three or six month follow-up would help determine the applicability of the skills being taught, particularly their ability to transfer to other situations. This type of follow-up would also paint a more accurate picture of the program’s influence on school climate. There are multiple benefits that come from students’ participation in drama programs that may enhance their interpersonal growth and future success. This type of program certainly merits more research and development as a tool to build community, empathy and character in our schools.
Recommendations for Future Research
Incorporating students’ and teachers’ ideas for program improvement should be followed by another study to determine if there is any significant increase in the rate of student and teacher empathic responses or content learning of character traits.
A longitudinal study of the impact of the program on student-teacher empathy and character education concepts is warranted. A definition of the specific skill sets and related behavioral outcomes for students and teachers would be necessary. These observations could be compared to a control group of students and teachers from another grade level to determine any significant differences that might be attributable to the program. Results could also be compared to a demographically similar school with more traditional character education programming.
This project explored the potential of Playback Theatre to promote empathy and character education concepts in a school composed predominantly of disadvantaged students. The initial findings hold promise for incorporating creative drama in character education programs that are engaging and developmentally appropriate. Increasing our understanding of best practices in character education has the potential to increase students’ academic and social success and may also increase teacher satisfaction and retention. Further inquiry into the power of creative drama to promote the foundational emotional/social skills of empathy for self and others, in addition to the promotion of character education concepts, is surely a worthy investment of time and resources.