Glossary of Key Terms
Character education – a type of affective education, social skills program or set of activities employed by schools to promote moral development in students
Conductor – the onstage emcee or director of a Playback Theatre performance.
Empathy – an affective response that stems from the apprehension or comprehension of another’s emotional state or condition, and that is identical or very similar to what the other person is feeling or would be expected to feel.
Playback Theatre (PBT) – A form of improvisational theatre that incorporates the audience members as storytellers and then uses their story as the performance subject.
Psychodrama – a therapeutic modality based on spontaneous re-enactment of the teller’s story and supervised by a trained clinician-director.
Sociodrama – a variation of psychodrama where group participants assume social roles in hypothetical situations related to the issue they share, but do not play roles specific to their own personal lives.
Specials – term used by the school to indicate elective classes that included art, physical education, media, music and technology
Equity Plus –term used by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System to denote schools with a large population of free and reduced lunch recipients in the student body
Context and Statement of the Problem
As a professional counselor and play therapist whose practice is comprised predominantly of child clients, I have a vested interest in helping children develop emotionally and socially. Many of the clients I work with have been abused and neglected emotionally, physically and sexually which can be extremely disruptive to their emotional development (Briere, 1992; Harter, Alexander, & Neimeyer, 1988). Even children whose familial experience includes seemingly milder problems such as divorce, poverty, addiction, illness or other dysfunction, may not develop emotionally to their fullest potential without the guidance of concerned adults. This concern is one of the reasons why I became a counselor, but I have realized that in many cases, the progress that children make in therapy is not always sufficient to enable them to sustain emotional and social health on a day-to-day basis. Working with a child’s primary caregiver can address some of these issues if the caregiver is willing to make changes in response to a child’s emotional needs. In addition to parents or primary caregivers, teachers have a prime opportunity to influence children’s emotional and social development in a meaningful way (Mendes, 2003; Sylwester, 2000).
Behavior problems in the classroom have reportedly increased over the years (Otten, 2000) and this increase has had a negative effect on learning and teacher satisfaction (Lumsden, 1998). Teachers nationally are also challenged by the increasing demands for higher test scores from students due to mandates in the “No Child Left Behind” Act (NCLB). Locally, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) system has long struggled with segregation issues, overcrowding in suburbia, deteriorating facilities in urban areas, rapid population growth and continuous bickering among school board members. As is common in large urban school systems, CMS has struggled with school discipline and safety concerns, which in turn affect academic performance and staff turnover. NCLB has increased the pressure on CMS by requiring highly qualified teachers in every classroom and expecting that all children will perform well in school (WBTV News on Your, 2005).
As a community, Charlotteans have been willing to point their fingers at each other, slinging blame around like mud in an old-fashioned brawl (Servatius, 2005). We have blamed parents, teachers, administrators, the school board, the county commissioners and the children themselves. None of this has brought about a solution; in fact, some are now calling for the CMS district to be split in to smaller districts. Articles in our local papers over the past few months only exacerbate the problems. Many of these stories have focused on school discipline concerns and often cite school exclusion or other punitive measures as the answer. There appears to be little empathy from the various players toward each other, and therefore little understanding of what the larger issues are. The lack of empathic listening would seem to correlate with the lack of cooperation in finding some workable solutions. There is also the tendency to search for a cure rather than focus on prevention.
Goleman (1995) states that empathy and impulse control are the foundational emotional skills on which all other interpersonal and social skills are built. Research has found correlations between children’s deficits in empathy and a tendency toward aggressive, antisocial behavior (Miller & Eisenberg, 1988). Empathy and sympathy are generally correlated with social competence (Eisenberg et al., 1996; Murphy, Shepard, Eisenberg, Fabes, & Guthrie, 1999). One longitudinal study demonstrated a link between preschoolers’ ability to delay gratification and later cognitive and social-emotional competence (Shoda, Mischel, & Peake, 1990). Borba (2001) proposes empathy is the first virtue of moral intelligence with conscience and self-control rounding out the foundation respectively. Many children today live in familial situations of poverty, crisis and dysfunction, making it highly unlikely that they will learn these skills at home. Teachers and other school staff have the opportunity to model empathy for students on a daily basis and to encourage their pupils to employ it with their peers. Unfortunately, this is not a widespread practice in my observation, nor do institutions of higher education typically include social skills curriculum as part of the pre-service teacher training (Marshall, 2004).
Many public schools are now claiming some form of affective education as part of their curriculum, with character education being the most common, perhaps due to the federal money that has been granted to some school systems to research its effectiveness (Marshall, 2004). Character education programs typically focus on a predetermined set of character traits that are agreed upon by the school staff and administration, or by the school system. These traits are usually highlighted on a monthly basis and may include some form of student recognition (Berkowitz, 2002). Some of the traits emphasized in our local school system include: kindness, responsibility, honesty, citizenship, justice, respect, caring and perseverance. While these are indeed worthy traits to instill in our children, it is not sufficient to present them in abstract terms while adults model contradictory behavior (Berkowitz, White, 1998). Many of these same traits seemingly rely on empathy for others in order to manifest themselves. For example, I show kindness to those in need because I know what it is to be in need myself. I give care to others because I am aware of how I feel when someone cares for me. I am honest with others because I am aware of how I feel when I am deceived, and I appreciate those who are honest with me. I can control my emotional impulses because I am aware of them and I have learned to attend to them in appropriate ways.
There is mounting evidence that we are born with the capacity for empathy and that our brains have a mirror-neuron system that allows us to understand the experiences of others (Rothschild, 2004). Verbal empathy, on the other hand, is a skill that must be learned. Impulse control must also be learned. These basic skills are required in order to learn more complex social skills.
As a counselor, I employ play media and expressive arts as the vehicle for teaching these skills. Creative drama, expressive movement, music and visual arts offer a myriad of opportunities for engaging people emotionally, physically and cognitively in an experiential way. In my work I often find adults discount their emotions without true comprehension or expression of them and dismiss the feelings as insignificant. They frequently expect the same behavior from their children, espousing phrases like “shake it off” or “suck it up and be tough,” all the while invalidating the children’s feelings. These same adults are often nonplused at their children’s lack of remorse or indifference when they have hurt friends or family members. We must validate children’s feelings if we expect them to demonstrate caring, honesty, justice and fairness to others, all of which are identified by our local school system as desirable character traits.
I have contemplated this lack of empathy for self and others so prevalent in our culture for many years, both as a counselor and as the parent of a student in the local school system. I have pondered the question of how to promote empathy between students and teachers, and among the students themselves, on a larger scale than the one-to-one situations I have been involved in previously. I knew this concern would be the driving force in my research, and initially I thought I would train teachers to be therapeutic agents in the classroom. While I still believe in that idea, I realized I wanted to include students in this training.
During my internship at an arts magnet school, I became involved peripherally with the character education program. I was asked to compile photos of students for a bulletin board and I discovered my son’s picture in the stack for the section labeled “Honesty.” This surprised me as he had not mentioned being selected as the exemplar of this character trait by his teacher. When I asked him why he hadn’t mentioned this to either his father or me, he just shrugged and stated, “I didn’t think it mattered.” Not satisfied with his response, I asked him why he had been selected. Again he shrugged and stated “I don’t know.” Still I persisted and asked him what his teacher specifically said about his selection as the representative of this character trait. His reply was, “She said ‘Go to the office and get your picture taken.’” Upon relaying this story to another parent a few days later, she too queried her son about being selected for “Kindness” month and was told a similar story. I began to consider in earnest whether students were learning character and ethics at school or merely being rewarded if they already possessed certain traits.
How does a child know what it means to be kind and caring if specific examples are not discussed? How does a child who has no idea how to behave kindly learn to do so just by seeing another child receive recognition for kindness? As a therapist I teach children empathy by modeling it during our play sessions, in the waiting room, and during snack time. I share my feelings when appropriate and I comment on others’ feelings when the opportunity presents itself. I may tell stories or read books and muse out loud about how the characters might feel about their situations. I recognize the child’s appropriate behavior as well, reflecting how proud they must be of themselves whenever their efforts are obvious, regardless of the outcome.
I began investigating the school’s character education program further and I was struck by the lack of creativity and imagination in its delivery, particularly given the arts integration focus of the school. I was also doubtful of its efficacy as a tool to promote good character, and I began considering ideas for a program that would engage the students and the staff directly. Some of the adults I observed appeared to need assistance with appropriate modeling of the school’s selected character traits as much as their students.
After taking my first class in Playback Theatre (PBT) I was convinced that I had found a viable option. Playback Theater, while a professional form of improvisational theatre, draws heavily on principles of socio-drama and creative drama. Playback Theatre was designed to elicit empathy from the audience and promote community building. Some communities also use PBT to address social issues (Salas, 1993).
Creative drama can be a powerful teaching tool for interpersonal skills because the focus is on the process as opposed to the product. Drama allows the participants to take on different roles and try out new behaviors with minimal risk. It also demands that the participant explore the thoughts, feelings and motivations of the assigned role or character. The imagination is challenged, spontaneity is invoked and the individual is fully engaged in the activity. There is no pre-requisite in creative drama; any talent or previous experience required or script to memorize, costumes are minimal or non-existent and performance for an audience is optional (Salazar, 1995).
Young children engage spontaneously in role play or creative drama as a way to explore their world and to understand their experiences (Elliot, 1998). While we may lose this method of learning as adults, we still have a yearning to tell our stories and to be heard, and to hear the stories of others (Salas, 1993). Theatre in all of its forms is about telling stories and exploring the ideas and experiences of humanity. Theatre engages all types of learners, be they visual, auditory or kinesthetic. Theatre is seemingly a natural and logical vehicle to address the issue of teacher and student empathy through the subject of character education, although this has not been adequately researched (Winston, 1999).
Learning of the need for this research, I developed an interactive character education program suitable for elementary schools using Playback Theatre techniques in the hopes it would promote understanding and acceptance of human emotions and increase empathy between students and teachers. Playback Theatre is a form of improvisational theatre that includes audience participation as storytellers and even actors, at times. Performances are often sculpted around a specific topic and provide opportunities for the teller and the audience to learn from the real life stories of the tellers. Playback Theatre attempts to honor the human condition and thus promotes a sense of community within the audience. I strongly believe that every child needs to belong and feel accepted, and Playback Theatre experiences may provide an opportunity for students and teachers to connect as human beings. The resulting empathy and understanding lays a foundation upon which to build character. An engaging and developmentally appropriate character education program provides a wonderful opportunity to help children find success socially and academically, and to offer them only a token of this is to fall short of a major responsibility of public education. With this in mind, I began laying the groundwork for a program I hoped would achieve these goals.
The name for the project, Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find, happens to be the name of my nine-year-old son’s favorite comic book store. When I was contemplating a name that would reflect some of the philosophy that I have about children, it seemed to fit perfectly. I find children often have great wisdom and character we adults too often dismiss or overlook. The idea of having students model and teach their peers through their personal stories presented a unique opportunity to tap into these qualities.
The central query of my social action project design became: What is the potential of Playback Theatre as a tool for promoting empathy between students and teachers, or students and their peers? I also wanted to know the potential of Playback Theatre performances as a tool to promote the character traits that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools deemed essential for our children. How would this project affect the school? How would the children respond to live theatre exposure? What influence might PBT have on the teachers’ perceptions of drama as a teaching tool?
I developed the project with the following assumptions and bias: empathy promotes positive relations and pro-social behavior, and improvisational drama as an instructional method enables participants to create their own meanings of the knowledge or ideas being presented and this is what constitutes true learning.
After completing the core training last summer at the School for Playback Theatre, a UIU seminar on Scholar-Practitioner Research Methodology, and consulting with experts in both fields, I developed a proposal for both the project and its subsequent evaluation. The project, Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find, began with the formation of a temporary Playback Theatre company which consisted of community volunteers. These volunteers were either artists who had taken a class or two in Playback Theatre or friends of the conductor (Playback equivalent for director), and they all expressed support for the project goals. The project also included focus group sessions with teachers and students prior to three performances by the Piedmont Playback Theatre company. The purpose of these focus group discussions was to assess current school climate, current character education programming, and concerns related to both. The teachers’ group also developed a list of topics for the performances. The second phase of the plan was to facilitate a workshop for the teachers to introduce them to Playback Theatre and solicit a “buy-in” prior to the first show
There were unique challenges in this project due to the age of the primary audience (10-11 year olds), their lack of previous exposure to live theatre, cultural differences between the company (Anglo-American) and the children (most were African-American or Latino/a) and the age difference between the actors and the audience. Due to the Equity Plus (see p. 62 for more information) status of the school, the fifth grade was relatively small in comparison to the average CMS elementary school. The uniqueness of the demographics of the school and the qualitative nature of the study prohibit any generalization of the findings to other schools.