Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find: Playback Theatre and Character Education
Connecting Student Achievement and Emotional Development
Many factors challenge public education and negatively affect student achievement. These include problems securing adequate funding, recruiting and maintaining quality teachers, maintaining teacher and student safety, reducing overcrowded facilities, preventing racial segregation and increasing student achievement. Many education experts have argued for years that schools must address more than the student’s cognitive development in order to increase student achievement (Kessler, 2000; Landsberg & Irvine,2003; Mendes, 2003; Sylwester, 2000; White, 1998).
Research has shown that basic emotional coping skills such as, empathy and impulse control, are essential to successful academic learning (LeDoux, 1995). There is mounting evidence that children’s emotional, social, ethical and academic development is interdependent, as opposed to a competing set of priorities. (Elias, Wang, Weissberg, Zins, & Walberg, 2002). They query:
In life doesn’t it matter who shows up, who works well with others, who can solve problems, who is prepared for what must be done, who can function as part of a team, and who is an ethical person? Are these attributes any less important than algebra, geometry, chemistry and spelling? (p.28)
The aforementioned skills and attributes are teachable, inherently improve academic performance and therefore, should be a part of school curriculum.
Goleman (1995) argues that intellectual learning without emotional learning is fairly meaningless because the individual has no way to place value on one lesson over another without an emotional frame of reference. He also describes the child who can’t identify and express emotions as “constantly frustrated” and argues that the classroom is as much a social setting as it is an academic one. Nowicki and Duke (1992) studied nonverbal abilities in children and report that those who have difficulty reading emotional cues often perform poorly in school in spite of their potential as indicated by IQ scores. Levine (2002) states that chronic anxiety depletes attention and memory over time, and depression may affect expressive language development. Witnessing domestic violence or experiencing abuse creates multiple barriers to academic achievement including fatigue, compromised cognitive functions, poor social skills, learned helplessness, impaired physical development and psychological regression (Wallach, 1994).
Many schools struggle with effective responses in the face of violence and aggression that erupts from children and adolescents who feel alone, fearful, and disconnected from the rest of society (Sternberg, 1998). Sternberg states:
Schools around the country are scurrying to find new approaches to deal with violence. Educators are trying out programs in conflict resolution, problem solving, peer mediation, and even ways to teach moral reasoning and ethical action. With all our technology and instant international communication, e-mail and the Internet, many young people still know only their immediate surroundings and the people in them. For too many, their neighborhood or street corner defines the boundaries of their existence. Everything else on the outside is unknown, foreign, unsafe, to be avoided. Just as their world has shrunk, so have opportunities for understanding, learning, and discovering who they are or can be. (p.xiv)
She insists that educators must determine how to help these students reconnect and form meaningful relationships, to expand their horizons and imaginations. Indeed this isolation often begins in elementary school. A report given at the American Psychological Association’s annual conference (Levitt et al., 1998) on the psychosocial adjustment of children in middle childhood stated that children from African-American, Hispanic-American and low-income families experienced increased levels of economic hardship and family stress, as well as lower levels of parental support. These conditions were predictors of children who experienced more loneliness, lower self-esteem and a more depressed affect. They also found that middle income children were more apt to experience depression as a result of high family stress, and that low peer support was related to loneliness. They surmised that friend support might offset the decreased capacity of parents in distressed families to provide support.
Mathieson (2004) postulates that most behavior is driven by emotion, and emotions are vital to initiating and maintaining action. In this context impulse control is crucial for goal achievement, as is empathy, which allows one to understand how events affect the self, as well as others. Insight into one’s emotional state is necessary before one can develop self-control and effective anger management (Elksnin & Elksnin, 2003). Landsberg and Irvine (2003) report leadership success is based predominantly on interpersonal skills like empathy and respect rather than intellect and technical skill. They further define an individual’s level of emotional intelligence by the ability to identify and accept all of one’s feelings, act on this emotional information appropriately, and possess the awareness of how those feelings and actions influence others.
A lack of emotional and social skills may also lead to alienation from peers and disruptive behavior in the classroom (Zins, 2004). Elksnin and Elksnin (2003) report that approximately 15 – 22 percent of children in the United States have social-emotional problems severe enough to warrant intervention, and that seventy-five percent of youth with learning challenges demonstrate poor social skills. Disciplinary problems are increasingly taking up more time for teachers, administrators and parents indicating that social skills are crucial for all students to gain maximum access to instructional time (Vincent, Horner, & Sugai, 2002). Disciplinary problems are also the leading cause of teacher burnout (Romi & Freund, 1999).
Modeling empathic behavior in the classroom may address both the student behavior issue and the teacher turn-over rates. Klis and Kossewska (1996) found that empathic teachers had lower rates of burnout and reported lower levels of loneliness and higher levels of job satisfaction. They postulate that empathy is associated with self-control, and that sensitivity is an affective component of empathy. Cognitive components include understanding another’s perspective and the ability to identify and evaluate emotions. Klis and Kossewska describe kinesthetic components of empathy as voice modulation, gestures, body language and mimicking.
Sylwester (2000) describes emotion as an innate, powerful and predominantly unconscious process. He explains that emotional arousal isn’t a conscious choice and the arousal frequently interferes with the task at hand. Sylwester then goes on to say: “Effective teachers, realizing that the disruptive emotional arousal will continue until the problem is resolved, simply take the time to resolve the problem before resuming their previous activities” (p.20). He describes emotion as a biological function that evolved as a system to alert us to specific problems and concludes that all emotion is developmentally significant. Saarni (1999) maintains that emotions are functional as they spur us to action causing us to begin, modify, maintain or end our relationship in a given situation. Framing emotion in this functional light can be the first step for educators in teaching affective education.
Given this context, the typical punitive response of many teachers is inappropriate and likely ineffective in the long run, often leading to repeat incidents or escalation in behavioral problems (Vincent, et al., 2002). In reality, disciplinary actions such as suspension, corporal punishment and expulsion may lead to increased aggression in students (Christie, Jolivette, & Nelson, 2000; Dewey, 1938/1997). There is also strong evidence that school exclusion as a disciplinary action is used disproportionately on students of color, and that minority students are over-represented in office referrals as well (Skiba & Peterson, 2003). Prevention programs that offer social and interpersonal skills to students show much more promise for increasing student success and decreasing violence in schools. McNamee and De Chiara (1996) stated in their report, “Stressful life experiences are so much a part of the fabric of children’s lives that it is necessary to think of the school environment as a healing environment, the classroom as an island of healing” (p.13).
Strategies that teach social competencies such as self-control, effective communication, problem-solving and conflict resolution have produced successful student outcomes in both student behavior and school climate (Skiba & Peterson, 2003; Eisenberg, Wentzel & Harris, 1998). Vincent, et al. (2002) advocate that teachers respond to students’ lack of social skills in the same manner they would respond to a lack of academic skills. This allows for situation-specific teaching with immediate positive reinforcement. White (1998) states that:
There is nothing more important to each student than the feeling or attitude that he, or she, has of self. If there is trauma, or threats, to that self-social construct, those feelings must be dealt with before any real cognitive processing of lessons takes place. The caring, knowledgeable teachers must make that emotional connection with each student! (p.2)
Accordingly, to make a connection with the student may require empathy on the teacher’s part. Our innate capacity for empathy is evidenced in infancy, as a baby at seven months of age can discriminate between fearful and happy expressions (Haan, Reid, Volein & Johnson, 2004). Children aged twelve to eighteen months actively search for intentional clues like gaze direction and emotion to help them interpret others’ actions and language (Baldwin, 2000). White (1998) describes empathy as a characteristic or learned trait defined as “…. the ability to perceive the personal emotional experience of another person.” (p.122) He states that students must be aware of their own feelings and needs, as well as that of their peers, in order to care about others. Saarni (1999) reports skills for emotional competence increase with maturity, and are learned in a social context. While she focuses on skills rather than abilities, she lists them as awareness of one’s own emotions in all of their complexity, ability to discern others’ emotions, a culturally adequate range of emotional vocabulary, a capacity for empathy, emotional coping skills, appropriate emotional expression, awareness of the need for emotional genuineness in relationships, and the awareness that we have some control overall of our emotional state.
Borba (2001) insists there is a national crisis of empathic development. She describes the five primary contributors as emotional unavailability of parents, absence of supportive fathers, violent media messages, emotional suppression by boys and child abuse. Munson (2000) reports teachers are dealing with ethical illiteracy in the classrooms due to the significant number of students who don’t learn right from wrong at home. He surmises these students are from dysfunctional families with inadequate parenting skills.
If emotional regulation is not modeled at home, then a child’s teachers and peers may become the models of empathy and values (White, 1998). There is a clear opportunity for teachers to help students develop their emotional and moral intelligence and thereby address many of the classroom discipline concerns, and subsequently boost student achievement. Mendes (2003) reports: “Every student with whom I consciously made an effort to establish a rapport or caring relationship demonstrated dramatic changes in behavior, effort and performance. Students do respond just because we care—and because they like us.” (p.56)
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) are no exception with its need to reduce classroom disruption and teacher turn-over. One of CMS’s more recent attempts to address student achievement and school safety concerns has been the implementation of character education programs. Nationally, character education programs are often seen as necessary to prevent further violence in the public schools (Marshall, 2004). Marshall states that all teachers need instruction on ways to model and teach positive character traits and that ideally this is done before they begin their career. She argues teachers have always played a vital part in the development of their students’ character, and that teaching is “intrinsically and unavoidably a moral act.”(p.6) This is not a new concept. John Dewey (1909/1975) was convinced that character development and moral education could not be extracted from the school curriculum but rather should be infused into the very fabric of school life. Marshall (2004) and Arroyo & Selig, (2004) both cite studies that show that the majority of teacher educators support the concept of character education programs in schools.
Moral Development and Character Education
According to Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Reasoning, there are six stages of moral development which he organized into three levels. Level one is the pre-conventional, with stage one characterized by the child’s obedience or compliance with rules motivated by fear of punishment. The second stage is characterized by an orientation to meeting one’s own needs and is common among elementary students but usually declines between the ages of 10 and 13 (Kohlberg, 1984). This factor of self-preservation may be cause for consideration of appropriate goals in developing character education programs.
At the second or conventional level, the child at stage three is motivated to be a good person by pleasing others. Stage four motivation stems from a belief in law and order and respect for authority. This phase of moral reasoning is very common among older elementary students and most adolescents. The third or post-conventional level is rarely reached before college-age, and the fifth stage involves the individual’s belief that laws and rules are set by mutual agreement and exist to protect human rights. In the final stage the individual believes that laws or rules may be broken when they are unjust (Kohlberg, 1984). Many adults never reach this level of moral development (Meece, 2002).
Gilligan (1982) later challenged Kohlberg’s (1984) theory as being biased against women. She argued that women are socialized to emphasize others’ feelings over their own, and this makes it difficult for women to focus on a specific individual’s rights. She described this as an “ethic of care” as opposed to an “ethic of justice”. She argued that morality consists of both justice and care and they have different developmental patterns. Sommers (2001) has criticized Gilligan’s findings stating that her research is essentially
anecdotal, and has been difficult to reproduce, and ultimately her theory may harm females as it promotes the notion that women and girls are inferior to their male counterparts.
Vrkeeke (1991) pointed out justice focuses on universal principles while care requires a contextual reasoning, a consideration of the uniqueness of the situation and the relationships involved. She also explains that Kohlberg’s (1984) studies consisted of forced choices rather than open-ended responses, suggesting that alternate solutions that may appeal more to women were not available in the research process. Ultimately though, the differences in Kohlberg and Gilligan’s (1982) theories appear to be more content-related, suggesting that they both contribute to our understanding of moral development.
In her research on the components of moral maturity, Mathieson (2004) describes seven specific categories. The first component demonstrates a sense of self or moral agency, wherein the individual acknowledges the freedom to make her or his own choices and accepts responsibility to act for the benefit of humankind. The second involves the ability to apply knowledge and cognition to consider all sorts of evidence or information, which Mathieson labels harnessing cognitive ability. The third and fourth elements include harnessing of emotional resources, and evidence of social and interpersonal skills in relation to others, further defined as empathy, self-control, resistance to peer pressure and effective consensus building.
Mathieson describes the fifth component as the adoption of principles, and denotes Kohlberg’s (1984) principle of justice and Gilligan’s (1982) principle of care as examples. The final components comprise respect for others, which includes the ability to interact with diverse groups of people without feeling threatened by differences of ideas or culture, and a developed sense of purpose, which may be more process than outcome-oriented. She concludes her report by reminding the reader that students should be challenged in their development of character, but implementation with consideration of each individual’s current level of moral maturity is essential. She also advocates for on-going experimentation and revision, reminding the reader that “Students should be treated as fellow travelers through life, not as objects to be transformed.”(p.6)
Weissbourd (2003) argues that schools would best serve students’ moral development by assisting teachers with their stress management, and thereby increasing teachers’ capacity for empathy and reflection. He emphasizes the importance of adult influence on character development, and states that the maturity and morality of parents, teachers, coaches and community leaders have more consequence than explicit character education efforts currently put forth by most schools. He states that morals are shaped in the context of our relationships, and empathic educators may demonstrate ethical decision-making, and assist students in their ongoing moral dilemmas. He stresses that teachers also influence students’ emotional development, and states:
Most of the talk about moral development in school assumes that we teach students to behave morally by instilling in them virtues and standards, a clear sense of right and wrong. This assumption ignores the fact that emotions are often the horse, values and virtues the rider trying to hang on. (p. 9)
Additionally, Weissbourd points out that when our beliefs conflict with our behavior, we are more likely to change our beliefs to justify our actions rather than the other way around. He cautions that students’ morality is shaped by their life experiences and influences, not just what is taught at home or at school.
Weissbourd (2003) speculates that teachers and administrators who have lost their idealism and enthusiasm for education have a difficult time empathizing with their troubled students. He believes they may suffer from mild depression and disillusion regarding their professions. He cites the lack of administrative support, adequate supplies and classroom management skills as the culprits. He describes depressed adults as being commanding and unilateral in their interactions with behavior that is motivated by their own moods and needs without awareness of others. He also dispels the notion that adult morality is stagnant. He postulates that adult developmental stages offer new ethical challenges and he advocates for moral education that provides educators with on-going support for their own emotional and moral development. This approach, he argues, would create true communities of caring within schools, effectively reducing teacher burn-out and providing teachers with the support and skills they need to encourage their students’ emotional and moral development.
Weissbourd’s theory supports Noddings’ (1995) notion of an ethic of care. Her philosophy is that schools should be communities of caring where students learn to give and receive care, with teachers assisting students in developing appropriate boundaries and weaving this ethic into all their interactions. These lessons ideally would extend to a caring for the environment and to the global community with existential questions addressed throughout the curriculum. Kessler (2000) states that students must experience a sense of community or belonging in the classroom, where they can feel respected and validated for being authentic. She defines this as “the yearning for deep connection” and lists it as the first of “seven gateways to the soul of education.” (p.16)
Munson (2000) argues that teachers have two major responsibilities: to develop their students’ intellect and their character. She quotes several philosophers who have supported this tenet, from Aristotle to Benjamin Franklin. There is, in fact, national support for this concept, and character education has become the most common form of moral education or social skills curriculum today. According to Vess and Halbor (2003), there are five major theoretical perspectives of character education. These include Watson’s community of caring, Lickona’s eclectic approach, DeVries’ constructive approach, Berkowitz’s child development perspective, and Ryan’s traditional approach. These theories have four common points. Each one requires direct and indirect instruction in moral behavior, community building and adult role models. There are even more commercial programs based on these theories, indicating a need to familiarize pre-service teachers and counselors with the topic. Doing so, however, would not address the same concerns for practicing teachers and counselors.
In North Carolina, the legislature passed the Student Citizen Act of 2001, which mandates that every local school board develop and implement character education (Frye et al., 2002). Marvin Berkowitz (2002) describes character as “an individual’s set of psychological characteristics that affect that person’s ability and inclination to function morally.” (p.48) Pawelski (2004) states good character has basic virtues which have survived the test of time across cultures. These identified strengths are courage, humanity, justice, temperance, wisdom, and transcendence.
Frye, et al. (2002) describe character education as being grounded in relationships, as a process rather than merely a program, and as being informed by student and teacher involvement as well as theory and research. They advocate for components of character education which include adult role models and experiential learning that affords students the opportunity to witness, experience and express good character traits in action.
Deficits in the Implementation of Character Education
Even with the research that has been conducted on these issues, and more than 30 states mandating some form of character education, many teacher education and school counselor education programs are not preparing their students to implement character development programs once they become employed (Vess & Halbur, 2003). In a 2003 report, Benninga states that in a national survey of 600 deans of schools of education, ninety percent affirmed that core values should be included in education, however, only 24 % reported their programs “highly emphasized” it in their curriculum. There were only three teacher education programs identified as offering the knowledge and skills to integrate character education into their lessons plans. In a survey conducted with undergraduate education majors, results demonstrated they believed that teachers are a prime source for moral education and have a responsibility to promote a classroom climate of “safety and belonging” (Marshall, 2004).
Clearly this is an area that needs addressing by universities that offer degrees in education. Munson (2000) reports for the first half of the nineteenth century liberal arts colleges included courses on ethics and values as part of their core curriculum. She states that the purpose was to matriculate students with a well-developed sense of their moral and ethical responsibilities, in addition to an enhanced intellect. As recently as the 1940s and 1950s, schools were assumed to mirror the values of their communities, yet in the sixties and seventies this began to change with the anti-establishment movement. In more recent decades, an increase in school violence has led educators back to the roots of character education in an attempt to promote citizenship, conflict resolution and service-learning (Christie, et al., 2000).
Locally, our community college offers a course on character education that teachers may complete as credit toward licensure renewal. This course is offered online and includes the history and theory of character education, integration of character education in the classroom and curriculum, and a review of the current best practices (Central Piedmont, 2004). This course was developed in conjunction with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ Character Development office and the North Carolina Office of Public Instruction’s guidelines, yet the class has been cancelled three out of four times it has been offered due to low enrollment (L. Vagnoni, personal communication, August 24, 2004). Perhaps it is unrealistic to teach this course online when so few educators have been exposed to the topic. Given the state mandate however, more opportunities for programming and teacher education should be offered.
Benninga (2003) states that some schools are more successful at facilitating character development because:
Better schools plan for virtue. The curriculum contains references to virtuous acts, and students are recognized and rewarded for virtuous behaviors. The school building is physically cared for and psychologically safe and teachers model exemplary character traits. There is good communication between teachers and parents. (p.69)
Edwards (2000) calls for schools that prepare children for a democratic society and states that “schools usually do not model democratic principles in their daily operations.” (p.20) Gregory (2000) claims that schools often abandon the notion of democracy in their moral education programs by crossing the line from private to public enculturation. He suggests maintaining democratic principles by focusing on moral inquiry, where values and virtues are presented as open-ended and up for discussion.
Dewey (1938/1997) argued that social control was the most appropriate force to contain students’ behavior in the classroom. He states that power struggles between a teacher and student were ineffective and that “….control of individual actions is affected by the whole situation in which individuals are involved, in which they share and in which they are co-operative or interacting parts.” (p.53) He described the classroom as a community group in which the teacher is the most mature member, allowing her or him to be a leader rather than a dictator. Landsberg and Irving (2003) report that children only remember thirty percent of what their teacher says, but can remember up to seventy percent of what s/he actually does.
Weissbourd (2003) highlights the lack of support for on-going moral and emotional development for educators as another piece of the puzzle concerning challenges in effective character education. He states that teachers need time to reflect on their difficulties with empathy for certain students, their successes and failures in promoting character education, and on their own ethics and values. Instructors need help from their colleagues in managing the constant stress of their profession. In the counseling profession this is called peer consultation or peer supervision and is considered necessary for maintaining ethical standards and preventing burn-out.
Lumsden (1998) reports that factors associated with higher teacher satisfaction include good student behavior, a positive school climate, teacher autonomy and administrative leadership and support. Parental support is also a key factor in teacher job satisfaction. She also laments the isolation of teachers that hinders their opportunity to share successes with their peers and states that teacher morale can have a positive influence on learning. Lumsden points out that the converse is also true; low levels of job satisfaction and waning morale can lead to decreased teacher productivity and burnout. This in turn is related to detachment and loss of concern for colleagues, decreased quality of teaching, depression and a cynical or negative perception of students. Another study by Hammond and Onikama (1997) reported similar findings. They found the school atmosphere of an educator’s current position was the primary cause of teacher attrition. They also cited teacher dissatisfaction stemming from relationship concerns with students, staff and the community as an on-going problem. However, promoting the emotional and moral development of teachers and other school staff has not been a targeted component of most character education programs.
Another criticism of character education, or moral education in general, is that it focuses on who students should strive to be rather than how they should take moral action in their daily lives. Shapiro points out that Kohlberg’s (1984) theory of moral development doesn’t apply universal principles until the most mature stages. He has experimented with several games that provide students with an opportunity to formulate the principles themselves which he states makes for more developmentally appropriate discussion on ethics and values.
Shapiro (1999) states:
In character education terms, it is obviously quite valuable that young people become acquainted with virtues such as generosity, courage, honesty and determination. And it is clearly beneficial that they learn about paragons of virtue such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Rosa Parks and Abraham Lincoln as examples toward whom to aspire. But character education’s single-minded focus on virtues and moral exemplars is apt to leave young people wondering what one actually does to be honest or courageous or generous or determined. When faced with a moral choice, how does one decide what the virtuous action really is? (p.3)
Winston (2000) advocates going beyond the teaching of moral codes by stating:
In order to develop into independent moral agents, capable of making their own moral judgments when faced with complex and difficult decisions, children need to develop imaginative and emotional qualities that can help them think through difficult moral dilemmas; understand the needs and feelings of others; and develop a language to help them discuss issues of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ character, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ action. (p.93)
Moreover, there is much support for extending moral education beyond the instructional level (Basourakos, 1999). Verducci (2000) reports educational theorists who are concerned about the limits of traditional moral reasoning highlight the role of affect in moral education, and more specifically, the need to foster empathy in our schools. A further criticism of traditional moral education is that many schools ignore children’s feelings and these emotions may so confuse students at times that they are unable to follow directions, work cooperatively, pay attention or stay on-task (Zins et al., 1998).
Some argue that the emphasis in most character education programs is on promoting specific traits but these programs would be more beneficial if they paired the topic and intensity with the students’ developmental levels. Arroyo and Selig (2004) have grouped character into four areas to promote a developmentally strategic approach. They labeled these areas as workmanship, relationship, empathy and self-control. They believe students with character deficits often lack pro-social skills and knowledge of appropriate behavior, and have limited ability to think and respond beyond their initial emotional reactions. Arroyo and Selig conclude that distinguishing procedures for
character education based on skills, abilities and developmental appropriateness is critical to effective intervention.
While character education as a social skills curriculum has potential, many issues need to be addressed. Pre-service teacher programs need to offer courses and training on moral and emotional development, and these same opportunities must be provided to current educators and administrators. Character education programs must assume that students need help developing emotionally in order to develop morally. Teachers must receive the same empathy and support for their emotional and moral development that we expect them to provide for their students. In doing so schools can truly reflect the values and morals we believe are vital to a real democracy.
Drama, Learning and Social Skills Development
In counseling sessions, I have incorporated the use of drama therapy techniques with clients as a way to facilitate social or interpersonal skills development or as a tool to process relationship problems. Creative drama or drama therapy techniques such as role playing or “acting as if” allow clients to practice, reflect, and modify behavior with little emotional risk or consequence (Emunah, 1994). During couples or family therapy sessions, directing the clients to switch roles and discuss their issues, allows them to contemplate the other person’s perceptions of their behavior and their ideas more fully than discussion or traditional counseling methods. Sternberg (1998) claims: “When we play the part of a character different from ourselves, we learn something about that person and his or her differences. With that knowledge, we often come to understand something new about ourselves” (p.xvi). Jensen (2001) cites research that proposes that practice in the dramatic arts enhances emotional decoding skills and states that the movement arts increase emotional regulation skills through appropriate expression. He believes movement arts help children to understand the power they possess over their own feelings.
Dr. Violet Oaklander (1988), a well-know child psychologist and a former special education teacher, frequently uses creative drama techniques in her work with children. She maintains that improvisational experiences encourage children to use more of their selves, including their minds, bodies, senses, emotions and spirits. She states:
In creative dramatics children can increase the self-awareness at their disposal. The can develop a total awareness of self – the body, the imagination, the senses. The drama becomes a natural tool to help them find and give expression to lost and hidden parts of themselves, and to build strength and selfhood. (p. 139)
She describes the task of creative drama as requiring the child to experience their inner and outer world simultaneously, and in doing so; they discover all of their innate resources.
A recent study on the improvisational play of children in a childcare center likened it to the techniques utilized by improvisational actors in a performance (Lobman, 2003) and expounded on the efficacy of this play as cultural activity as well as a tool for skill development. The author posits that teachers can go beyond traditional teacher-centered or child-centered methodologies by incorporating improvisational techniques that promote a more creative and relational classroom environment.
Historically, there is precedence for cultural transmission of social skills and values through the use of drama. The supposition of theatre as a vehicle for redress of social injustice versus individual expression of ideas and experiences is on-going. The philosophical debate on the function of theatre can be traced to the ancient Greeks. Plato believed that the limited role of the artist should be to develop models of character designed to facilitate human evolution toward the ideal republic. Aristotle disputed this notion asserting that tragedy was the superior drama due to its cathartic propensities, and rejected an activist function of theater (Brustein, 1997).
During the Middle Ages in Europe, moral behavior was promoted through theatre, a practice that was zealously supported by churchmen as a means to clarify abstract doctrine to the illiterate masses. The adoption of dramatic art as a teaching instrument by the Roman Catholic Church allowed for successful imposition of its tenets and theology on all levels of society and conversely the rapid expansion of theatre throughout Europe. As a result, theatre again became the primary artifice for moral education (Wickham, 1985, Hanley & Gay, 2002). There were clergy who questioned the propriety of priests writing play-scripts and the Church’s monopoly on both the content and performance of theatre (Wickham, 1985). The Church’s control over the content of these morality plays poses the question of ownership of ethical standards. Who should decide what character traits are emphasized and how they are transmitted? In relation to character education in the schools, Berkowitz (2002) insists that the entire school community should be involved in determining the expectations of moral behavior and parents and schools work in partnership to produce the most effect programs.
Oral tradition in pre-literate societies also offered an avenue for cultures to disseminate values (Fox, 1994). Winston (1999) describes the relation of morals found in storytelling in the Bible and ancient Hindu and Sufi tales as a way to impart morality and promote moral reflection. He suggests this practice may be used today to promote moral induction, which is the conveyance of belief systems so students may comprehend, and analyze for themselves their meaning, using stories with open moral agendas. Stories with a more closed moral agenda allow for moral instruction, or the promoting of the correct or “right” choice in a moral dilemma. Winston rationalizes that dramatic narrative offers the added benefit of seeing the moral dilemma as opposed to imagining it, thereby, intensifying the experience for the student. He states that the visual imagery appeals to the visual/spatial part of the brain and taps into “….our natural propensity to relate to and feel for others” (p.463). Winston conjectures there is a potential bonus of simultaneously witnessing the motive, actions, and their consequences, an opportunity not found in real life.
Basourakos (1999) proposes that attending and discussing plays may enrich moral education by raising students’ consciousness about the importance of context in ethical decision making. He states that students may learn about the complexities that are often involved in moral dilemmas, and thus further their moral reasoning abilities.
Winston (1999) exalts drama’s relation to the social world and its permission to explore empathy and connection to others. According to de la Roche (1993), an actor’s job is to explore various feelings using imagination and empathy to develop the character. This requires the actor to consider many issues which affect human development, including race, class, gender, language, and occupation, among others, therefore, making drama a natural method for developing empathy and awareness for others.
Verducci (2000) cautions that the empathy that an actor employs developing a character in a play is not synonymous with the empathy that counselors extol, however, there are similarities in some of the skills and processes involved. She believes learning these skills in drama may allow students to transfer them to social situations if supplemented with other elements of moral or character education. She makes reference to Noddings’ ethic of care and the elements of anticipating what others feel like in a given situation, which she describes as the ability to cognitively put one’s self in someone else’s place and imagine how she or he must feel. This is also described as “cognitive perspective-taking”, a component of empathy (Eisenberg, et al., 1998). Additionally, Verducci describes the process as a motivational shift and adds that there must also be an experience of duality, the realization that this experience is not actually happening to the individual attempting empathy, but rather to the person with whom the individual is attempting to empathize. She states that these are also elements of dramatic empathy. She compares the ability of the empathizer to read other clues such as body language, facial expression and behavior to that of a Method actor making inferences about a character based on context clues in the script.
Moreover, Verducci (2000) cautions that while the techniques of acting can be useful in moral education programs, instructors must realize that in acting the focus is on process and not content. This requires some thoughtful consideration of what types of plays and characters are chosen. She also asserts that dramatic empathy is self-oriented yet true empathy is other-oriented. She concludes her argument by stating that students generally enjoy drama, and educators should take advantage of this fact when working toward character education goals.
In her research on action methods as a way to build community in a college classroom, Weinstock-Wynters (1997) found the incorporation of Playback Theatre and psychodrama techniques allowed her students to create their own meaning from the readings in the course. She reported they were more engaged in the learning process, and these action methods allowed them to draw upon other intelligences that traditional educational methods often ignore.
Other researchers have made similar claims about creative drama, which emphasizes process over performance. Rowland (2002) found creative drama allowed the students, in this case elementary and pre-school aged, to describe their worlds and then interpret those descriptions. She states that dramatic play supports social/emotional development and empowers children to make choices and draw conclusions. Dramatic play gives children an opportunity to explore stressful or challenging events in a safe way. This opportunity is important because children have varying levels of coping skills, and their reactions to stressful events are related to their sense of self as well as the experience (McNamee & De Chiara, 1996). A program called “Project Access” at Howard Community College for 15 – 18 year old high school students with learning disabilities incorporates theatre games and improvisation exercises to teach self-advocacy. The staff report the students are empowered by the creative forces of drama, gaining confidence and demonstrating previously hidden skills and imaginative ideas. They also maintain that parents and teachers have consistently given feedback describing students’ improvement in self-advocacy and self-confidence (Schnapp & Olsen, 2003). Schoon (1998) believes that curricula infused with creative dramatics aids the student in language expansion and communication skills, increases concentration, sensory awareness and recall, and promotes group collaboration. Kempe (2003) supports these assertions and adds that the aforementioned benefits of drama serve to increase students’ social capital, defined as reciprocity, collaboration and trust within a group and the networks created by its members.
Participation in drama and role play may also facilitate development of empathy. Salazar (1995) describes the phenomena called “The Brotherhoods.” She explains:
The brotherhoods leave the lasting impression with the players that they have joined all those others in history who have suffered sorrows and loss, thrilled with courage, sighed in hopeless love or taken pride in a job well done. Heathcote believes these dramatic experiences help people, young and old alike, realize that they are not alone in their life struggles. In addition, drama encourages them to reach out to others who are experiencing similar feelings and circumstances. (p.25)
She advocates for expanding students’ humanity by taking them into brotherhoods they have not previously experienced. In a forth-coming section I will propose that Playback Theatre offers a similar experience through audience participation as tellers.
Theatre for Social Change
There are many examples of drama being used successfully as an agent for social change with children and adults. This section includes discourse on three forms; sociodrama, Theatre of the Oppressed and Playback Theatre including examples of implementation with different populations. It is relevant to note that theatre companies and workshops may commingle these forms (School of Playback, 2004) and there are techniques and exercises that are shared by all three or are so similar in form the only discernable difference may be in the terminology.
Sociodrama was developed by Jacob Moreno, M.D. (1889-1974) who also founded psychodrama. Moreno’s work emphasized the import of spontaneity and creativity, the integration of action and acting in psychotherapy and the transformation of the therapeutic relationship from counselor-client to director-protagonist. His practice also furthered understanding of role theory (Emunah, 1994).
Psychodrama is a form of group psychotherapy that requires the client to enact personal issues, including memories, dreams, hopes and intuitions, rather than discuss them (Blatner & Blatner, 1988). The client subject of the enactment is the protagonist and the counselor, who guides the protagonist, is the director. Other group members serve as auxiliary egos (characterizing other people in the protagonist’s life or as alter egos of the protagonist) or as the audience. Although psychodrama is implemented in group therapy it has an individual focus, as opposed to drama therapy, which targets group process, personal expression and self-revelation through improvisation of fictional scenarios. Moreno originated sociodrama as a therapeutic approach for groups of clients grappling with the same issue or problem. The real-life enactments are relevant to all group members thus rendering sociodrama as a practicable method for communities to assimilate when addressing social concerns. Role play and role reversal are central to sociodrama, psychodrama and drama therapy (Emunah, 1994).
Caso and Finkelberg (1999) reported their campus group, Psycho-educational Drama (PED), which is composed of undergraduate students, combined theatre techniques (primarily sociodrama) with factual information to produce educational programs on psycho-social topics of concern to students. The PED model has six stages: introduction by the facilitator, performance of a topical scenario, a moderated discussion with the audience, closing, de-roling or interacting with the audience out of role, and de-roling among the actors. Topics have included date rape, alcohol awareness and multiculturalism. Caso and Finkelberg have found that audiences ranging in size from
15 – 50 have provided the most successful audience participation and diverse responses. Feedback and comments from the student performers and audience members indicate this method facilitates content learning and personal growth.
Jones (2001), an Oncology Nurse Educator, reports the use of sociodrama techniques to present ethical issues in end-of-life that allows the audience to draw on their previous experiences and knowledge in active presentation rather than a traditional lecture. She states that theatre training is not essential as her own initiation into this teaching method was as a volunteer actor in a colleague’s production at a conference. The typical format is a brief introduction to the content of the presentation and possibly to the scene itself. The scene is then presented, and afterwards the facilitator guides the audience discussion asking open-ended questions. During this portion of the presentation, key issues are highlighted and audience members share their expertise, forming the basis of the learning experience. Jones reports that audience feedback for this type of learning has been very positive.
Dowling (1994) describes his facilitation of interactive theater workshops as a method to present sensitive social issues pertinent to youth and adults and provide a forum for discussion through drama. A scene is selected by the actors and director, and this scene is presented to the point of conflict or crisis. The audience then has the opportunity to question the actors who must remain in role. Krajewski (1999) describes a similar program that he co-facilitates at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He advocates for a team concept with faculty and staff giving input into topics and modeling a team-teaching approach. His program is co-led by a full professor and a custodian who explain experiential drama to the class as a short skit that addresses values such as self-discipline, inclusion, and healthy relationships, among others. They break the students into groups of ten, and each group must then select co-leaders and develop two scenarios to present to the class. The students enact the scene up to the point of conflict, and then the rest of the class is invited by the moderator to ask questions and make comments on the scenario. The actors remain in character during this process. Krajewski has successfully implemented this theatre format with several high schools and middle schools.
Both Krajewski (1999) and Dowling (1994) believe that this type of theatre allows for active involvement in character education and moral development. They both maintain the audience leaves with heightened awareness of the issues presented, and assert they have learned more appropriate means for resolving similar situations. They also report that the student actors are encouraged to reflect on their own values during this process. Unfortunately, neither of them appears to have actually researched the outcomes of their productions. I assume they are basing their claims on conversations or observations either they or their peers have made, but neither one offers a context for their claims. There is also the supposition of bias as they each facilitate the program they advocate. Predicating their assertions of audience members increased knowledge for resolving similar situations as presented in the drama, there is still the question of application or future demonstration of said knowledge.
Theatre of the Oppressed
Augusto Boal originated Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) in Brazil, inspired by his work with peasants and worker populations. Theatre of the Oppressed is now an internationally recognized theatre practiced in social and political activism, community building, conflict resolution and even therapy (Mandala Center for, 2006). There are several techniques in TO, the more prevalent being Forum Theatre.
In Forum theatre the play enacted addresses a social problem with an ending unfavorable for the victims or oppressed characters. The play then starts over and the audience has the opportunity to change the storyline and bring about a more positive ending. This change in storyline is accomplished when an audience member shouts “Stop!” and then steps into a specified role, trying out alternative dialogue and behavior. An improvisation then occurs with the original characters attempting to maintain the status quo, thus making the change more difficult for the new actor. Other volunteers may join in and replace other characters in the same manner. All of this is facilitated by the joker whose role is to ensure that all possible options are explored, and the options have some relation to real world solutions. The audience ultimately decides if any of the new ideas presented are viable (Boal, 1992/2002).
Image Theatre, another technique of TO, involves non-verbal games and activities incorporating participants’ experiences, emotions, ideas and dreams. Group members use their bodies and that of other participants to sculpt images for creative expression (Marin, 2005). In more recent years, Boal added another technique called Rainbow of Desire with structures designed to encompass more direct exploration of personal story and promotion of introspection allowing for a more therapeutic experience for participants ("Theatre of the," 2000).
Day (2002) describes a study she conducted at three London secondary schools confronting the issue of child refugees in the school system through the format of Forum Theatre. The actors had either experienced homelessness or had been refugees themselves. In general, the audiences consisted of sixty students aged 11 – 15, and the workshops lasted approximately an hour and thirty minutes. The format of the workshop included an introduction, the play performance, a probing by the joker for audience response to the play, small group discussions facilitated by the actors, and the culmination of the forum allowing the students to intervene.
The script was inspired by the actors’ personal experiences and improvisations that occurred during rehearsals. Day (2002) described the scenario played for the students as follows:
A new boy arrives at school, he is a refugee and does not speak much English. A schoolgirl is asked by her teacher to befriend him and show him around the school. These two characters, directly and indirectly experience a series of dramatic events with oppressive characters in the play: the school bullies, the teachers, the schoolgirl’s friends and the boy’s foster mother, which eventuate the boy’s suicide. (p.23)
The researchers interviewed a total of twenty students immediately following the workshops and then again two months later. Day (2002) reports the initial interviews were characterized by conviction and motivation to action, however, the follow-up interviews were characterized by irritation and futility. Day concluded that the workshops were successful in increasing student empathy for their refugee peers and prompted them to re-examine their social values, but the lack of follow-up by their classroom teachers reduced the potential influence on students’ moral development. This problem persisted in spite of the theatre company’s distribution of a teacher manual that provided both dramatic and traditional classroom activities to facilitate moral reflection, and agency. There was no mention in the report of a pre-performance workshop for teachers, but this may have been helpful in promoting more of a buy-in regarding follow-up activities for the students. It is also unclear whether Day or other researchers were directly involved in the workshops making it difficult to impugn the primary research methods of descriptive observation and semi-structured interviews.
Pardun-Johannsen (2004) reports similar results in her project with fifth grade students in Minnesota. As the Performing Arts teacher at her school, she conducted a six-month study with thirty of her students to determine if creative drama, role play and techniques from Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed could raise students’ awareness of social problems, promote empathy for others and encourage social action. She describes her students as mostly European-American, economically advantaged children. Students in her school attend her class weekly for 55 minutes, and had already studied the concept of empathy in the school’s character education program because it is a featured trait. Most of these students had been attending drama class throughout their elementary school years.
The researcher incorporated social issues into her existing curriculum and related them to the monthly character trait that the school was focused upon. The students used a dramatic structure to explore each issue that was presented. She used journals, individual interviews, focus group interviews, observations and a parent survey to collect data. She concluded that using these forms of drama to teach her students about social ills promoted empathy and awareness, increased interest in social problems, encouraged examination of social and political power structures, reduced the students’ tendency toward social exclusion of certain peers and introduced theatre and drama as viable tool for exploration and learning of socio-political issues. She did not find the students were moved toward social action as a result of the project and suggested that this might be a more realistic goal for older students.
Pardun-Johannsen (2004) also used creative drama and some of Boal’s (1992/2002) techniques with her students which may have provided too much emotional distance to achieve her intended results in regards to social activism. While she appeared to be successful at increasing student empathy, empathy was not expressly measured prior to the study, and the students had, at minimum, a month-long, intensive introduction to the concept prior to the study during discussions in her class, as well as others. She states:
I began the course of study by teaching the students about the concept of empathy. Empathy was emphasized in all classes, school wide, as this was the character trait of the month. Special care was taken to address students’ understanding of the word as it applied to creative drama and theatre arts. (p.62)
This coaching prior to the formal study may have created a type of halo effect (Tuckman, 1988) by encouraging student expression of empathy as a way to please the teacher.
Another troubling aspect of her findings is that she often makes generalizations about her students without any quantifying context. While she explains that her research is qualitative, it would be more useful if she further defined statements like, “Although change is not reflected in all areas it is clear that the students were affected by the curriculum, the class discussions, and the different stances they had as a result of this class” (Pardun-Johannsen, 2004 p.168). The reader has no way to discern how many areas “change was reflected in,” or how much of the change might be attributed to the drama exercises versus class discussions and curriculum content. Therefore, the ability to replicate the program would necessitate that the elementary school employ a drama teacher, which is prohibitive in many schools due to budget constraints.
There is also a lack of examination of her dual roles as drama teacher and researcher. With the possible exception of the parent surveys, her methods of data collection likely involved subjective interpretation. Her long-term relationship with students, who may have worked with her in previous years, and student performance in relation to assessment were not analyzed for a potential influence on findings.
A promising aspect of her study was the incorporation of character education themes in related social studies curriculum. This feature of the project suggests that classroom teachers trained in creative drama techniques might integrate character education with compatible subject matter. However, it is possible that the social studies curriculum’s focus on history or other cultures, as opposed to current events, may have contributed to the absence of students’ motivation towards social action.
Playback Theatre (PBT) was conceived thirty years ago by Jonathan Fox. He and his wife and professional partner, Jo Salas, and a few others founded the original company in 1975 in upstate New York. Many of these original company members came via the psychodrama network as Fox was also completing his training at the Moreno Institute. Zerka Moreno, Moreno’s widow, was an early supporter of Playback Theatre, paying the rent for the rehearsal space during the first year (Salas, 1993). In addition to the influence of Moreno’s spontaneity theatre, Fox (1994) credits his study of pre-literary theatre, and his two-year residency in Nepal as catalysts for Playback Theatre, stating:
In my eyes this new Playback Theatre, in which the people could see their stories acted out and share with their neighbors aspects of their daily lives and deeply felt concerns, was a way to bring an ancient way into the present, except that where traditional societies sang of Gods and Heroes known and revered by the entire clan, we would sing about ourselves, in all our ordinariness (p.2).
Fox describes the early challenges of developing dramatic forms that facilitated the enactment of “any and all stories”. He also denotes PBT’s “spiritual” mission to enact the stories of those who have not been heard, and stories of any kind.
From PBT’s initial inception, the company actors came from various backgrounds, including those with no previous acting experience (Salas, 1993). Eventually Playback Theatre began to spread as other communities formed their own companies. There are PBT companies all across the United States as well as numerous foreign countries. Practitioners describe PBT as a vehicle for healing, community building and social change. Performances can be open, with tellers invited to recount any type of story, or thematic, built around a specific topic such as immigration or parenting. Playback Theatre is, “...a form of improvisation that is based on stories of ordinary and not-so-ordinary life events told during a performance—dreams, memories, fantasies, tragedies, farces: all holographic glimpses into the lives of real people” (Salas, 1993, p.1). Playback Theatre is adaptable, working in almost any setting, conforming to the needs and concerns of those present. Playback Theatre celebrates the individual experience and the connections between people through their stories, via immediate re-enactment by the performers, who endeavor to bring their empathy, respect and creativity to each teller’s story.
As with Theatre of the Oppressed, Playback Theatre has a repertoire of forms to draw upon in performances. The basic forms are pairs, fluid sculptures, and scenes, the latter being used to tell longer stories. Pairs (see p.67 for a detailed description) are often used during the warm-up phase of a performance but can also be inserted between scenes to provide variety or intensity. Fluid sculptures (see p.67 for description) can also be implemented as part of the warm-up or even in the introduction of the company members. Fluids are also used to enact short stories and require the actors to embody an aspect of the story while maintaining the aesthetics of levels, sound, and movement (Salas, 1993).
Scenes are used for enactments of longer stories and begin with the conductor (who facilitates the flow of the performance between audience, actors and teller) interviewing the teller about their story. Salas (1993) describes this as an attempt to get the basic facts as efficiently as possible. The conductor will also have the teller assign roles as they emerge in the story. Other actors may be assigned inanimate or abstract roles that are central to the story. At this point there is a brief interlude while the actors set the stage, although props are minimal (usually a few wooden boxes and some scarves) and there is no discussion amongst the actors. If the company has a musician, improvised music is played during this phase. After the stage is set the enactment begins, and the end is signaled when the actors freeze and then turn to acknowledge their “gift” to the teller. The teller is then invited by the conductor to comment on the enactment and when appropriate, even to offer an alternative ending to be depicted immediately. If the teller is not satisfied with the enactment, the conductor may request that the actors try again (see Appendix for example in transcript).
Most companies prepare a ceremonial entrance and departure for the beginning and ending of a performance. Ritual is a revered component of Playback Theatre (Salas, 1983) and usually serves to set the stage by providing familiarity, safety and respect for the tellers and audience. Songs, movement or brief statements are common examples.
Telling stories to others helps to process the meaning of experiences as human beings, illuminating both uniqueness and connectedness (Salas, 1993). Rea Dennis (2003) states that Playback Theatre has relevance in the arena of social change due to its roots as an act of service. She states that Playback Theatre has the capacity to:
- hold a space for many different voices
- actively mirror the diversity in the community/audience
- manage or facilitate (and even encourage) a multi-vocal dialogue
- make visible those story elements that are implicit but not always overt, such as political or social influences
- give voice/body/mind/soul to the silent ‘others’ in stories (p.5)
Land (2003) has used PBT to bring closure to the yearlong conflict resolution program she directs with teens in east London. To facilitate this, she asked the students to relay stories of their funniest, worst, scariest and proudest moments throughout the program. Then she asked students to share what they had learned from these moments, as she believes individuals may all learn from each other’s stories. The students drew parallels from the process of Playback Theatre and their process in the program, recognizing that PBT involves empathic listening, teamwork and risk taking. Land’s observations suggest that PBT may give students an opportunity to practice basic interpersonal skills such as empathy and cooperation.
Accordingly, the empathy expressed in the actors retelling of the teller’s story creates the therapeutic atmosphere of unconditional positive regard and congruence (Corey, 1996). The aesthetic component of PBT gives the audience and the teller the opportunity to experience their own spontaneity and imagination. Many PBT practitioners have experimented with the possibilities of PBT in education. These explorations have ranged from single performances to a series of performances over days or weeks. These performances may provide an avenue for discussion on a particular issue or a creative way to explore curriculum. This is particularly beneficial for children whose active learning styles are kinesthetic (Salas, 1993). Playback Theatre offers the opportunity to combine the components of modeling, empathy, active learning, democracy and community building into character education for the entire school community. Everyone needs to be heard and validated as part of a community, and this may be more important for children who are at-risk.
While Playback Theatre has spanned nearly three decades, seven continents and countless settings, there has been little formal research conducted regarding its purported benefits (J. Salas, personal communication, June 28, 2004). Fox (1992) suggests that nonscripted theatre is largely ignored by critics whom he states are stolidly focused on literary theatre. He also regards Playback Theatre as “still in its infancy” and acknowledges that although there are several articles in print, “a critical literature is yet to emerge” (J. Fox, personal communication, September 1, 2006). Indeed, many of the writings about PBT are authored by practitioners who have not employed any formal evaluation of their work, however, there are some studies that illuminate some of the effects that PBT may have on its audience and actors.
Wright (2003) conducted a study in Sydney over a three-year period documenting the audiences’ perceived benefits of Playback Theatre. He also attempted to document the characteristics of PBT that promote change in its participants. After each monthly performance Wright interviewed volunteers from the audience, 47 in total, about their phenomenological experience. He used an analytical heuristic process, developing a series of propositions from the available literature, as a guide to interpret the data from the interviews. The results indicated that Playback Theatre facilitates personal learning by raising self-awareness, enhancing interactive life skills development and increasing social learning in regards to community. He also found that PBT was affirming and allowed for catharsis and understanding, raised sensory awareness, provided perspective to affect and offered opportunity for reflection, thereby, highlighting the universality of human emotion and experience. His findings suggest that the aesthetic essence of PBT profoundly shapes the experience and is essential to its success. He cites the three practices of Playback Theatre, Telling, Witnessing and Modeling as the activators that engage the audience. His final conclusion is that PBT gives the audience a sense of belonging and creates meaning through inquiry and artistic transformation, learning and healing.
While his findings are compelling, it would be difficult to generalize them to other audiences. His study was conducted in Sydney over a two-year period and there may have been cultural influences that impinged audience responses. The effects that he discovered may have been cumulative as many of the audience members were likely regular attendees.
In Europe Playback Theatre is being used in undergraduate and graduate teacher training programs to promote democratic participation and aesthetic, linguistic and cultural education. In the European Comenius Project, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Poland were involved in a three-year action-research program with educators whose focus was to enhance communication, transform the pedagogical relationship and promote transcultural learning. During the project they integrated PBT techniques and as a result are advocating for use of PBT methodology as a way to exchange perspectives and experiences in school socialization (Feldhendler, 2004). The project’s success with PBT as a means to promote communication and understanding of different cultures in teacher training programs suggests it may be effective in promoting communication and transcultural learning in other educational settings.
While Wright’s (2003) study focused on general audiences at a local theatre, and the European Comenius Project focused on educators and teacher trainees, PBT founding member Jo Salas has been working with the local schools in New Paltz, New York to address the issue of bullying (Salas, 2004). Salas is the director of Hudson River Playback Theatre, which has facilitated anti-bullying programs with over 14,000 students. She credits PBT for providing a safe space for children to be fully heard by their peers, teachers and the actors. A typical performance begins with a warm-up phase after which the topic of bullying is raised. After asking for general observations or emotional reactions to bullying, the performers act out the responses. Moving into longer stories elicits experiences of being bullied, although Salas reports that occasionally a bully will speak up. Tellers choose the actors who play them in their stories and are invited to comment after the re-enactment of their stories. If the stories are unresolved or extremely painful, the tellers are encouraged to envision an empowering outcome and then watch as the actors create the “transformation” scene. Salas describes a transformation as an opportunity for the students to rehearse an effective resolution for future experiences.
Playback Theatre programs in the schools use real life stories to teach children about the diversity of cultures and families and promote respect and affirmation of their differences. Through these stories they also learn of the common quest of all students for fairness, justice, respect and caring. The sense of community created by PBT empowers the students to confront bullying when they witness it happening to their peers, thereby making their school a safer place (Salas, 2004).
Moreover, in school programs, the Hudson River Playback Theatre typically performs four one-hour shows, with each audience consisting of two classes of the same grade level. They provide the teachers with a lesson plan so students come to the performance with an understanding of how PBT works. They often relate the PBT to curriculum, such as social studies (topic of civil rights), English (as a stimulus for writing personal stories) or drama (as a form of original improvisation). Playback Theatre is often used to address character education as well (Salas, 2004). The final component of the lesson plan is the completion of comment cards by the students. In a recent series of performances they conducted with 307 students, 240 reported they really enjoyed the show and 81 of them wrote an additional story about bullying on the back of their comment card. Responses to the ways in which they had benefited from the program included: loss of the sense of isolation, ideas to address bullying, catharsis, empowerment, a sense of hope, encouragement to assist the victim and increased empathy for the victim.
Salas (2004) states that her company also solicits feedback from the teachers, counselors and administrative staff at each school. Another informal assessment tool is the direct involvement of the students during the performance. She is emphatic that PBT is part of a collaborative process with the school staff and is only one piece of a school wide anti-bullying program. Although she has not conducted any formal research to date, her experiences with this program have convinced her that playing back the students’ stories leads to personal growth and builds a sense of community among the children. This assertion deserves examination through a more objective lens than that of a founding member of PBT. As with earlier articles cited, the lack of attention to self-reflexivity reduces the credibility of Salas’ conclusions on PBT’s efficacy for addressing bullying in the schools. This concern will be more fully explored in the next section.
Wright’s (2003) conclusions from his research with adults are similar, however, and indicate that Playback Theatre may offer a creative vehicle to develop the basic skill of empathy while promoting many of the other traits that typical character education programs showcase. His findings may be more objective as his role was only that of researcher. In Gathering Voices (Fox & Dauber, 1999), a collection of essays on PBT, McKenna makes the argument that Playback Theatre is itself a transformational form of research. He states:
Playback Theatre allows for the emergence of relevant concepts discovered during the course of conducting performances and additionally enables observation of a wide range of phenomena. It could be used as a research instrument that is generative and allows innumerable relationships to be explored. (p. 179)
This suggests that PBT could be used to help school communities collaboratively determine what their character education goals should be.
Practical and Theoretical Implications for the Project
Determining the theatre program for the project was partly pragmatic. While I had incorporated drama therapy/creative drama techniques in my counseling practice for several years, my training in sociodrama was limited, and I was unaware of other therapists or actors extensively trained in this form in the Charlotte community. My exposure to Theatre of the Oppressed was constrained to books and articles. Charlotte’s theatre is predominantly conventional and much of the political or social issue theatre is scripted. As with sociodrama, I was unaware of any actors trained in Boal’s TO.
My initial exposure to Playback Theatre was through a flyer in Asheville, which has the only PBT company in the state of North Carolina. I explored the School of Playback Theatre’s website, and while intrigued, the expense of tuition and travel were prohibitive. In January of 2004 I discovered a course on PBT and other improvisation techniques offered at a local university. The instructor had extensive PBT training, and a background in education. My personal transformation in this class was empowering, and after the course terminated I met with the instructor, who ultimately became the conductor for the project, to discuss the efficaciousness of PBT to promote empathy and other character education concepts in a public school setting. She emphatically encouraged me to complete the core training at the School of Playback Theatre and to discuss the project with Jo Salas, as her company frequently performs in elementary schools.
While my experience at the School of Playback Theatre was predominately affirming, I was troubled by a minor hypocrisy in the core training class I attended. PBT proclaims to create a space for everyone to feel accepted, without judgment, and yet there was none too subtle pressure to conform to the rituals the instructor instituted. My disinterest in group singing became a point of contention throughout the duration of the class. Rather than discuss her concerns with me openly, even though they were apparently quite troubling to her, she attempted to address what she supposed was my insecurity about public singing by offering solicitous speeches about the benefits of group singing and the lack of talent required to participate. Eventually, when this did not induce my cooperation, she orated on the importance of ritual, while avoiding any eye contact with me. I found it curious that one so skilled at interviewing, as behooves a conductor in Playback, never ventured to inquire about my non-participation in most of the choral activities. This oversight seems antithetical to PBT tenets, however, the experience heightened my awareness of the importance of modeling what you espouse.
There were also theoretical considerations in embracing PBT over sociodrama and Theatre of the Oppressed. While all three forms of theatre are nonscripted and predicated in constructive change, there is a divergence. Unlike TO and sociodrama, the teller in PBT is not directly involved in the reenactment (Rowe, 2005). Fox (School of Playback, 2004) notes that PBT’s requirement of the teller to watch the enactment, rather than participate, creates distance for the teller, thus providing a measure of emotional safety. As a counselor, I strive to create a safe space for my clients from which they can explore their emotions, and I have found the arts to be particularly effective for this purpose. Given the public nature of the emotional exploration inherent in this project, additional “distance”, especially for the children, was a major consideration.
Sociodrama has the potential to help groups or communities deal with an issue they have in common via role play and role reversal. While some of the programs reviewed reportedly were appropriate for character education, promotion of empathy among teachers and peers was not referenced. While it arguably might have that effect on participating group members, the focus appeared to be on group problem-solving. Considering the local school system’s presentation of character education, namely the promotion of positive behavior and specific traits, it may have been dubious to frame performances around problem-solving. Additionally, sociodrama is positioned in the therapeutic domain (School of Playback, 2004) and this association with mental health practice may have hindered its marketability in a public school setting.
Likewise, Theatre of the Oppressed also searches for resolution to social or political issues, operating on the proposition that if the oppressed individual takes action in a chimerical setting, this will further him or her to facilitate change in reality (Nissley,Taylor, & Houden, 2004). Playback Theatre makes no conjectures regarding audiences’ problems or injuries, nor does it seek redress, yet accepts personal stories on any subject, whether joyous or painful (School of Playback, 2004). Weinblatt (Fox, Weinblatt, & Britain, 2000) states that PBT accommodates the teller to honor the personal story, whereas TO exploits the teller to facilitate the aggregate wisdom of the group. He proclaims PBT as unrivaled in its propensity to invite intimate story and healing, as opposed to TO, which advances dialogue and offers practice for the future. He also reports that in recent years there has been cross pollination and purports this trend will continue.
Though practitioners of Playback frequently resist the notion that PBT is theatre as psychotherapy, highlighting the aesthetics and artistry (H. Fox, personal communication, June 27, 2004) and Keating (2006) states:
In practice it seems that Playback Theatre is most effective and most moving when being used outside of the traditional environment of the theatre; in the community and social settings where Playback Theatre is most popular the act of sharing a story and watching its improvised re-enactment reinforces individual and communal identity. (p.1)
She also points to Jonathan Fox’s lecture in Dublin last spring as further evidence of Playback Theatre’s strength as a healing entity, reporting that the examples offered of PBT’s success were all drawn from community sites.
The therapeutic aspect of PBT is not without ethical considerations. One concern is the limited structuring of boundaries for the teller, who has been invited to disclose personal information, perhaps to absolute strangers, or conversely, to peers and co-workers, creating a vulnerability with potential future repercussions. The teller’s control over the enactment is severely limited. While allowed to choose the actors who portray themselves and other significant parts, they are asked for minimal feedback when the enactment is complete. Moreover, inhibition due to the presence of the audience and actors may modify teller response (Rowe, 2005). Nissley, et al. (2004) suggest that questioning who controls the script and role in organizational theatre workshops accords the politics inherent within to surface. They categorize PBT as commissioning co-scripting with the audience (teller) but fully controlling the role via the company actors.
Rowe (2005) also proposes that the location of the performance influences audience and actors’ response to the teller’s story. He states: It is not just spectators whose disclosures are influenced by the nature of the public place: it is also likely that the performers will moderate theopening stories they tell and the nature of their performance according to the audience and the cultural institution in which they perform. Indeed, as a
general point, one might argue that the performers’ sensitivity to the space in
which they are working and their capacity to modulate their performance
accordingly is an important ethical issue in considering playback theatre. The
level of expressed emotion, the choices made concerning the representation
of the story, and the degree to which the performers ‘play’ with the meanings
of the story, are ― and perhaps should be ― influenced by their perception of
the public space in which they are performing. (p.25) Dennis (2003) notes similar findings with PBT performances, emphasizing the challenges implicit when audience values controvert PBT values.
Rowe (2005) also questions the notion that Playback actors retell the essence of the teller’s story, proposing they are responding to the teller’s story, based on their own experiences, ideas, and subject interpretations. I contend that the actors attempt to respond empathically to the teller, much as a counselor does in a therapy session. Rogers (1993) defines empathy as the full comprehension of another’s emotions without the actual experience of the feelings. She advises “The key to empathy and understanding is to have a genuine intention of accurately understanding both the feelings and the intellectual content of the client” (p.16). This is the “deep listening” so often referenced by Salas (1993), Fox (1994) and others who practice Playback Theatre, and the principal inducement for my desire to develop the project with PBT.
As stated in the first chapter, my original project idea when I applied to TUI was the creation of a workshop for educators on the implementation of expressive arts as a tool for classroom management. This would have included substantial training in empathic responding. However, my research in social skills development continually underscored the importance of emotional development as a foundation for social and moral development. I concluded eventually that my project needed to focus heavily on the promotion of empathy between students and teachers, and students and their peers. The most appropriate context for the project appeared to be the subject of character education. Given these considerations, and my personal experience with PBT, along with consultation with my committee, I designed the program and its evaluation component, and proceeded to implementation.
In summary, experiential character education programs have the power to create caring schools where students develop intellectually, emotionally, socially and morally, allowing students to reach their true potential as members of a democratic society. Research connotes such schools would likely have high levels of student success and attendance, lower rates of violence and class disruption, and decreased teacher turnover. Character education must include opportunities for students to develop their emotional competency, beginning with the building blocks of empathy and self-control.
Drama and theatre programs have been utilized in many cost-effective ways to promote moral development, ethical debate, interpersonal skills and social activism with both children and adults. In more recent years increasing numbers of secondary schools and colleges have implemented drama programs to increase students’ skills in conflict resolution and problem solving. There has been less evidence of the use of drama for elementary school character education programs, particularly as a vehicle to promote empathy between teachers and students. Programs are more likely to be available to children in affluent schools that have funding via Parent Teacher Associations or other parent supported organizations.
In the Charlotte community, the school system has received a federal grant to research the effectiveness of character development in the schools. The project coordinator, Julie Babb, reports that her study consists of 25 schools that are employing some type of character education program, and 25 schools that are functioning as the control sites, offering no formal programs (J. Babb, personal communication, August 18, 2004). Due to the study, many of the experimental schools are actively seeking creative ideas to develop their character education program. Many of the schools lack the resources, such as a strong PTA to bring in innovative programs and visiting artists outside of the basic arts exposure considered part of the curriculum.
Obviously the federal government has recognized that more research is mandated to determine the best practices for teaching, modeling and nurturing emotional and moral development in the most meaningful way possible. Little research has been conducted regarding the effectiveness of creative drama as a teaching tool for character education, particularly with elementary school students. Even fewer studies exploring the potential of Playback Theatre as a method to promote empathy and improve overall school climate have been conducted, although there is ample anecdotal and informal evidence offered by PBT practitioners to support this hypothesis. This deficit in the literature and practice of character education presented a compelling opportunity to evaluate a social action project through qualitative methods that offers a unique creative drama approach. This Playback Theatre project was designed to promote empathy between students and teachers utilizing an interactive instructional methodology for specific character issues and to be delivered in a meaningful way to those directly involved.
Findings from the evaluation of this project will contribute to several bodies of knowledge. Playback Theatre companies will benefit significantly in their attempts to gain respect and funding in their communities through formal research documenting the value of PBT experiences. The counseling profession continuously implores its professionals to document their findings regarding interventions that promote empathy and other relational skills. The field of education is in need of research that explores methods to promote schools as communities and support teachers and students. There is also an exigency for research on best practices in character education, as school systems around the country are implementing character education programs without adequate research on their effectiveness or appropriate implementation. My hope is that this study may inform both character education practice and policy.