No student is too young to participate in conversations about equality and social justice. Classrooms should be safe spaces in which young people are free to share their own experiences, learn from the stories of others and creatively imagine change. This, however, can seem like a daunting goal when teaching ESOL students whose facility with English may not yet allow such abstract conversations. Thankfully, words are not the only means through which students can imagine a better future.
Image Theatre is a term created by theater artist and activist Augusto Boal to describe an accessible theatrical technique based upon the creation of still images. Participants are given very simple words or phrases that describe abstract concepts or real-life situations and invited to impulsively respond by creatively positioning their own bodies or those of partners. Once students become comfortable with the still images, those images can then be dynamized by adding sound and movement. Concepts such as love, freedom or even prejudice can be engaged deeply and organically without the need of a complex spoken vocabulary.
I introduced this theatrical technique while working with third-grade ESOL students from Somalia. Many of these children had recently moved to the United States and were dealing with high levels of anxiety and fear. We started off by creating images inspired by words such as happiness, surprise and confusion before slowly working our way up to the word fear.
When this word was given, one group of 10 students quickly moved together to create a still tableau, a frozen picture or representation of the word, using their bodies. They didn’t need to speak. They simply physicalized their truths while also responding to the truths of others. After 30 seconds, they froze. I asked the students in the image and the rest of the class to silently observe what they saw. Some students in the image were crouched down, faces covered, while others were huddling together. Some students were frozen with their fists held high—ready to take on some unknown assailant.
After the group had taken in the scene, I asked them what would need to change in order for the image to be become a picture of the word safety? Silently and slowly, the students began to move, once again responding to their own internal impulses and the choices of others. One student gently moved the fists of a frozen classmate, removing that element of tension from the scene. Other students lifted their classmates’ faces and helped one another up off the ground. Many held hands and smiled. They froze in their new positions and the class once again took in the image.
No discussion was needed for these students to kinetically explore their own experiences and their collective hopes. They simply needed a space to use the tools they already had at their disposal. Image Theatre is a powerful technique for initiating deep engagement with important issues in a diverse classroom setting. Perhaps this technique may even help students communicate more profound truths than those which words can hold.
Sachs is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in the Czech Republic who is passionate about the intersections between social justice, religion and the arts.
On June 12, 2016, 49 people were killed at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. They were spouses, partners, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends and colleagues. The effects of this tragedy will be felt in Orlando and across the country for years, especially in the LGBT and Latino communities (many of the victims were Latino).
How can we help ourselves and our students heal from the loss of these 49 individuals? And how do we help communities that are hurting?
First, it is important to speak up about the incident in your classroom and allow students to talk about the tragedy. Even if you’re out for the summer now, have the conversation when school resumes in the fall.
Second, teachers can help students identify the effects of trauma and provide tools to handle emotional repercussions they are experiencing. In a recent interview with CBS Evening News, Alicia Homrich, a graduate professor of counseling, discusses an approach to trauma therapy called Psychological First Aid, used in the aftermath of serious crises. She encourages people affected by crises such as the Orlando tragedy to monitor their own reactions to traumatic experiences. As teachers, we can encourage students to notice when they are having reactions that are not typical for them. If they are reacting with anger or anxiety, students should talk to a friend or counselor.
Finally, as educators, we must provide opportunities for our students to heal. Homrich suggests that coping mechanisms such as drawing, artwork, writing, journaling and poetry can help restore emotional and psychological health. Carving out time for students to participate in these activities can play a huge role in helping them heal.
Here are some classroom discussion prompts and activities that can help students process the tragedy in Orlando and move toward healing.
- Tell students, “Something sad happened in Orlando. A lot of people died and were hurt because of who they are.” Some students may already know about the shooting. If they wish to talk about what they know, allow them to do so, but guide the discussion to avoid details that might be disturbing to young children. If anti-LGBT comments arise, address them using one of our Speak Up at School strategies.
- Ask students how the tragedy in Orlando makes them feel, and give them a chance to respond either through discussion or journal writing. Ensure students that their journal entries are private and will only be shared voluntarily.
- Ask students, “Even though it makes us feel sad, what are some things we can do to honor those who lost their lives and to help the people in Orlando feel better?” Allow students to respond and use their suggestions to do something for Orlando. Here are some ideas:
- Create a bulletin board with posters, letters and notes to the victims and families.
- Draw pictures for the families who lost loved ones in the shooting.
- Make get-well cards for people who were injured in the shooting.
- Make a pledge to stand up against hate and intolerance:
- Go over the Speak Up at School guide with students and have them create pocket guides. (A sample pocket guide can be found here.)
- Create a wall of tolerance in your classroom or school for students to sign as they commit to speak up against hate and bias. Invite members of the school and community to sign the wall, too.
- Ask students if they are aware of what happened in Orlando. Inform students that 49 people were killed and over 50 people were injured at Pulse, a gay nightclub. Many students may already know about the shooting. If students wish to talk about what they know, allow them to do so, but guide the discussion to avoid details that might be disturbing to students. If anti-LGBT comments arise, address them using one of our Speak Up at School strategies.
- Ask students how the Orlando massacre makes them feel, and give them a chance to respond either through discussion or journal writing. Ensure students that their journal entries are private and will only be shared voluntarily.
- Engage students in hands-on, coping activities. Here are two examples:
- Remembering the Fallen: Show this video of the names and photos of the Orlando victims. Have students choose one victim and read that person’s biography. Students can write a poem, draw a picture or compose a journal entry about that person.
- Posters for Healing: In the days following the shooting in Orlando, hundreds of people left signs, balloons, flowers and notes at the site of the shooting to pay their respects to those who lost their lives. Have students draw posters or write letters and create a bulletin board memorial in your classroom or hallway. Allow families and other members of the school community to contribute.
- Ask students to brainstorm ideas about what they could do to help the people in Orlando. Here are some suggestions:
- Plan and facilitate a fundraiser and make a donation to an LGBT organization in honor of the Orlando victims.
- Sign an online vigil honoring Orlando and share it on social media.
- Pledge to stand up against hate and intolerance:
Botello is a teaching and learning specialist with Teaching Tolerance
The Century Foundation: "While many Americans have responded to this tragedy with calls for gun control, that’s only a piece of the issue at stake. Since January, more than 160 anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender bills have been brought to state legislatures."
Disability Scoop: "Diversity has been the talk of Hollywood, but for the most part, the conversation has centered mostly on race and gender. Some have brought in issues of sexuality, but many feel the discussion should expand to include disability."
The Huffington Post: "[We] attend very different schools, and we attend them separately. ... And, unfortunately, that means there are resources that just aren’t fairly allocated between us, and there are opportunities that are not fairly distributed between us. And there’s something fundamentally wrong with that."
The Jose Vilson: "As first time pre-K parents, we’re nervous for Alejandro, a boy who already counts to 100 and reads Dr. Seuss with clarity and regularity. Academically, he’ll be fine. His mother is an assistant principal and thoughtful educator. His father has taught for 11 years and waxes poetic about the latest education research and its ramifications for a well-read blog. He’s supposed to be fine. But our question was, will the teachers like him?"
National Public Radio: "In 2013, a young woman named Abigail Fisher sued the University of Texas after claiming she was denied admission to the school in 2008 because she was white. ... Fisher sought to challenge the school's "race-conscious" admissions program, commonly referred to as affirmative action. Her case went all the way to the Supreme Court. On Thursday the court ruled the school's program is lawful under the Equal Protection Clause."
The New York Times: "The Supreme Court announced a 4-4 decision in a case challenging President Obama’s plan to shield as many as five million unauthorized immigrants from deportation and to allow them to work in the United States. The decision leaves in place an appeals court ruling blocking the president’s ambitious plan ..."
The New York Times: "'Everyone else is preparing for prom and graduation, and here I am putting together a candlelight vigil for my boy. ... This is my life now. I’ve turned my pain into action.'"
A Teacher's Evolving Mind: "We have the power and tools to dismantle segregated schools. To do so, we must disabuse ourselves of the notion that somehow, organically, in every major urban area in our nation, a uniform pattern of segregated housing, segregated schools, and disproportionate policing practices simultaneously arose. That is, at best, magical thinking."
U.S. Department of Education: "Students who are chronically absent—meaning they miss at least 15 days of school in a year—are at serious risk of falling behind in school. Yet, too few states report information about chronic absenteeism and, for too long, this crisis in our nation's public elementary and secondary schools has not been fully understood."
If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to email@example.com, and put "What We’re Reading This Week" in the subject line.
One of my favorite movie scenes is in Apollo 13 when mission control has to strategize a way to get the crew home with a limited amount of resources. “Well, I suggest you gentlemen invent a way to fit a square peg into a round hole,” the flight director, played by Ed Harris, says. The team dumps a pile of random ship parts on the table, and with that pile alone, they find a way to get the crew home safely.
By using only what was available and in front of them, they met their goal. There weren’t any fancy gadgets, guided booklets or practice drills to get them there. They just used what already existed in a brand-new way. In doing so, they also revolutionized space travel.
What does this have to do with education? Well, as a teacher, I feel we don’t often take advantage of gathering our curricular materials from the resources we have available right in front of us. Imagine if your principal came to you and said, “The only way you can develop your curriculum this year is from using the resources that surround you in this neighborhood.” Would you know where to go? Would you know what is available? Would you be ready, or would you feel completely lost?
If you dig deep, there is a WEALTH of curricular materials right outside the door of your school. Have you ever looked?
As a language arts teacher, I know I’m blessed with the chance to be creative with my text choices and still teach the skills students need to learn. However, even with the freedom to be creative, how often have I pulled something from the typical literary canon? How often have I pulled online news articles to cover nonfiction comprehension? Pretty darn often, at least in my first few years. I really didn’t trust myself to develop material from scratch yet.
But as I grew in my confidence, I realized that students most wanted to talk about what was going on directly around them. Why wasn’t I tapping that source?
This past year, I taught a speech class. While we did talk about current events going on all over the world, each week’s speech topic was narrowed down to a local community context. When we talked about poverty, students discussed the closings of the Double 8 grocery stores in the low-income areas of Indianapolis. When we talked about the criminal justice system, students spoke about their experiences or their friends’ experiences with law enforcement in the city. When we talked about the housing collapse, we took a close look at the areas of the city that were most affected. I had a student who, on the first day of class, tried to sleep all period. By the end of the first week, she was eager to participate because she had an aunt who had bought a cheaply built house before the housing collapse. It was so poorly built she remembered the front door falling right off when she’d made a visit.
It was culturally relevant pedagogy, and it was EASY to implement. My students were more engaged in the material, and once they realized their ideas could mean something, they were also more motivated to become active citizens.
Now, I know some skeptics reading this will say, “Well, what about mathematics? Or science? How can you possibly pull all of the curricular materials for those courses from the surrounding neighborhood?” Time to put a square peg in a round hole. Think about it. Numbers are everywhere. Instead of having students learn only the skills needed to pass the state test, make the numbers stand for something. They’ll still learn the skills, but they will care. Look at the demographics of the neighborhood and calculate the changes by examining census data over the decades. Collect soil and water samples and find out how much lead remains in the ground.
It’s culturally relevant, it’s focused on social justice, and it’s still a way to teach students the skills to get past those exam seasons. What is there to lose?
Time. Yes, time is the most valuable resource to a teacher. It will take time to build up a curriculum from scratch based on the unique neighborhood in which your school resides. But wouldn’t it be fun to try? Don’t you secretly want to feel like that team in mission control, putting pieces together you’d never thought to put together before and coming up with something amazing?
It’s easy to lose the magic of teaching when we’re so bogged down with everything else that comes with the job. But I encourage you to start small and build up. Challenge yourself to do ONE unit with only curricular materials from the surrounding space you’re in. Once you see how the students respond to it, you might be hooked. It’s there in your line of sight; the gold for your future lesson could be in your own backyard. Go out and get it.
Hannon is a life coach and teacher at The Excel Center University Heights in Indianapolis, Indiana, and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in urban education at Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis.
"Empower girls!" "Empower your students!" "Empower! Empower! Empower!"
Calls for empowerment blare from all corners of activist, pedagogical and parenting spheres. Models for empowerment in activist movements, such as Y-Empower, abound. Paolo Friere created the idea of empowerment education.
But what does empowerment really look like in the daily lives of our students? The word empowerment has become almost a toss-away in the land of "raising awareness" and "fighting [insert any disease, disaster or issue here]." Those are important first steps, but without pushing beyond these ideas into the realm of practice, those declarations begin to ring hollow.
For instance, my students must create action plans to remedy issues they see in their local community, and I have asked them to reconsider any project that stops at awareness. I remind them that awareness is great, but unless we are asking people to put their awareness into action, nothing will ever change.
Empowerment looks to be going the way of awareness, becoming an easy catchphrase for change without serving as a catalyst for action. We can raise our fists and demand empowerment for and with any marginalized group, but until we put some kind of plan of action in place, empowerment will never come.
I was trained in the Friere and Socratic models of education that mirrored what was (20 years ago) my burgeoning feminist stance on the classroom: teacher’s desk off to the side, students in a circle, input on assignments, portfolio grading and so on. The more I think about empowerment in my classroom, the more I see it looking like two commitments I have always made to my students: voice and choice.
First, voice. Pedagogies that focus on the oppressed, marginalized and othered often see their first call to action as consciousness raising (consider Steve Biko’s "black consciousness," the Black Lives Matter movement or feminist consciousness-raising groups). Primary to these groups—and their dedication to real-world action—is the finding of one’s voice in a world that has tried to silence it. Our classrooms can reflect that goal. Journaling, collaborating, singing, chanting, discussing: All are viable classroom practices that support students in learning to speak for themselves and how to speak alongside others.
Second, choice. Choice means showing students that we trust them enough to make some decisions about their paths. I am not arguing for an open classroom that devolves into chaos! I am asking teachers to consider where there is room for student choice. Some ways I have been able to work within the strictures of curriculum and assessment include:
- asking students to pick outside readings;
- encouraging students to focus on issues they care about;
- allowing students to find their own writing processes instead of asking them to all fit into the notecard-and-outline model;
- letting students decide how to approach an issue in the classroom or an extracurricular club.
If we don't provide opportunities for students to make decisions and take action inside the classroom, they won’t have a chance to build up that muscle and develop confidence in their own choices and actions outside the classroom.
Many of us are already doing these things; it's important to ensure that we continue to take steps toward empowering our students in action instead of just in speech or writing. The next time we hear a student, colleague or group call for empowerment, let’s all work together to push toward the next step. Let's ask, "What does that look like?" For me, it looks like voice and choice. I am all for empowerment, as long as it goes beyond the word and into the world.
Clemens is the assistant professor of non-Western literatures at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.