Friday, June 18, 2010

Queer Kids in Public Schools

I recently listened to an NPR Talk of the Nation segment on what life is like for openly gay kids in public schools. It’s worth a listen (there’s a transcript at that link, as well). It’s a good discussion of the harassment and discrimination that LGBT kids face and what teachers and administrators can do to combat it (unfortunately it’s pretty focused on the L and the G, with a much lighter focus on the B and especially the T). In particular, the speakers make a good case for why it’s important to make public schools a safe space for all students.

One thing that they touch on right at the end, but don’t go into in depth is the problem of heterosexism (leave me alone, spellchecker, it is a word) in the classroom itself. Clamping down on harassment and bullying is generally the first priority of schools, and with good reason, I think. If school isn’t safe, nobody’s learning anything. However, as those of you who’ve followed my blog for awhile may have gathered, I’m all about the big changes. As long as queer people and their experiences are erased in our curriculums, queer kids will continue to be seen as deficient. Changing this can be tough, because in a lot of places, maybe the majority of places, any teacher wishing to address queer issues in any way will have to tread very lightly indeed. Unfortunately, just acknowledging that people who aren’t straight and cis gender exist and deserve the same respect at straight and cis people can be controversial. But it’s also incredibly important.

Obviously, individual teachers have to consider how best to do this, given their subject, the ages of their students, and all of the other variables that teachers have to take into account when teaching anything. But I do think that the experiences and contributions of queer people can be integrated into most curricula. When it comes to theatre classes, incorporating works by and about queer people is the first step. It’s also important to crack down on anti-LGBT language in the class. Kids tend to be more relaxed in drama class, and as a result use language that would be avoided in front of other teachers. This puts theatre teachers in an excellent position to talk about anti-LGBT language and why it’s problematic. Equally important is calling kids out when they use gay stereotypes to get a laugh during exercises (which kids do with alarming frequency). Here again, talking about why that’s problematic is crucial.

I also think that, with older students who are past the basic acting level, exercises in “playing the other” are really useful in talking about all kinds of biases and prejudices. Challenging kids to play someone who seems completely different from them is an excellent way to encourage them to consider the lives and experiences of others, and to generate conversations about the biases that they brought into the role. It’s also a good way to help them grow as actors, and I think it’s important to have a valid pedagogical reason for doing anti-bias work in the classroom. It gives you a leg to stand on if people complain.

So that’s my two cents. I’d be really interested to hear what other people are doing to lessen the heterosexism in their curricula, and what people who aren’t educators think teachers should do in that vein. I know that GLSEN has some good resources for educators on their website--are there any other resources that people recommend?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Roots of Empathy

As promised, a post on the Roots of Empathy program, albeit a short one, because I’m still sort of hashing out my thoughts on it. Roots of Empathy is a program that encourages the development of empathy in children by coaching students in observing the development and emotions of an infant. I have to say I’m fascinated by this idea, because I believe that encouraging and developing empathy in young people is crucial to stopping bullying. In my own work, when I’ve been thinking about ways to develop empathy in students, I’ve mostly been thinking about developing empathy specifically for their fellow students, the people they interact with daily, which would then, hopefully, decrease bullying and increase bystander intervention. Although both my own work and Roots of Empathy work with all the students, rather than focusing on just the bully or the victim, the Roots of Empathy approach is different in that it seems to be more to develop empathy for a specific person (the infant they’re observing) who isn’t a part of their daily lives, and then see if that empathy translates into their daily interactions. It seems to me like a reasonable approach--babies are cute and helpless, which are qualities that make them easy to care about and develop empathy for. So the big question is, does that empathy translate into the school setting? The research that I was able to find seems to suggest that it does, at least to a degree, and I’ll definitely be interested to see continuing research, particularly long term studies of kids who went through the program. But, I still maintain my long-held stance that until we, as a society, stop viewing certain people as inherently less-than, some kids will continue to have the desire and the means to bully other kids.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Recess Coaches: Do they stop bullying?

A recent trend among schools has been to hire recess coaches, people whose job is to basically run recess, organizing games and generally supervising the kids. Now, I’m all for anything that reduces the workload on teachers (if recess is supervised by a recess coach, that means it’s one less duty that teachers have to do). But, that’s not the purpose of recess coaches. Recess coaches are there to “curb bullying and behavior problems, foster social skills and address concerns over obesity. They also hope to show children that there is good old-fashioned fun to be had without iPods and video games." There are valid criticisms regarding whether a recess coach is enough to achieve any of those goals, but I want to talk specifically about how effective recess coaches are at curbing bullying.

It would be pointless to argue that recess coaches do nothing to curb bullying. Increased supervision does stop bullying--in the immediate area of the supervisor. Most bullies aren’t going to do their bullying in a place where they’re going to be observed (Eddie Haskell springs to mind). But stopgap measures like increased supervision do nothing to address the root causes of bullying, and kids who want to will still have plenty of opportunities for bullying. If nothing else, the bullying can take place outside of school, either in person or online (completely unrelated note--the word bullying starts to look really odd when you write it a bunch of times).

Bullying happens because some kids feel the need to exert power over other kids, and because witnesses are either afraid to intervene, or don’t have the tools to do so. Stopping bullying requires giving bystanders the tools to intervene when they see bullying happening, and changing the culture so that certain kids don’t feel that need to exert power. One of those is relatively simple, if not always easy. The other will take a bit longer. But no one ever said social justice work was easy.

So how do we work with bystanders (who, after all, make up the majority of kids) to give them both the tools and willingness to step in? As you might expect, I’m a firm believer in theatre techniques. Things like Boal work, mantle of the expert activities, and even basic improv techniques can be used to encourage students to talk about the bullying they’ve witnessed or experienced, which develops the sense of group cohesion necessary to make students want to intervene. Those same techniques can be used to help students develop tactics and tools for intervening. And, theatre and other art programs can be used to help young students develop empathy, which helps discourage bullying at its source, the bully (I’m also interested in the Roots of Empathy program, which I plan to write about soon).

So, do recess coaches help curb bullying at recess? Yes, probably. Do they do anything to stop bullying as a societal phenomenon? I have to say no. For now, curbing bullying means that students themselves need to formulate their own reasons and tactics for stopping bullying on the ground. Actually ending bullying will take a major cultural shift--until we eliminate the hierarchies that exist in our society and our schools, bullies will continue to have the desire and the means to bully.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

In Which I Consider Questions of Accessibility and Disablism

Inspired by this post at Womanist Musings (which everyone should read because it's really awesome and thought-provoking, and also that's just a great blog in general), I spent this past week trying to think about issues of accessibility as I went about my daily life. And so in this post I’m going to talk a little about what it was like to be aware of the accessibility (or lack thereof) in the places I went, and then I’ll be talking about which buildings seemed pretty good, and which were seriously lacking. I decided to focus on accessibility for people with limited mobility, just because that seemed like the simplest thing for me, as a currently able bodied person, to look around and see (or not see, as the case may be).

The thing that stood out for me the most was how easy it was for me to forget that I was trying to notice accessibility in the places I went to. Why hello privilege, I almost didn’t see you, all camouflaged in the corner there! This experiment really forced me to confront how incredibly privileged I am, in that when I leave the house, I don’t have to think about which T stops I can use, or if the buildings I’m going to are accessible, or if I need to budget extra time and energy to go around old McDonald’s barn looking for accessible entrances and whatnot. I can just grab my stuff and go. If doing this for a week showed me one thing, it’s how much easier fitting society’s idea of “normal” or able bodied makes life. Which was something I’d always gotten intellectually, but never really had to think about or face up to in any serious way. So I hope to be much more aware of my own able-bodied privilege in my day to day life now.

And now, on to the ratings!

First stop:
Orient Heights T Station: This station is a little weird. If you go in the side that you’re getting the train on, everything’s fine. But if, say, your bus drops you off on the outbound side and you need to go to the inbound side, you’re in trouble. The only way to get from one to the other inside the station is via a set of stairs. If you can’t do stairs, you have 2 options: one, you can go up to the street and take the long way around to the other entrance. Or, you can ask the bus driver (or whoever) to drop you off on the side you need, instead of at the normal stop. I have seen bus drivers do this for people with baby carriages, so it’s probably not a huge problem, but still, it’s unfortunate that those are your only options.
Grade: C+ Not bad, but still more of a hassle for people with mobility issues than for those without.

Next Stop:
State Street T Station: Also weird. The orange line is fully accessible (elevators to both platforms). The blue line has an elevator on the outbound side, but not the inbound side. So if you’re headed inbound and want to get out at State, you have to go to the next stop, switch to the outbound train, and go back. Not a huge amount of extra time, but still seems like an unnecessary hassle. They are in the midst of renovating this station, so maybe this is something they plan to address--I’m not sure.
Grade: C+ Like Orient Heights, not completely inaccessible, but still adds some unnecessary time and inconvenience if you have mobility issues.

Third Stop:
College Building 1: Pretty good. No stairs to get in, the front doors have those push button automatic doors opener things (do those have an actual name?), and the elevators are a good size and I’ve never seen a line for them. The only place this building lost points was that the studio doors are absurdly heavy (everyone I’ve ever seen open one has struggled), which could be an issue for a lot of people. I’m not sure why they’re so heavy, but I assume it has something to do with muffling sound.
Grade: B+ Overall pretty good, but it’s too bad the studio doors have to be so ridiculous.

Fourth Stop:
College Building 2: Not bad, but not as good as College Building 1. There aren’t any stairs in, but there also aren’t any automatic door opener things. There are elevators, but they are tiny (they seem stuffed with 3 or 4 people in them) and there is almost always a huge line of people waiting to use them.
Grade: B. Not bad, could be better.

Fifth stop:
Boylston Street T Station: Completely inaccessible. No elevators and no escalator, only stairs.
Grade: F.

Final Stop:
Government Center Station: As the MBTA website says, “no accessible boarding features.” I must say, I’m surprised by the lack of accessibility in all of these downtown stations--being so central and heavily used, I would think they’d be better that way. Shows what I know (not much, apparently).
Grade: F.

And finally, before moving on, a quick accessibility fail story. A few weeks ago, I went with the boyfriend to the eye doctor. As we were leaving, I noticed that the entrance had a ramp (cool) which culminated in a 6 inch or so tall step to get into the building (not as cool). Seriously, who designed and built that without going "hmmm, this step at the top actually defeats the entire purpose of having a blasted ramp"? FAIL.

So now that I've finished my experiment, what next? Good question. I’m not sure what, practically, will come out of this for me. Like I said, I feel like I’m now more aware of accessibility issues, and that will definitely affect my teaching in a positive way, because I’ll be more aware of what I can do to even things out, both in terms of my classroom teaching and things like school performances and the like. But as far as what concrete things I’ll be doing next? I’m still working that one out.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

On Creating an Inclusive Curriculum, Part 3

Note: This post is the last in a 3-part series exploring the process of taking theatre instruction outside the white, European, male paradigm.

As promised, this week I’m writing about incorporating female playwrights and other theatre artists into my curriculum. This post is going to be full of even more navel-gazing than the first two, since I haven’t fully decided yet how I’m going to do this. Do I want to include discussions of female artists in my already existing units? Or do I want to have a specific unit on key female artists throughout the ages? Or do I want to take some as-yet-undiscovered third option? As usual, there are pros and cons to everything.

The big advantage of including these discussions inside the larger units is that it normalizes teaching and learning about women in theatre. This is basically the point of all this curriculum work that I’m doing--to normalize the teaching of theatre history that’s not just white, male, and European. As you can probably tell by now, that’s work that I strongly believe in.

On the other hand, setting female artists into their own unit has two distinct advantages. The first is that, by putting the focus on women for a few weeks, I can be sure that they’re not getting lost in the shuffle of genres and styles and dates and criticism. It would allow me to create a structure around specific artists and plays, rather than time periods and styles, which is the setup for the rest of the units.

The second advantage to a specific unit on women in theatre is that it gives me more space to discuss sexism in theatre, both in the past and today. That’s important. Students need a chance to talk about why there are sparse records of women in theatre until relatively recently, really until the 20th century, and a space to learn about the sexism that still exists in the industry. Those discussions also make a good jumping off point for discussions of sexism in greater society, a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. And, that leaves more room for discussions of racism and Eurocentrism during the more history and geography based units. When you’re trying to teach complex stuff in a limited time period, simplicity of structure is your friend.

Which bring us to maybe the biggest lesson that this work has taught me. As important as what you teach is, how you teach it matters too. The way things are presented makes a difference, not only in the sense that how things are taught affects whether students learn it, but because how things are presented changes how students think about them. When people of color, women, and other marginalized people are relegated to a short unit tacked on at the end of the year, the message is that those people don’t really matter. And those attitudes, even if not consciously held, carry over into everyday life. What I’m trying to do here, albeit maybe a bit clumsily, is to use structure as well as content to create a more egalitarian curriculum. Hopefully it’ll matter, at least a little.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

On Creating an Inclusive Curriculum, Part 2

Note: This post is the second in a 3-part series exploring the process of taking theatre instruction outside the white, European, male paradigm.

This week I want to talk a little bit about how people view my curriculum project. As I’ve been working on this project, it’s come up in conversation with a number of people, mostly other students. The thing that’s struck me is that almost every time, people have been amazed by what I’m doing. Now, these are all people who are committed to multiculturalism in education. So what’s so incredible about using our curricula to expand how we define theatre?

The reason, I think, lies in the fact that most theatre history curricula have followed the same format for a long time--work your way through the development of western theatre, and then talk a bit about non-western theatre. I, and I think most other teachers, draw heavily on what and how they were taught when deciding what and how to teach their students. Breaking out of that mindset is tough. It’s made tougher if, like me, your baseline knowledge is lacking. It requires a lot of work and research. However, expanding curricula outside the traditional Eurocentric history is important. For students who aren’t of European descent, it’s important to see representations of their history in what they study. For students who are of European descent, it’s crucial to see that Europe was not the end all and be all of civilization’s development.

Theatre teachers are in a unique position to do this. Because theatre is an untested subject, theatre teachers have a lot more freedom than teachers of subjects that are tested and who have to cover set topics. While there are theatre standards, how those standards are addressed is largely left up to individual teachers. We should use that freedom to explore new curricula and encourage students to look at theatre in new and different ways.

Next week: Expanding my curriculum to include a greater emphasis on female playwrights and theatre artists.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

On Creating an Inclusive Curriculum, Part 1

Note: This post is the first in a 3-part series exploring the process of taking theatre instruction outside the white, European, male paradigm.

Since I’m currently unemployed and have a lot of time on my hands, I’ve been doing a lot of work developing curricula for when I have a classroom of my own. In addition to the usual suspects (acting, tech, public speaking), I decided to put together a dramatic history/literature class. But when I started to work on it, I realized that all of the theatre history classes I’ve ever had followed the same pattern--a short unit on ritual beginnings, a long unit on ancient Greece, a unit on the Middle Ages, a long unit on Shakespeare, a unit on what came after Shakespeare in Europe and the United States, and a, usually comparatively brief, unit on non-western theatre, which tended to focus on Japanese theatre forms.

So I started to ask myself why? Surely theatre existed outside Europe and the U.S. Surely there were countries elsewhere with a theatrical tradition. And so I set about developing a curriculum that gives equal time to countries throughout the world, giving an overview of key theatre forms and how theatre developed in different areas.

The first step in this process has been a lot of research, because my knowledge of non-western theatre forms, especially pre-20th century, is woefully lacking. To begin the research process, I decided to seek out a definition of theatre that was less exclusive than Aristotle’s, which is usually used as the standard for defining theatre. According to Aristotle, theatre requires 6 elements: plot, character, thought, diction (or dialogue), melody, and spectacle (he was specifically writing about tragedy, but this definition is frequently used by scholars to determine if something is theatre). Aristotle’s definition had a strong influence on the development of western drama, but outside of European-influenced theatre, drama developed differently. Plot, in particular, is often less important than the other elements. Fortunately, during my research I discovered Milton Singer’s definition of theatre: it must include “a definitely limited time span, a beginning and end, an organised programme of activity, a set of performers, an audience, and a place and occasion of performance” (from Traditional India: Structure and Change (1959: xii)).

Using this definition and a whole lot of research into various theatre forms from outside Europe, I am slowly but surely creating a curriculum that asks the question “What is theatre?” and guides students along the path to answering it for themselves.

Next week: Reflections on how people react when I tell them about this project.

Monday, March 8, 2010

One More Crack in the Glass Ceiling

Last night, Kathryn Bigelow made history by becoming the first woman ever to win the Oscar for Best Directing for her film The Hurt Locker. Will that fix all problems and difficulties female directors face in Hollywood? No. But it's a big step, nevertheless.

For more info on how to support female filmmakers, I highly recommend the site Women and Hollywood, which is chock full of news, film suggestions, and other stuff about, well, women and Hollywood.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Girls and Bullying: What to do about it?

Bullying, and especially cyber-bullying, have been all over the news for the past month or so. Following a suicide in South Hadley, everyone from parents to news reporters to state legislators have been proposing solutions to the bullying problem in schools. So, since I’ve recently been working on a curriculum to address this very issue, I thought I’d throw my hat in the ring, too. Note: my research has been specifically on bullying among girls, although most of what I suggest is applicable to boys as well.

I’m a firm believer in the power of people’s stories. No matter what issue you’re talking about, I believe it’s necessary above all else to center the lived experiences of those most affected. So when I started developing a curriculum designed to address bullying, it’s probably not surprising that I started with strategies for helping students tell their stories. And not just their stories of being victims, but their experiences as bystanders or perpetrators, as well. Because as nice as it sometimes is to believe that there are simple dividing lines between those groups, that just isn’t the case. Instead of just shaming perpetrators and bystanders, it’s crucial to allow them to share their stories and explore why they behaved the way they did. In developing my curriculum, I drew heavily on techniques from Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, which is designed to help people explore their own stories of oppression, and is extremely effective in helping students examine their experiences.

I also believe it’s critical that suggestions for solutions come from students, so that’s the other part of my curriculum. They’re the ones who really know what's going on and have a grasp of what’s possible and realistic, so I think we as adults have to defer, to some extent, to students’ lived experiences. That’s why the other part of my curriculum focuses on helping students explore possible strategies for handling conflict and bullying. For that, I again use some Boal, as well as Mantle of the Expert and other process drama activities (Dorothy Heathcote and Jeff Wilhelm were my major resources/influences for those things).

Throughout all of this, I think the role of the teachers and other adults involved is to give students strategies for dealing with the issue themselves. Which, come to think of it, is really how I see the role of teachers in general--to give students strategies and tools and guide them on the path toward knowledge and growth.

Resources: For more on Boal’s techniques, I highly recommend his Games for Actors and Non-Actors; Theatre of the Oppressed; and The Rainbow of Desire. For mantle of the expert and other process drama information, Jeff Wilhelm’s Action Strategies for Deepening Comprehension is a great starting point (it’s geared primarily toward language arts classrooms, but the activities can easily be applied to other contexts).

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Bullying, Cyberbullying, and Hadley

If you live in the Boston area, you’ve probably already heard about Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old girl who recently killed herself in Hadley. Evidently, bullying she faced at school and online contributed to her suicide. I’m sure we can all agree that whatever the cause, this is an enormous tragedy, so I don’t want to talk about that. What I want to talk about are some of the kinds of responses I’ve seen to what happened, because a few in particular have really disturbed me.

Response 1: The girls who did the bullying are monsters.

I’m not interested in defending the bullies--no one seems to be disputing that Prince was bullied, and there’s no excuse for that. However, the idea that these girls are some kind of soulless monsters is damaging not just to them, but to all young people, including victims of bullying. Bullies aren’t evil, or heartless, or inhuman. They’re people. And that’s good news, because people can change. Monsters, by definition, can’t. If we cast bullies in the role of evil, it becomes easy to throw our hands up and focus on punishment, instead of prevention. It’s only if we remember that these girls, and all the others like them, are girls more or less like any others that we can be committed to ending bullying by encouraging empathy and healthy relationships, rather than instituting consequences that don’t do much until it’s already too late.

Response 2: Girls are horrible/this is why I hate girls/women.

Related to response 1, but broader. I don’t think I’m saying anything controversial if I say that girls aren’t horrible. Girls can be brilliant and kind and creative and all-around amazing. And like anyone, they can also be cruel. There are reasons that girls tend to bully in the way they do. Society encourages insecurity in girls, whether regarding their body image, their intelligence, or their place in the social hierarchy. Girls are supposed to simultaneously strive for perfection and refuse to admit their strengths and good qualities, even to themselves. This pressure to play the game of being the best but never admitting it can drive girls to attack targets they see as a threat, or who don't play the game (by being too confident or not self-deprecating enough). For more on this, I highly recommend Rachel Simmons’s work. We don’t do anyone any favors by acting like this behavior is just “what girls do,” because as above, if that’s the case, nothing can be done to change it and we all might as well give up now.

Response 3: There oughta be a law.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, there are a dozen bills in front of the state legislature regarding bullying. Twelve bills. People are suggesting solutions ranging from suing the school, the bullies, and/or their parents to charging the bullies with assault. But again, instituting draconian consequences doesn’t do anything to stop the bullying, it just attempts to address it once it’s happened. In addition, punishments for the bullies can actually worsen things for the victim. For example: a victim gets up the courage to talk to a teacher about the bullying she’s facing. The school has a zero tolerance policy for bullies, so the teacher goes to the principal and the bully is suspended. But her friends aren’t, and to retaliate they target the victim even more. Which isn’t to say that the solution is for girls who are targets to just keep quiet, ignore it, and hope they make it out of school reasonably intact. The point is that strict policies aren’t enough to really change behavior. The key is to give girls a space to talk about what’s happening, help them think about why it’s happening, and help them develop empathy for targets and strategies for what to do when they’re the target. Because girls are the only ones who fully know what’s happening “on the ground,” and effective solutions can only come from them.

So how do we do all that? I’m so glad you asked! I’m currently working on a curriculum that uses theatre to help girls do those things. I'll be elaborating on it in future posts, so check back soon!