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.