Part III: Teaching for Systemic Change

Narrative Three:

January 1997. Today was the start of spring semester, and I have already screwed up! What was I thinking? Completing one three-day workshop with Boal hardly makes me an expert in Theatre of the Oppressed (TO), yet I am naïve enough to offer a 3-hour class on TO?

Ok, I know the methods are powerful. I experienced that power in my workshops with him, but I didn’t realize teaching through TO would force me to change everything I thought I knew about teaching. I am so over my head!

Panicked, I opened bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress (1994) and begin to read. Central to her argument is the belief that the learning process should be exciting, but that excitement about ideas alone is insufficient.

As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.  That insistence cannot be simply stated.  It has to be demonstrated through pedagogical practices.  To begin, the professor must genuinely value everyone’s presence.  There must be an ongoing recognition that everyone influences the classroom dynamic, that everyone contributes.  (8)

hook’s builds upon Freire’s method of dialogue through what she calls “engaged pedagogy.”  Like Freire, hooks discusses using dialogue as a means to create social change; however, her critical pedagogy includes an added risk for the instructor: the instructor should illuminate academic readings with personal narratives from her own life.

As I re-read Freire, Boal, and hooks, I find myself seriously questioning my practices as a teacher.  Am I truly engaging in dialogue with my students?  How much influence am I willing to entrust to my students to help shape the class, set goals, and contribute to the evaluation process?  Can I risk my authority and power as a teacher in order to de-centralize power in my classroom?

Embracing critical pedagogy as my classroom practice is time consuming, emotionally challenging, and scary. To begin, I have to change how I view the power and status of a student/teacher relationship. To unpack the power relationship between student and teacher, my students and I will need to discuss the concept of oppression, ask ourselves as white, middle-class U.S. citizens (which we all were) if we can truly understand oppression.  One of my students writes on an exam, “What if I was not white, or straight, or even male?  What would my roles be then?  Where would I fit into society?” (Paul Flynn, final paper) These are the questions we grapple with as we analyze external and internal oppression and explore the relationship between society, culture, and our patterns of beliefs and values.

As my students and I work through various TO technique (image theatre, forum theatre, cops-in-the head) I gradually become less a teacher and more a student; I am a participant/observer in the classroom, working beside my students, writing in my journal, and keeping copious notes on our progress in each class session. But something is missing. bell hooks writes: “empowerment cannot happen if we refuse to be vulnerable while encouraging our students to take risks” (1994, p. 102).  So, if I want to build trust, I need to do more than just sit back and watch; I need to model openness and risk-taking.  Now that is scary.

As I look at all the obstacles in higher education today, all the things that need to be fixed, I am overwhelmed. I know the system is broken, but I’m not sure how to fix it. Two years after teaching my first class in TO, I had a research assistant contact and interview fifteen of the eighteen students who were in this class, and almost without exception, they all felt the experience had impacted their lives in significant ways: one person left a long term relationship that had been emotionally abusive; another told his family he was gay; a woman confronted her uncle who had sexually abused her. When I discovered all the issues these students confronted in the months following this class, I was awed. TO had a lasting effect on them, far beyond the semester we shared.


Part II: Teaching and Learning with the Body

by Dr. Karen Mitchell

Narrative 1

NYC, May 1994: I’m lying on a sofa bed in some forgotten hotel somewhere in Manhattan. There is a steel bar digging into the middle of my back, but this is the least of my pain. Every muscle in my body aches, burns, screams to be deadened. I have just experienced my first five hours of a workshop with Augusto Boal, five hours dedicated to de-mechanizing the body. As an academic I am aware that I lead a sedentary life, not enough exercise, too many hours at a computer or hunched over a desk grading. I have forgotten my body, but after one session with Augusto, I learn that my body has neither forgotten nor forgiven me for this neglect. I hurt to the bone. Just as I am drifting off to sleep I have a thought: if I do these exercises with my students in class, they will drop the course before the second week. A year later, I discover that they won’t drop the class; they will embrace it.

De-mechanizing the body is preparation for intensive work with image theatre, a technique in which the body is used to express themes, emotions, and attitudes. Many of the exercises using image theatre are done in silence, without participants offering interpretations of the work. The absence of verbal communication requires participants to focus on the nonverbal, and this switch from symbolic language to a synectic interchange moves the discussion away from a fixed interpretation to the free use of metaphor expressed through the body and open to multiple meanings. When a participant does not insist on her interpretation, the image may become more profound for the entire group.

Ron Pelias (2004), a professor at Southern Illinois University, reminds us of the body’s impact on meaning making. Speaking from the body’s heart, Pelias explains, “I speak the heart’s discourse because the heart is never far from what matters. Without pumping words, we are nothing but an outdated dictionary, untouched” (p. 7). In my work with students, we try to learn through our bodies and through our hearts.

Danielle McGeough, who is a former UNI student[], recently wrote a wonderful description of how we learn through our bodies.

For me, the most powerful moments of learning occur through the body because it is so difficult to discipline. Learning happens when our bodies fail to hold an image or unintentionally respond to a situation. Two people accidently touch and recognize their interdependence. A repeated hand gesture causes a student to recall a past interaction. A girl feels actual anger while holding a violent image and is scared by this revelation. Another student is surprised when a tear falls down his cheek. It is the things we fail to discipline (our emotions, memories, and bodily tensions) that leak knowledge and understanding.

Narrative Two:

On Thursday, March 20, 2003, Operation Iraqi Freedom began. My Performance and Social Change class that day started in the typical way with warm-ups, but it soon became very apparent that the students were all too preoccupied with the impending war to focus on my planned lesson. I immediately changed the plan for the day and allowed for what was important to the students. Instead of facilitating a dialogue about the invasion in which words would have been the medium, I asked one of the students to sculpt a group image of how he felt about the events happening this day in our country. This student created an image of strong USA military forces protecting vulnerable Iraqi civilians against violent terrorists. I watched my students create his image with care and commitment, regardless of whether they agreed with him, in order for his idea to be seen by the group. True to image theatre, he was never asked to interpret his image; instead, another student got up and created a different image in response to his.  The second student sculpted a figure at the center of the image with two people: one stood helplessly weeping as the other waited to spring into action, rage evident on her face; they were surrounded by smaller images of violence, death, and torture. A third student offered an image (protest). Then another student (departing).  And another (confusion). And another (funeral).

The twenty of us in this room did not view this event the same way, and we were not dealing with our feelings in the same way, but instead of a verbal argument we had a nonverbal dialogue where everyone existed in harmony. Students cried, offered glances of support, and held each other, but no one said a word. Complete silence filled the room, yet so much was expressed. It is possibly one of the most powerful dialogues I have witnessed in over thirty years of teaching.

Theatre of the Oppressed as a pedagogy calls for embodied participation that allows students to connect mind, body and spirit with course content, an uncommon step in most other pedagogical models that rely primarily on verbal discussions and lectures. In TO encounters, student and teachers experience a slippage of the teacher/student dichotomy, the decenteredness of teacher as ultimate authority. Although there are clear goals for work in these spaces, students are empowered to contribute to the direction of the work and to embrace co-participation as a pedagogical method in which all strive to learn from one another through dialogue and embodied learning. When we break the educational hierarchy of the traditional teacher/student relationship and self-reflexively embody the work, TO praxis becomes more than a collection of techniques; it becomes an approach to pedagogy that allows for rich and unusual classroom dialogue.

Why “Just” Teaching Matters: Part I

During the next four weeks, I will be posting excerpts from Dr. Karen Mitchell’s (University of Northern Iowa) presentation, “Why Just Teaching Matters.” These entries have been adapted from a performance she created after accepting a faculty excellence award. 



I want to say just a few words about my title “Why Just Teaching Matters.”

After 32 years of teaching, 17.5 teaching at UNI, I have decided that if I did nothing other than teach–no committee work, no publishing, no conference presentations, no conferences–the teaching alone would be enough to keep me busy, to keep me intellectually engaged, and creatively stimulated. If all I did was just teach, I would have more time to read, to think reflexively about what I’m doing in my classroom and how I’m doing it, and to meet with my colleagues across campus to talk about teaching (perhaps even team teaching). I would write longer comments on student papers and critiques, meet more frequently with my students outside of class, direct more productions, and be a better mentor. Just teaching matters; it matters a great deal.

My title also resonates in a second way, that of teaching social justice.  My colleague Victoria DeFrancisco taught me years ago that the most important way teachers can practice activism is through their teaching. Vic has been, and continues to be, an awe-inspiring peer mentor to me. I have taught with her several times and witnessed firsthand how she models caring and community in her classroom. She creates a space where students can communicate openly about controversial issues. Her passion for teaching equals her passion for social justice, and she challenges her own thinking by listening carefully to her students. That may sound incredibly simple (build community in your classroom, have passion, challenge your thinking, listen to your students), but her office is next to mine, and I see how exhausted she is by the end of a teaching day. Teaching justly matters.

Just teaching and teaching justly—those are my themes[].

Of the many resources I draw upon as a teacher, activist, and creative artists, none is more important than the insight I gain from my students[]. As Paulo Freire’s philosophy of critical pedagogy reminds us, both teachers and students have valuable experiences to contribute to the classroom; in such a space, teachers learn and students teach through an on-going dialogue among people who share different experiences and positions.  In such classrooms, teaching and learning extend far beyond the end of the term, and in some cases, learning never ends.

[] A practioner of liberatory education through theatre, Augusto Boal developed a method for creating activist theatre called Theatre of the Oppressed or TO.  Boal argues that actors are not the only ones who make theatre; audiences make theatre, too. The goal of Theatre of the Oppressed is

…to safeguard, develop and reshape the human objective, by turning the practice of theatre into an effective tool for the comprehension of social and personal problems and the search for their solutions. (Boal, 1995, p. 14) 

When teaching workshops, Boal often explains that while we may start with an individual’s story (the actor’s story, for instance), we must be willing to find the community story (the story of the audience) through collaboration, sharing and critical exploration of how singular oppression is connected to universal oppression. For both Freire and Boal, this interchange happens through dialogue: for Freire, dialogue among teacher and students; for Boal, dialogue among actors and audiences. With this in mind, our dialogue []will start with the body and conclude with a discussion of the place of teaching in making systemic change possible.

Boal’s work begins with the body. It is in the individual body where consciousness of new possibilities begins, and it is the whole body that is often ignored in traditional education. Tonight we will think about the body through Boal’s image theatre in which frozen images are formed with individual bodies to begin dialogue that moves beyond the linguistic, thus creating possibilities for new realizations through body knowledge and visual observation.

Working for Free

By Elizabeth Genskow

An effective school runs like a well-oiled machine.  Committees need to be formed so that effective leadership can be demonstrated.  Unfortunately not every committee comes with compensation.  At Centennial High School, we have a committee called Leadership.  This committee meets once a month and is done strictly on a volunteer basis.  This committee reports to the administration and many concerns are addressed and actions taken.  Without this committee, many teacher concerns would not be brought to the administration.  Teachers are willing and do many volunteer activities because they can see the benefit to the school and to the students.  The funding is just not there to give every teacher extra compensation for the work that they do.  When a person signs up to enter the field of education, they are devoting themselves to time and activities that come without extra pay.  I knew this when I entered the field and that is why I am willing to put in the extra time.  Many times it makes my job easier.  

My contract hours are 7:30-3:30 with the school day running 8:25-3:05.  As the teacher of advanced science classes, students needed additional one on one instruction.  By the time students reach my door after school it is already 3:15.  Fifteen minutes of additional instructional time is not enough.  I applaud students for recognizing that they need additional help.  When these students come in, I will work with them for as long as it takes.  It is so rewarding to see the light bulb finally turn on with a student who had absolutely no idea how to complete a concept.  Students usually stay after with me until about 4:00.  This entire half hour of instructional time is without pay.  Students don’t realize that I am working with them free of charge.  To me providing extra instruction is just part of the job that I signed up with.  I knew that I would be putting in extra time to ensure students are understanding the concepts.

If I only worked my contract day from 7:30-3:30, I would never get anything done.  There would be no grades in the grade book.  Our one prep hour of 52 minutes is too short to get grading, planning, and copying done.  To get grades entered, every weekend I take a large stack of papers home with me.  Part of my weekend is devoted entirely to school.  This weekend grading time is done on my own time.  I am not receiving any sort of compensation.  Students expect teachers to grade papers at home, but what they don’t realize is that I am not being paid.  On average I do eight hours of grading each weekend.  This is my homework.  If I assigned that much homework, the students would have a fit.  Yet, the students expect that I work that hard.  What is wrong with this picture?  

What happened to respect?

by David Brennan

            As a 10th grader, I was a pretty awful student. In one class, I specifically remember an entire week of pretty horrible behavior. My friends and I sat along the far wall row of desks, whenever our teacher would turn to the board, we would smack each other with those old sticky hand toys. You remember them; peel one out of a little plastic wrapper, grab the squishy rope end, and thwap someone in the face! We’d let out little pubescent giggles, quickly hide what we were doing and look at our desks. Our teacher never caught us. Well, that’s probably a lie; I’m fairly certain anyone with any use of their senses could detect our stupidity.

            That teacher was my first debate coach and boss as I became an assistant coach for seven years after high school. He never brought up my behavior from class, but over the years I saw students do silly things while he was teaching; each time I’d remember what I did and feel like a total idiot. I learned a lot about respect from that man; even when we didn’t have an interest in what was going on in front of us – we’d listen, even if we didn’t have anyone in finals – we’d stay for awards.

            Throughout my many, many years in college, I may still have been a subpar student, but I tried to have as much respect for the instructor as I could. If I skipped class, there’s no way I would contact the professor to get notes or ask what we were doing. If I missed an online quiz, I certainly didn’t blame it on not knowing when the quiz was due and hope for a retake. (On a side note: If you’re one of my former professors and I, in fact, did not respect you, I sincerely apologize.) Now that I’m an actual college professor, with students and classes and quizzes of my own, I see the attempt at respect simply dwindling down among today’s students.

            During my first semester out of grad school and in a real coaching/teaching position, I happened to stumble across a Facebook post between two of my students. The series of comments were making fun of my weight in not-so-polite terms. The posts occurred during our class, while I was lecturing, while they were supposed to be taking notes. I took the appropriate and professional action, I accepted the students’ frightened apology, I put on a strong face, and was told, “This isn’t how our students act.” But, in reality, this hurt me to my core and shook my desire to continue educating. Even though this act had considerably more malice than my sticky-hand-antics as a 10th grader, I can only hope they feel like idiots every time they think about it.

            Less intense forms of absent respect are much more commonplace, I’m sure. If you are an educator, you have undoubtedly received an email written in all lowercase, with no punctuation, and maybe even internet abbreviations – I know I have. How about an assignment slipped under your door and that student mysteriously absent from class? Correspondence which starts with, “Hey” or “Yo” or “Hi Doc” (no matter how many times I tell them I am a professor and not a doctor)? Questions, really, really basic questions, about assignments due the next day, sent the night before? *sigh*

            Is this a generalization? Yes. But, it’s not hasty! There are many great students, who take their educational careers seriously, respect the classroom and the professor, and actually proofread emails. Helping them become better students and humans might be the only reason to put up with the rest who probably can’t even tell you why they are in college. I hope their experiences change their outlook, just as mine did. I think what I’m really trying to say is, instructors should be able to sticky-hand-whip students . . .