Bringing Social Justice Theater to Schools

At foundry10, we are interested in exploring how students connect to themes of social justice and believe providing a social medium like theater arts may empower student voice in these areas. Below are descriptions of the Social Justice Theater programs we conducted in the 2016-2017 school year, followed by some reflections by a teaching artist involved in the program.

Social Justice Theater at Kenmore Junior High School

Two hundred students, two teachers, two teaching artists, and a month long, collaboratively designed curriculum using theater arts to explore issues related to social justice.

Teacher Jeanne Medalia at Kenmore Junior High and Chelsea, foundry10 dramatic arts program developer, discovered a common interest in advocacy in social justice and theater arts through conversations during a professional development course for teachers and artists called TAT LAB. Partnering with Jeanne’s colleague, Jolene Conklin, as well as two other teaching artists, Meredith Berlin and Keni Cohen, foundry10 developed an idea for a month-long collaboration on social justice theater in every ninth grade English classroom at Kenmore Junior High School, in winter 2017. The teachers and teaching artists worked together to generate curriculum to create a framework for students to build awareness and take action to openly discuss and reflect upon issues of social justice and advocacy in the world they live in today. The month long intervention was designed to also prepare students to dive deeper into the social justice issues inherent in their upcoming unit on To Kill A Mockingbird. The goal was for students to reflect on the issues in small group,s respond to it through creating pieces of theater, and ultimately sharing with another class to facilitate a large group discussion. Not only did the students learn, but the teachers expressed that they really grew in their confidence to teach using theater arts in the classroom.

Social Justice Theater at NOVA High School
NOVA High school English teacher, Brian, expressed interest in having a foundry10 teaching artist use some artistic approaches to helping the students connect and engage with the literature they were tackling in the winter/spring. His selection of graphic novels in winter and spring quarter, American Born Chinese and March, are ripe with relevant social justice issues. Foundry10 teaching artist, dancer, and theater generator Cessa Betancourt, used movement and artistic expression to engage students with the material. She and Brian worked out a collaboration where she came in every other Friday during their unit to lead an engaged reflection exercise on the current material they were covering in the book. The first time she came, the students drew a work of art together in response to their processing of the book’s content. Then, they added movement to and music and generated a moment of theatrical response to the material with their bodies in space at the end of each class session. She is continuing to work with Brian this spring on a new graphic novel, March. Their collaboration is a great example of teachers and teaching artists working together on process-driven curriculum.

In another classroom at NOVA, Cessa teamed up with teachers, Chelsey and Melissa, to add a devised theater element to their spoken word class, Naked Truth. Chelsey and Melissa have experience teaching social justice theater arts in relationship to spoken word but this year they were interested in bringing more movement and group work to the class project. Cessa, with her background in movement and refugee work, was a natural fit for guiding the class through this additional element of the class work. Cessa used movement and devised theater practices to guide the students in exploring their spoken word pieces, ultimately tying them together into performance they will share at the end of the school year at an assembly and with their community in the evening. Of the program, Cessa said, “It’s really exciting to work with such smart kids who are able to engage in discussion about the power of using art as a device for social change.”

Social Justice Theater at Mercer Island High School
Theater arts teacher, Daniella, at Mercer Island High School teamed up with foundry10 teaching artist and new works developer, Zoe Wilson, to dive deep into a three week social justice theater arts intervention in their classroom. Zoe, alongside Daniella, used techniques from Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed body of work, as well as devised theater practices to facilitate the students’ experience generating moments of theater that highlight issues of social justice relevant to their everyday lives. The students performed their pieces in front of peers and community members on Monday, May 12th, in the evening.


Social Justice Theater at Nathan Hale High School

Eleventh grade English teachers Kristina and Sarah, at Nathan Hale High School, did a unit where all five eleventh grade classes wrote, recorded, and produced a podcast. They teamed up with foundry10 to steer the students’ storytelling toward issues related to social justice. Playwright, actor, voice-over artist, director and foundry10 teaching artist James Sasser joined their classrooms to guide the students in idea generation as they identified issues of justice within given plays, script writing, and performance skills in preparation for their final podcasts. We were interested in the way students brought vulnerability and openness as they processed social justice issues through developing stories within the context of a small group dynamic, and ultimately shared their creative work as a podcast with a larger audience. Their program runs through May 2017. We look forward to their reflections near the end of the school year.


Teaching artist reflections – Kenmore:

F10: What was the focus of the social justice program you did with your teacher?

Our focus was to give students an opportunity to use dramatic techniques to explore social justice issues that are important to them in the present, in preparation for their study of To Kill a Mockingbird and civil rights issues in the United States. The process involved building trust, learning to work as an ensemble, identifying issues of importance, and learning movement and acting techniques to create a piece to perform to their peers in other classes.

F10: What were things you wanted to learn from it?

Which techniques would the students be excited by? How much trust could be established in just a month? How would the students deal with the need to collaborate and compromise? Could we reach consensus on which issues were important? What kinds of emotions would the process trigger? How much would the students be willing to share? Which techniques would be simple yet dynamic as we created a performance piece?

F10: How did you approach the curriculum? What was the typical class or process like for the students/teacher?

We generated pages and pages of ideas of activities we could do with the students, materials we could bring in, music we could use. We planned the first session together in detail, then waited to meet the students and get their responses before planning the rest of the curriculum in detail. We did, however, decide that there would be a mix of physical work, individual writing, sharing with a partner, working in small groups and large group discussions and presentation. After the first week, it became clear to us which of the many ideas we had could work together. But each day there was some degree of changing and adjusting our plans based on the ideas of the students, their energy coming into class, and their needs from moment to moment.

F10: What are some things you remember the students saying?

One thing that stands out in my memory were the several times that we introduced a difficult topic, and there would be silence. If we asked them to discuss with somebody nearby then share what they heard or agreed on, that would open the discussion and others would be willing to jump in. I also noticed that the students were much more willing to tackle uncomfortable issues as characters, or when discussing choices characters made.

Often the students remarked that within one class, people could have opposed views and still respect each other. Or have opposite experiences. For example, we were discussing places we felt safe. We started out by anonymously writing on two papers a place we felt comfortable or safe, and one we felt uncomfortable or unsafe. Then we crumpled them up, threw them in the middle, and read a random one we picked up. Many students named their rooms, or their homes on the “safe” paper, but a few put it on the “unsafe” paper. That was something that made the students think, and they dealt with it with maturity and seriousness. We also talked about potentially divisive issues such as sexism, racism, zenophobia, homophobia. By that point, the students had had the experience of listening deeply and respectfully to each other, and I was very impressed that they were willing to grapple with these issues without attacking each other.

F10: What is something you took away from the program/experience?

Ninth graders notice, know and experience way more than they usually have the opportunity to reveal. They are hungry to learn from each other and, when they know they are safe to be honest, they are extremely expressive and capable of making connections that are complex and creating art that is surprising and compelling. They have many questions that I do not know how to answer, questions that need to be asked.