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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Using Theatre and Drama to Increase Empathy in Students

Using Theatre and Drama to Increase Empathy in Students

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There are very few “provable” things in arts education, but one thing that has been “proven” over the years in educational research is that theatre education increases empathy in students.

Empathy, or the ability to understand another person’s feelings or circumstances, is a critical skill for an actor. It is how we are able to portray people who are very different from ourselves. We must imagine what it would be like to undergo the circumstances of the play in order to honesty represent those emotions and conditions on stage in a believable way.

Empathy in the classroom does not need to rise to the level of believable impersonation, but increased empathy is very helpful to students as they relate to each other and to their worlds. By integrating drama into the classroom, teachers can help students increase their empathy and meet non-arts curricular goals as well.

One of the best ways to do this is to have students imagine themselves as someone from your curriculum, such as an historic or contemporary figure. But, it requires more than simply naming yourself as this person. “I am Benjamin Franklin and I discovered electricity” does not give either the student or the audience much insight into the character that was Ben Franklin.

The actor’s first tool may be empathy, but an equally important tool is research. When the character is fictional, we must mine the dramatic text for clues as to who the person is, but historic characters are “historic” because someone has written about them or their activities are recorded.

I like using a simple actor’s worksheet for any unit that contains historic or fictional characters. I divide up the characters among the students and concoct a reason that they would all be together in the same room. For instance, if you’re studying great inventors, consider having a convention of inventors in an imagined place that is outside time where the inventors can all hang out. In preparation, students would learn about the accomplishments and personality of their inventor in order to portray the person accurately. Research areas would include such things as educational level, family, occupation, personal history, socio-economic background, and relationships.

What about you--have you used theatre or role-playing techniques in your teaching? What's been the result?

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Kevin Jarrett's picture
Kevin Jarrett
K-4 Technology Facilitator from Northfield, New Jersey
Facilitator 2014

I've heard about classes where students do their research and then use walled-garden social media simulators to "impersonate" those people and "interact" or hang out the way they might in real life. The main advantage with this approach is the "virtual" aspect allows particularly reticent kids (who are navigating the socially treacherous waters of school) to participate fully and creatively - they are not limited by fear of embarrassing themselves in front of a class as might happen in a role play situation. We've all been there...

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator 2014

The best experience I've had with this was when I dramatized Hils LIke White Elephants with my students. It's such a complex text for 10th and 11th graders- putting it on it's feet really makes it make sense for them.

Becky Fisher's picture
Becky Fisher
Education Consultant

I love using theatre and role-playing techniques in the classroom. I think it allows the students a freedom they may not feel otherwise. I've used role-playing to teach students responsibility and kindness towards others. It helps to have these skills AND empathy to play in an ensemble.

Joan Weber's picture
Joan Weber
Director, Education Division, Creativity & Associates

One nice element of a process drama approach is that the students don't "perform," per se. They interact with each other while in character. You could even give students a list of things to ask each other. The goal is to focus on their story and to make dialogic connections with other "characters." That generally alleviates the stress of performance for any reticent students.

Joan Weber's picture
Joan Weber
Director, Education Division, Creativity & Associates

Hi Laura! One of the great things about putting fictional characters up on their feet is that students can practice divergent thinking. The reason that great plays are produced over and over again is because audiences want to see how different actors play the same character. There are different elements that an individual actor will discover in the same words. By doing that with literature, students get to see that the character that their peer is acting is not the same as how the student imagined, but is still "correct." Great discussions can ensue when two students disagree about how a character would behave. :)

Joan Weber's picture
Joan Weber
Director, Education Division, Creativity & Associates

Becky, I completely agree. The more we nudge our students to imagine what it feels like to be someone (or something) else, the more their brains have to open up to receive that sometimes contradictory data. The bully plays the victim. The boy plays the girl. I should start another discussion on ensemble and how theatre games can increase students' understanding of ensemble, which is the artsy way of saying "team." I like to tell parents that being in a play is like being in the chorus, except every actor is a soloist. :)

David Zulkoskey's picture
David Zulkoskey
Drama Educator and Fine Arts Learning Leader

Theatre and drama classes provide wonderful opportunities to examine human relationships and stereotypes. In my case the anti- bullying program that I run in our school division uses drama students to teach about empathy to younger students through student developed and initiated work shops. Image if all students had the opportunity to role pay and thereby better understand the dynamics of human relationships. Role paying is the essence of my program, whether it be drama 9 students examining the life of the inner city homeless to the senior students examining cultural aggression in Nazi Germany. Drama is about life and therefore it has so much to offer our leaders in the making that live in our classrooms. Imagination is the key and we need a return to childlike qualities that enable our students to experiment with social dynamics and truly feel the plight of others.

Joan Weber's picture
Joan Weber
Director, Education Division, Creativity & Associates

David, thanks so much for your comment. I agree with you. I've also always been a proponent of teaching theatre skills to teachers during pre-service training. One of the obstacles I face in integrating theatre is that folks think they "aren't actors" and are resistant. If this work began in pre-service training, students would get the work early and... well, the list of benefits to that is too long.

David Zulkoskey's picture
David Zulkoskey
Drama Educator and Fine Arts Learning Leader

I find that individuals who feel that they are not actors simply need to look at their own lives. How often do we play different roles in our interactions with others? I think that all people would benefit from an introduction to drama. Drama is about life - our goals, our obstacles and our interpersonal relationships. This past summer on a cross country train trip I met an actress from California who works with doctors to improve their bedside manner - a wonderful practical example of role playing! Teaching is after all a performance art at times - acting is a key part of teaching so why nott formally enter it into preservice training.

Jeff Croley's picture
Jeff Croley
Co-Founder of DeWitt Creativity Group and United States Creativity Group

The stage is one place where students can serve the audience a dose of reflective therapy and get away with it. The theater is a magic place where the unveiling of taboo topics can be witnessed, where therapeutic laughter and tears can ignite much needed conversations, and where efforts to educate become noble as students use their talents to force audiences to think about things that often get swept under the carpet. The theatrical give and take experience has allowed me to ignite passion transforming young adults into empathetic, listening, productive members of society. Most moments on stage are memorable in one way or another however they become especially impactful when dealing with difficult topics. My students and I have created original works to address social issues which are usually left untouched or ignored. We continue to use creativity and innovation to enhance the school culture, as well as the community and region. We embrace the issues that need to be addressed but so often can't seem to find an arena or the right audience. Our attitude and motto .., "Be the Solution".... and use the Dramatic Arts to help provide a platform to change society.

A few of the past shows include "The War Diaries" which addressed internal wars students have dealt with and (most importantly) overcome. Issues such as Eating Disorders, Depression, Coming Out, Verbal Abuse, Substance Abuse, and Terminal Illness to name a few. Video elements were introduced as well and were used as a creative device to capture the backstory of their earlier pain and suffering. It was vital to have parents part of the process along the way. They too played a major role in articulating the change and confirmed celebrating the victories of those brave souls who shared their stories in hopes that others might be inspired and find peace themselves. We had talk-back session following the performances and performed it for a school wide in-service entitled "They are Walking Our Halls"

Another show "Questions?" addressed education reform. The show pointed out problems in the current system and offered solutions. It looked at the changing the paradigm, the importance of affective learning, the pressures and insanity of standardized testing, it stressed the importance of student-centered learning, student passion and voice, the dangers of helicopter parents, and the continuation of the factory model of educational institutions. We utilized student talent to create change and start a creativity and innovation movement. The show was influenced by elements of absurd theater as a metaphor of the practices and beliefs of traditional schooling are "absurd" as well. The show was dedicated to the young people of Egypt and all others who feel trapped or caged in and unable to explore their interest, ideas, passion, or talent due to the pressures of an educational system that is slow to change. Deep discussions with teachers, parents, school administrators, and most importantly students followed each show. As a result the school climate started to shift.

The most recent show, simply entitled "The Diversity Show" addressed one of the major school district's goal for the year "diversity" -- Students gathered reflective essays from fellow students along with surveys, and testimonials regarding issues that students wished were addressed but not. We sorted the results and extended our research to become knowledgeable and well versed in the topics identified. We then used improvisation techniques to address a multitude of social issues relating to diversity and turned them into short sketches. Some of the topics included: bullying, socioeconomic issues, family structure, LGTB issues, racial/cultural issues, parental enabling and denial behaviors, cyber bullying, sexual abuse, "outing" someone who is not ready, stereotyping, and autism. This show was performed at a school wide assembly, a community performance, as well as the Michigan Creative Educators Summit.

Hopefully these provide some useful insight as to how we have used the stage. Let me know if you have comments or questions or would like to collaborate on similar projects. Innovate or Perish and as always.. continue to create. All the best.

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