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?