What Do Theatre, Facing History, and Identity Issues Have in Common?

Posted by Jeremy Landa on September 30, 2013

Theatre and social studies are a natural marriage. At least, I’ve grown to feel that way by getting the opportunity to work with Christi Sargent, the theatre lead teacher at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School (Co-op) located in New Haven, CT. Through the collaboration we have done, we are working to build a blended model (not technological driven blended learning) of learning. Mostly, we are hoping that students can use principles of sociology and principles of theatre to understand that their voice matters.

In order to help you understand where Christi and I intend to take our respective classes (me with Facing History and Ourselves, she with Directing the Stage), we want to lead you through a lesson we implemented on Wednesday, September 11. I will detail this lesson, as well as questions we have. We are hopeful to record pieces of the lesson and post it for your perusal later. After we detail the lesson, we will explain the purpose and background of our project (in a separate blog post), which Facing History is supporting.

On Wednesday, 9/11, we worked on the third day of the introductory unit for our class which is titled “Viewpoints Work and Ensemble Building”. It is aligned with the first two stages of the Facing History scope and sequence where students work to complexify how they understand their identities, and how we’s and they’s form in our society. The lesson had two primary components – one that involves physical activity and one that centers on the “Eye of the Storm”, a 1970 sociological experiment in an Iowa classroom that projected discriminatory practices on elementary school children in Iowa. Both activities are meant to open students to feelings of empathy, tolerance, and practicing with multiple perspectives – ideas that are vital to the study of theatre, the study of history/social studies, and ultimately to helping grow students as individuals intellectually and socio-emotionally.

What is unique about the lesson is that we are going to complete an exercise, led by Christi, where students will envision feelings they may have gone through had they been part of the 9/11 experience in New York City. Why take this risk? For a number of reasons, the biggest being that our students, like the diaspora that is New York City, have a wide variety of individual experiences, cultures, races, religions, ethnicities, and beliefs. From each of these individuals, they will contribute unique ideas about the experience itself. Likewise, they may begin to understand the conditions that people experience in extremely dire circumstances. We believe that this will push students to think beyond themselves and to consider the 9/11 experience differently – more experientially and less from a perspective of the past.

I can already see some of you saying – “wow, that seems like a risky activity in class”, our response is indeed it is. But students, who feel, who process, and who can speak about intensely personal and difficult emotions are also students who will deal well with a variety of issues that they encounter.

So here’s what happened: After leading our students through a guided meditation using oral histories that can be found on the website 911memorial.org, they generated a list of words and phrases inspired from the listening exercise (we can send you a list of words they generated if you email us or we figure out how to better use this to embed a word document). Using the words and the Viewpoints Technique the kids created a movement piece. The Viewpoints Technique was original developed by choreographer Mary Overlie and then adapted for the stage by Anne Bogart and Tina Landau. As described by Landau and Bogart in the book The Viewpoints Book, “Viewpoints is a philosophy translated into a technique for training performers, building ensemble and creating movement for the stage.” Christi has used this technique in her classroom for the past eight years. She believes that it is the most effective way to get her performers out of their head’s and into their body’s. By encouraging her students to use their bodies to convey emotion, their performances are much more truthful and believable. It is our hope that through this exercise our students will be able to empathize with the victims of 9/11.

After this, we reviewed the “Eye of the Storm” special from ABC and began discussing race using the framing question “When does race happen in your life?”. The kids generated lots of times that race impacts them. We will continue to build on this to support the main part of our work together – to create a upstander theatre production through the work of kids in the class.

Our next post will include information about our public performance and work to engage you in the conversation we are having between ourselves and with our students.

This post is part of a series that highlights the classroom and school work of the 2013 Margot Stern Strom Innovation Grant winners. These teachers are thinking outside the box to transform schools and impact student learning and their projects are helping students worldwide to become more active, concerned citizens.

Topics: Art, Choosing to Participate, Safe Schools, School Culture, Innovative Classrooms, Critical Thinking, Margot Stern Strom Innovation Grants

At Facing History and Ourselves, we value conversation—in classrooms, in our professional development for educators, and online. When you comment on Facing Today, you're engaging with our worldwide community of learners, so please take care that your contributions are constructive, civil, and advance the conversation.


Welcome to Facing Today, a Facing History blog. Facing History and Ourselves combats racism and antisemitism by using history to teach tolerance in classrooms around the globe.

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