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Young people have the potential to be creative and skilled storytellers, actors, and writers. They also can become profoundly insightful about the way diversity affects themselves and others, as well as actively challenge bias. "Act It Out" encourages these potentials in students. Augmenting the writing program that many teachers already use, it enables students to write about, act out and learn from experiences of discrimination in their lives.
By collectively acting out and discussing their "bias stories," students improve their writing by generating more detail to use in revising their work. At the same time, they expand their understanding of discrimination and responses to it. This article describes the genesis of "Act It Out," the steps in the process through the voices of teacher Karen Cathers and her third grade students, and approaches to raising awareness about diversity and anti-bias actions, useful for elementary and secondary students alike.
Many excellent approaches exist to enhance student writing (Calkins, 1994; Fletcher, 2007; Wood, 2006). Similarly, educators have developed meaningful strategies to raise students' awareness about diversity and help youth develop the understandings and skills to respond to bias ( Au, Bigelow, & Karp, 2007; Christensen, 2000; Kivel & Creighton, 1997; Schniedewind & Davidson, 2006; Stein & Cappello, 1999; Vasquez, Myhad, & Creighton, 2003). "Act It Out" integrates components of both to concurrently enhance writing and foster greater consciousness and agency to stand up to discrimination.
Developed in New Paltz, New York, "Act It Out" has its roots in the school district's Diversity Education Program (1990-99) and in Playback Theater, an improvisational theater organization. Located in a semi-rural community and home of a state university, the district's student body is primarily White with about 18% students of color and 15% eligible for financial support for meals.
The authors collaborated as classroom teacher and in-service educator through components of the district's multifaceted Diversity Education Program, including a 30-hour professional development course, study groups, and classroom support (Schniedewind, 2001). While focusing on racism and sexism, this initiative addressed all forms of diversity including discrimination based in class background, sexual orientation, language, religion, age, and ability.
Playback Theater, founded in New Paltz by Jonathan Fox, provides a public process for people to tell a life story and have it played back to them by actors using improvisational techniques. Playback troupes perform in New York, nationally, and internationally. A storyteller observes the dramatization of his/her story, shares how it felt to watch the story and adds information to further explain it. Both the storyteller and audience gain insight on the particular situation as well as universal themes in the stories (Salas, 1998). Karen brought the Playback process into her classroom to enrich her students' writing.
Origins of "Act It Out"
Developing detail in a story is often difficult for young writers. Karen found that when she sat with students to ask questions about their sketchy stories more detail came out. She hoped that by integrating the Playback process with her writing process students might 'see' more clearly how leaving details out makes it harder for others to appreciate their stories. One component of Karen's writing program was Writer's Workshop, a time set aside for creative writing. It involved pre-writing a graphic organizer or outline and writing several drafts. Included was conferencing with peers, teacher, or adult volunteer where constructive questions were asked of the author and suggestions given. By integrating Playback into Writer's Workshop, Karen developed "Act It Out" (See Figure 1).
As an educator who addressed diversity and bias awareness throughout the year, Karen wanted "Act It Out" to contribute to her multicultural goals. She began the year with community building activities to develop a trusting, inclusive classroom where it was safe to talk about difficult topics. Integrated into classroom dialogue were words to talk about human diversity and discussion about how difference is used to maintain inequality.
As the year progressed, students learned to be more comfortable with such words as racism, sexism, homophobia, color, lesbian, gay, and so forth. Every week community meetings were held which provided an opportunity for problem-solving, including ways for young people to deal with bias they experience in their lives (Cathers & Schniedewind, 1994). "Act It Out" became a context in which students further heightened their multicultural awareness.
Setting the Context
As a teacher educator who focuses on multicultural/social justice education, Nancy encourages teachers to use a sequenced approach for teaching about diversity. It supports their efforts to build trusting classroom communities where young people learn to empathize with others, explore why and how inequality based on difference exists, examine discrimination in the institutions in their lives to see how it has affected them, and create changes to foster greater equality. This diversity education framework is reflected in Open Minds to Equality: Learning Activities to Affirm Diversity and Promote Equity, a book Karen both contributed to and used in her teaching (Schniedewind & Davidson, 2006). Experiences with the ideas in this book …