Teach This: Social justice-oriented community building activities

In any classroom, a teacher needs to establish a safe and caring community before real learning can take place. Even in a teacher education class, it is just as important to do community building activities on a regular basis in order to strengthen our relationships and the trust we need as learners. I have always been interested in facilitating fun “get-to-know you” activities, and have kept a growing file of these ideas since the early days of college. Yet, it was not until a few years ago, when I attended a 3-day intense workshop by Lisa Jo Epstein of Gas and Electric Arts on Theatre of the Oppressed that I realized what I had been missing: a critical exploration of power, using movement, images, and dramatic moves.

I began to realize that “get to know you” activities should not just be about developing a surface knowledge about someone’s interests or habits. Rather, community building activities should help us to highlight both the diversity of our experiences as well as the unifying nature of humanity. Furthermore, they should help us critically examine ourselves in relationship to others and develop habits which help us to reflect upon and rethink critical decision-making moments. With this in mind, below are a few tips and activities for facilitating community building activities with a social justice and mindful orientation.

Discuss community expectations and how to build a safe space.

Discuss community expectations and how to build a safe space.

Getting Started:

  • Let your students know what’s important to you, and your beliefs about teaching and learning. If you value their voices and opinions, let them know. If you have a mantra (or mantras) that you live by in teaching, let them know.
  • Don’t be afraid to share your own thoughts and opinions (no-one is ever neutral, so you can’t pretend to be), but let students know that you want to hear their opinions and ideas too, and that you are open to them. Perhaps they can change your mind?
  • Remember to take a breath and listen before responding to anyone.
  • Be joyous and look for the good.
  • Always let students share their hopes and expectations for the class, and help to collectively draft a list of guidelines or promises to that everyone agrees to follow in order to make the community safe and productive.

Short Activities:

  • My students take turns "sculpting" poses.

    My students take turns “sculpting” poses.

    Images : Ask the students to think back to something they saw in the last few days that really stayed with them, and keeps popping up in their minds. It could be happy, sad, beautiful, funny – whatever stayed with them. Let them share the stories of their images. Spend some time summarizing the themes. What was the overall tone of the stories? Why do they think that was the case? What did we learn about each other from this? Is anyone inspired to write?!

  • Handshakes: Ask students to wander around the room. The first person they meet, they must create a new handshake with on the spot. After a while, have students stop and pick a partner. Let the partners create a handshake, and then teach it to another set of partners. Let those four combine their handshakes and then teach it to the group. See if the entire class can take elements from the handshakes and create a class handshake. Talk about the experience  – what was it like at first? How did it change? What was hard? Why? What was fun? What do handshakes mean (in society)? What should our handshake mean?
  • Mirroring: Have students pair up. Silently, students take turns making a pose, as if for a photo, and the other partner mirrors the pose. Discuss the activity. What poses did people do? What was it like to be the mirror? What was it like to be mirrored? What did this make you think about yourself?
  • Sculpting: This is a nice activity to do after mirroring. In partners, one student silently “sculpts” their partner into a pose. One thecount of three, the “sculpture” comes to life for a few seconds, doing something out of the pose. Partners take turns sculpting and then moving out of the pose.  Afterwards, discuss the poses that were made and the moves that were made afterwards. What were the trends? Where the moves expected or surprises? What kind of communication did partners need in order to make it work?

Forum Theatre:

My students working on a scene for forum theatre

My students working on a scene for forum theatre

In forum theatre, a technique developed by Augusto Boal (a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize), the audience is made up of “Spect-Actors,” who can interact with the actors on stage, and suggest new ideas and ways of doing things. There is a facilitator that is often called the “Joker,” (in most cases, this is the teacher) who challenges actors and spect-actors about their choices and pushes the scene along.

Scenes are developed to represent some sort of power conflict. Students should brainstorm issues that they face, and develop some ideas for interactions or scenes that represent these conflicts (I highly recommend attending a workshop in this technique or working with teachers who have done it before trying it yourself). One example may be peer pressure to do something. In the scene that students develop, they should be able to see clearly who is being “oppressed” and who has power in the situation at the outset. This must be discussed – a lot.

Once the initial scene is set, and demonstrating the problem and who is being oppressed, the spect-actors can come into play. The joker “freezes” the scene, and asks the audience to think of alternative solutions – ways they could shift the power dynamic so that the “oppressed” would get what they need. Spect-actors take turns improvising different possibilities by jumping in and acting it out with the other actors (no verbal “what if’s” here – they must act it out to see how it plays out). All actors must stay in character, and do what their character would do in the improvised scenes.

Acting out the scene - fun for all ages.

Acting out the scene – fun for all ages.

Take 2!

Take 2!

After a time, the Joker should facilitate a longer discussion on what happened in the scene and the different approaches that the spect-actors offered. What happened? How did the strategies affect the characters? Why? What were their perspectives? What was the best solution? Why?

The Forum theatre approach can be used to work out problems the class is facing (ex. bullying), lead to a dramatic performance or play, or even lead to students’ individual writing. Or, you can just do it because it gets students thinking in a critical, engaged way.

If you have other suggestions of social-justice oriented community building activities, please share your comments below!

Coming up in my next post: Transformative Teacher Profile #2: Meenoo Rami, Teacher at Science Leadership Academy, Co-Founder of #EngChat, and author of the forthcoming book, Thrive: 5 ways to (Re)invigorate Your Teaching (Heinemann, March 2014). Stay tuned…


3 thoughts on “Teach This: Social justice-oriented community building activities

  1. Theatre of the Oppressed has been a wonderful addition to my coursework with college students. I have brought in Morgan from Philadelphia Theatre of Oppressed as well as taken classes there. They are amazing. Even if you don’t explicitly use it in your regular practice you can’t avoid growing and learning just from participating. Check out http://tophiladelphia.blogspot.com

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