The drama classroom occupies a uniquely multi-faceted space. At one time, it’s a classroom and a refuge. A place of learning and a place of community where education and vulnerability collide. Because drama educators are the cultivators of these spaces, we often find ourselves navigating tricky moments and leading challenging conversations. Those conversations may be about challenging material in a play or a musical, sensitive issues with an individual student, or conflicts between students. The first time I ran into a thorny situation, I was woefully unprepared and definitely didn’t handle it in the most effective way. Fortunately, I’ve grown a little bit since then and have learned a thing or two along the way. I’ll share some tips that may help if (when) you find yourself wading through some tough conversations.
The first time I was confronted with a conversation about a thorny topic, it involved an improv scene in which a well-intentioned student made a joke that some other students perceived as culturally insensitive. In the moment, I didn’t feel equipped to effectively respond in a way that addressed the contextual reasons that the joke was perceived as insensitive without embarrassing the student or making them feel like they’d done something “wrong”. I knew the student fairly well at that point and knew that they had no malicious intent whatsoever. But when the student privately asked me whether I was offended, I stammered out something vaguely resembling an answer and ended up diverting the subject. Afterwards, I kicked myself a bit for blowing a textbook teachable moment. But rarely is it too late to revisit these things, especially after being able to think through them. So I started with a private chat with the student, explaining the contemporary issues around diversity and representation and used that to springboard a class discussion about our responsibility as storytellers. It wasn’t the easiest conversation, but it was an important one.
Set the Ground Rules
Some conversations benefit from laying out clear ground rules and expectations beforehand.
I think the best ground rules are similar to classroom rules and expectations: keep them clear, specific, identifiable, and within a manageable number. It can also be fine to let students have at least some agency in setting the ground rules themselves.
When we studied The Laramie Project, we talked about discrimination, harassment, and violence against LGBTQ+ people. In class, students shared whether they or people they knew had been targeted because of their identity, including discussions about slurs used against the LGBTQ+ community. Some students shied away from using the terms, while others felt it should be okay to say them in this context. So we had a discussion about the power behind hateful slurs and whether it was okay to use them in our context. Establishing some do’s and don’ts in advance helps students feel more comfortable in being vulnerable and sharing deeply personal stories.
Set Expectations and Ask Questions
When I expose students to plays with challenging content, I always lead it off with a class discussion where I summarize the material and themes. I also give an explanation about why I’ve chosen a particular work and what I think is valuable about it as a piece of theatre. That serves as a springboard for a preliminary group discussion about students’ previous experience with the topics or themes we’ll encounter and important questions around it. I like framing these discussions as Socratic seminars because it lets me get some sense of where students are as far as their developmental ability and willingness to engage with challenging topics. It also lets students take the lead and set the tone for how we’ll engage with the material.
It’s the questions that tend to be the key to productive discussions. The first step I take is to generate a list of questions that the play and its themes invite. Some of the questions we came up with for The Laramie Project were specific to the play and the incident it documented (“what was the culture/climate like in Laramie at the time?”) and some were more general (“why are hate crime laws controversial/difficult to enforce?”).
Involve the Grown-Ups
On the same note, I always set expectations for parents as well. Before we engage with any challenging material, I send home a letter that explains what we’re reading and why, and some general information about the themes involved. Included in the letter is a space for parents to write in any questions they may have for me or any information that might be helpful about how they want their student to engage with the material or issues that might affect the student’s experience with it. This “permission slip” helps practically by minimizing the potential for future pushback, but also offers more data for my roadmap as I figure out how to frame and navigate the lesson.
Assume Good Will
I had a directing professor whose mantra was ‘assume good will’-advice that’s proven itself valuable in many settings. When approaching sticky conversations, especially with a student who may have said something that others found offensive or inappropriate, I initiate the conversation without judgment, accusation, or the assumption that there was any malicious intent. After all, drama kids are known for empathy…but they’re still kids and, let’s face it, sometimes kids say dumb stuff. Under most circumstances, I approach it as a teachable moment instead of a scolding or handing down punishment. This (hopefully) invites learning and encourages them as opposed to opening the door for pushback or resentment.
Don’t Be A Guru
Let’s face it: teens love to challenge authority. The first time I taught a lesson that involved some sensitive historical contexts, a student raised a (valid) question that challenged what I was teaching. It’s natural to get defensive in those situations, but that rarely does any good. Resist the impulse to position yourself as the all-knowing authority. If you’re uncomfortable or feel like, for whatever reason, you’re not the best person to speak authoritatively on a topic, I think it’s okay to lean into that and share that sentiment with your students. We’re humans, after all, and we don’t know everything. Be comfortable with saying “I’m not sure” and use it as a teachable moment on how to use reliable resources to find out. It’s also perfectly fine to say “I’m not the best resource for this topic, but here’s what I can speak to and here’s where we can get more information”. Those conversations in and of themselves can be valuable catalysts for deeper discussion about individual experiences and how they inform the way we engage with different material.
Reach Beyond the Classroom
When it comes to choosing which shows to produce, drama teachers have to be in tune with the sensibilities of the community. What’s acceptable in one area may not be in another. I wanted to stage a production of Almost, Maine, but I was skittish about the response it might garner. I got some great advice from a fellow drama teacher who suggested that I host a professional development session for school staff and a community night for parents and community members. The goal of these sessions was similar to that of the classroom discussions: to set expectations about content, provide contextual information and education, and allow anyone to share questions or concerns. For a few reasons we ultimately were unable to go through with the production, but the sessions were still valuable as they helped raise the drama program’s profile and gave the community agency in it.
It’s also valuable to build community partnerships with organizations who can offer speakers to help contextualize and provide insight on challenging issues. I know a fellow drama teacher who reached out to a local Jewish history museum before producing The Diary of Anne Frank. The museum generously sent two scholars to talk about the Holocaust and provide some insights on the Jewish customs and traditions portrayed in the play. Students got to experience the history of the play and saw first-hand the power and responsibility they have as storytellers. Local libraries, colleges, and non-profit organizations are great resources as well.
There’s really no way for drama educators to be fully prepared for the tricky conversations and discussions that will come up. Every situation and every student is different. But I hope these tips are helpful as you build your teaching toolkit. I’d love to hear about your experiences and what’s worked (or not worked) for you!