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Teacher in Play: The Invitation of Performative Inquiry by Lynn Fels

Lynn Fels is Assistant Professor at SFU. Her research interests are performance and technology, performative inquiry, and teacher education. She and co-author George Belliveau recently published Exploring Curriculum: Performative Inquiry, Role Drama, and Learning.

The story that follows was told to me by a colleague of a grade twelve English teacher who had taken his students outside into the playground of the elementary school next door. “Take time to explore the playground,” he tells them, “the swings, the climbing bars, the slide.” It was, as he tells my friend later, a curious sight, witnessing his grade twelve students, on the cusp of adulthood, playing, shouting, laughing, calling to each other, as they scrambled up ladders, swung into the blue sky, and slid down the slide. “Back to the classroom,” he yells, as the elementary school recess bell rings, and the playground is swarmed by wide-eyed children, who stutter to a stop at the sight of high school students occupying their playground.

Later, as the students bend to the task of writing poetry, the teacher spots one young woman, staring out the window, tears on her cheeks. “What is it?” he asks, coming to her side. She is one of his top students, an insightful debater, a conscientious learner who consistently writes A+ essays. As well as being the captain of the soccer team, she is president of the student council and an accomplished pianist. “I can’t remember,” she whispers, her eyes welling with tears, “the last time I played.”

Driven towards excellence, have we forgotten the value of play within teaching and learning environments? Has play been abandoned on the playground, our students and ourselves locked inside classrooms, staring wistfully out the window? As philosopher David Appelbaum calls such a moment, the action of a student’s tears is a “stop”—a moment of risk, a moment of opportunity. What are the moments that call us to attention, the stops that give us pause in the busyness of our lives, to tell us that something is wrong, that we must respond? This young woman’s tears in her secondary English classroom call us to action. How are we to respond to our children in new ways, if we are to realize the wellbeing of the present and future generations? As Hannah Arendt (1961) requires of educators, we must love children enough “to engage them in the world’s renewal.” The question is, how are we engaging our children, and are their voices, the tears they shed, the stories they yearn to tell, those to which we listen? What is lost when a child no longer has time for play?

And, now months later, I find myself asking, “When was the last time I played?” As an exhausted academic scrambling up the pre-tenure path, teaching in a pre-service teacher education program, working with graduate students, editing a journal, responding to endless emails, I ask myself, “When do I schedule time for play within my work day?” And more miserably, “Who has time for play?”

In an earlier article (Update, Vol. 49, 2, Fall 2007), I introduced performative inquiry as a way to engage students in collaborative explorations across the curriculum, with a focus on language arts. Performative inquiry invites a stance of inquiry, an embodied exploration of curricular concerns, issues, assigned texts, communal narratives, and lived experience. Performative inquiry involves students in performative activities (e.g. tableaux, visualizations, scene creation, writing-in-role, playbuilding, role drama, multi-media creations) as a means of learning about themselves in relationship to the world and each other. The ambition of performative inquiry, as I wrote, is not to simply “put on a play” or expose students to the arts, but to engage students within curricular spaces of learning through collaborative, critical and creative inquiry and reflection.
But when I invite teachers to consider bringing performative inquiry into their own classrooms with questions like, “Why don’t you do role drama with your students? Or create a play about an issue you are exploring in social studies?” I often meet with reluctance. The constant refrain is, “There’s not enough time.” And yet, I know the powerful curricular, communal, and personal learning that comes to educators who engage in performative inquiry with their students. How might we learn to give ourselves permission to set aside the curricular “shoulds” and trust in the learning that comes through the play that performative inquiry invites?
And so I give my M.Ed. students, teachers all, an assignment: Design and do a role drama with your students. Report back to me in three weeks.

 

 Sunnyvale: A Town Revisited

“I wonder if you could give me the name and address of the lawyer that you work with as I anticipate some legal technicalities that are beyond the limited capabilities of our town council. HealthCo promises to be a challenging but fruitful endeavor—but we need to have an iron-clad contract before I sign any final agreement.” — memo from Mayor of Sunnyvale to town councilor

I designed the role drama, Sunnyvale, with a group of student teachers several years ago. It was our vehicle into multiple teacher education classes to introduce the value of role drama as a way of engaging secondary and elementary students in a variety of language arts activities. As we developed the role drama and played it out multiple times that winter and spring, the benefits of role drama became obvious: promotion of critical and creative thinking, collaborative problem-solving, opportunities for oral speech, exploration of multiple perspectives and embodied decision-making through play.

Participants were largely enthusiastic, often remaining in role through the fifteen-minute break we built into the role drama, arguing with each other, trying to find solutions. My experience is that many of those who initially resist find their way into role drama at various levels of engagement, whether through observing others, or reflecting on the decisions taken or getting caught up in an interview when approached by a reporter. Those reluctant to speak in a large group often enjoy the one-on-one or small group conversations that the role drama invites; others find their voice during the writing-inrole activity. As one participant during a recent Sunnyvale role drama described, first, she felt uncomfortable taking on a role, feeling as if she was only acting as the role of an environmentalist, but by the end of the role drama, she was an environmentalist arguing passionately for her vision of Sunnyvale.

The Sunnyvale role drama involves a variety of community interest groups: arts committee, entrepreneurs, residential developers, playground architects, town council members, environmentalists, seniors and neighbours who live in the area, and reporters. All are invited to a town hall meeting by the mayor to discuss Site #39, an undeveloped plot of land in the middle of town. The mayor, having won a recent election on a platform of “communication, collaboration, consensus,” encourages everyone to create a community plan for Site #39 that will address everyone’s needs. The groups of students-in-role are encouraged to consult with each other, discuss various solutions, and try to persuade others to their point of view, or as often happens, find a compromise that suits everyone. Sunnyvale is financially suffering due to the shutdown of the local Kraft Dinner factory and so the mayor tells them to come up with a plan that will “put Sunnyvale on the map” and (as an aside) money in the town coffers.1

This meeting is followed by a news broadcast during which Sunnyvale citizens are interviewed, with reporters highlighting key areas of agreement and conflict, (this activity often leads to prolonged discussion about the role of the media and its representation of issues). Then three participants are invited to take on new roles, this time as the CEO, accountant, and scientist of a pharmaceutical company. Inevitably, their reception at the press announcement is unfavourable; there is a flurry of questions fielded by the three along with the mayor who is accused of not consulting with the people of Sunnyvale (this activity is known as the “hot seat”). Participants are then invited to write-in-role in response to the turn of events in the format of their choice: a job application to the pharmaceutical company (there are few), a letter to the editor or editorial, (often someone begins a petition), a note in a diary, a memo to a town council member, or a scathing letter to the mayor himself. I have watched in amazement as participants write for ten, fifteen, sometimes twenty minutes, the majority focused and willing to share their writing, as we read aloud to find out “what the citizens of Sunnyvale are thinking.”

My understanding of the value of this particular role drama as a site of inquiry has multiplied over time, as I have played the role of the mayor of Sunnyvale many times through the years. Inevitably I find myself in a variety of discussions, faced with new issues and concerns, as individual participants bring their own experience and interests and knowledge to the role drama. Each time, the Sunnyvale we create together is unique; sometimes, for example, the environmentalists find their way to a compromise, such as the building of a park and a community centre, other times they call on legislative action because a rare species has been discovered in the stream running through the property. Most recently, I remember the odd feeling of shame and embarrassment, as the CEO of the pharmaceutical company presents himself as self-interested, taking phone calls on his cell. I remember thinking, “I’ve made a mistake with this guy, and yet, here I am publicly supporting his proposal. How do I deal with this?” It is then that I determine that there will be no deal without a contract that secures our town’s interests and safety, a decision supported by the citizens of Sunnyvale when we move to a vote. And so, during the writing-in-role segment of the role drama, I write a memo to one of my town councilors requesting the name of her lawyer.

Each time I am the mayor of Sunnyvale, I gain a new insight into what matters, how my engagement with others influences the outcome (or not), insights that spill into our post role drama discussions as we reflect about the choices we made in role, and in turn, talk about how we engage within our communities outside the classroom (the role drama was based on a land development project in my neighbourhood). While we can only draw upon our prior knowledge, our experiences, and what we imagine, these role dramas inevitably, uncannily touch the truth of our being in action, if only for a moment, a stop that calls our attention to what matters, what is absent, what is present.2 As Appelbaum writes,

Between closing and beginning lives a gap, a caesura, a discontinuity. The betweenness is a hinge that belongs to neither one nor the other. It is neither poised nor unpoised, yet moves both ways…It is the stop.3

So it is. Our Sunnyvale role drama reminds us that seniors have stories to tell, that they have contributed and continue to contribute to the narrative and work of the town; yet in our role drama, they are often unheard, not consulted, ignored. We have at times voiced condemnation of the mayor’s proposal of the pharmaceutical company and then felt shame, when we realize that we have judged him too quickly as he announces his resignation, “I have tried to do what is best for this town; I’ve stayed awake hours at night trying to think of a solution; it hurts me to think that the townspeople believe I deliberately tried to cheat them.” As one participant commented in reflection after all the townspeople in Sunnyvale ganged up against the mayor, “We immediately judged him as acting in his own interests. Instead of trying to work things out together, we just blamed the mayor. It was only when he announced his resignation that I understood how much he cared for Sunnyvale.” During our debriefing, we have talked about the important role of conflict resolution, and how we often judge others without knowing how they truly feel, or what motivations lay behind actions we so quickly reject.

We have learned to listen for hidden agendas, interpret motivations behind words, understand issues from multiple perspectives, and ask questions of what we had taken for granted. Curiously, the pharmaceutical company has only twice been accepted into the community, the most recent time, upon assurance that any contract between the town and the pharmaceutical company would be “iron-clad.” Interestingly, the participant in role-as-scientist had actually worked for a pharmaceutical company prior to becoming a teacher and so could bring strong arguments to the benefits of such a company as HealthCo in Sunnyvale. We have learned to question the dichotomies and judgments we make; and to see what may become possible through compromise.

 

Performative Inquiry Revisited:The Teachers Report

I have to confess to the occasional bout of nail-biting while I waited the three weeks for my M.Ed. students to return and report on their experiences of doing role drama with their students. What was happening in their classrooms? The morning of our class, my students arrived with excitement, with individual reports of renewed vigour for teaching, with tales of the unexpected enthusiasm and engagement of their students, of the collaborative learning that had taken place, of the willingness of students to write-in-role, of the thoughtfulness of their students’ decision-making, of the absorption of their students in their work while in role.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Patrick Verriour and Carol Tarlington were proponents of role drama long before I arrived on the scene; in fact, I first learned of role drama, through Dr. Verriour, who was my thesis supervisor, and who, with Ms. Tarlington had traveled the province in the 80’s promoting role drama among teachers.4 What interested me, however, was less the learning of the students (although important), but the spirit of the teachers who, as one told me, had found themselves engaged and learning along side their students. The joy of role drama is that no matter what you choose to explore, the learning happens not in the telling what is expected and known, but in the doing, engaging in that which has not yet been imagined, a playful engagement of inquiry. Not knowing what would happen each day as the teachers and their students re-entered the worlds they were co-creating through role play added to the excitement and curiosity and pleasure that becomes possible in teaching beyond the curricular scripts that so often are our habits of engagement. I had, through my assignment, given my M.Ed. students, teachers all, permission to play.

And in writing this article, I am reminded again, that I do play, joyfully, with curiosity, when I engage in performative activities with my students. What will happen? What stops will we encounter? And I celebrate the learning that surfaces as I ask questions of inquiry and engage the students in reflection. Why did we decide to do what we did? Why did you say what you said? What surprised us? What, I ask my students and myself, does our experience within our performative inquiry tell us about how we engage in the world, what issues emerged that matter, what questions yet remain? If we understand play as an action of inquiry, as an action of exploration, embodied engagement, curiosity and reflection that leads to learning, then it is critical that we look again to ways of incorporating play into our classrooms.

To engage in play within our classrooms is to trouble the expected, to sidestep the status quo, to perform a reciprocal dance of learning and teaching, to rewrite our curricular scripts. To play is to encourage laughter, to explore the underbelly of the unsaid, to inspire new understandings, to engage in “wide-awakeness” (Greene, 1971) with our own learning as educators, to create anew our educational relationships, and to invite the unexpected into our presence, thus “enlarging the space of the possible” (Sumara & Davis, 1997, p. 299). To play, in today’s classroom, is a radical act.

Joyce Carol Oates writes, “Time is but the changing of light.” I think of the many different role dramas that I have engaged in with my students, and of the learning that came through moments of recognition—unexpected encounters that opened up new horizons, that no amount of lesson planning could have anticipated. A lesson plan survives (barely) a 75 minute class; it is often in the unraveling of our lesson plans, in the releasing of expectations, in the escape of the tyranny of time, that open us to unanticipated learning and possibilities of renewed engagement. The learning that comes to us through performative inquiry, a reciprocal exploration embarked upon by students and teacher, if we come to our play with “mindful awareness” (Varela Thompson & Rosch, 1993) may last a lifetime.

Jan Milloy (2007) writes of a moment as being a “child of duration,”—a moment of learning, that, as I have experienced, may continue to haunt, educate, guide and remind us, of what is possible. Through the lens and interplay of performative inquiry, an unexpected moment of encounter between two students in role, or within a sentence written-in-role that pulls us into the realm of metaphor, or an image within a tableau that startles, new perspectives may emerge to become portals into compassion and meaningful comprehension.

Performative inquiry in the classroom brings to curriculum a spirit and practice of inquiry, critical and creative engagement, and collaborative reflection. The benefits of engaging in persuasive oral speech, writing in role, exploring multiple perspectives, collaborative problem-solving, experiencing leadership in role, developing a reflective practice with students, cover a variety PLOs within and across curricular engagements. Within the practice of performative inquiry in the classroom, however, is a commitment between students and teacher to play, a willingness to engage each other in new ways. Whether you are in role as the mayor of a financially troubled town or as CEO of a pharmaceutical company or as a citizen who wants a community centre in Sunnyvale, performative inquiry, through active engagement and reflection reminds us, again, of the value and possibility of play within our classrooms.

Consider this text, then, an invitation for you and your students to play.

 

 Notes

1 The Sunnyvale role drama is described in Exploring Curriculum: Performative Inquiry, Role Drama and Learning, along with other role dramas. See Fels & Belliveau, 2008 in Resources.

2 See Fels, L. (2002) for a discussion on the learning that happens within a “moment of recognition” in which the author understands, for a performative moment, what the words, “a prison without walls” truly means.

3 Applebaum, 1995: pp. 15, 16.

4 See Verriour & Tarlington, 1991. Their co-authored book, Role Play, provides a wonderful entry point into the design and delivery of role drama. See also Fels & Belliveau, 2008.

 

References

Appelbaum, D. (1995). The stop. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Arendt, H. (1961). The Crisis in Education. In Between past and future: Six exercises of political thought. New York: Viking.

Fels, L. & Belliveau, G. (2008). Exploring curriculum: Performative inquiry, role drama and learning. Vancouver, B.C.: Pacific Educational Press.

Fels, L. (2002). Spinning Straw into Gold: Curriculum, Performative Literacy and Student Empowerment. English Quarterly, 34 (1, 2), 3-9.

Greene, M. (1978). Landscapes of learning. New York, N.Y.: Teachers College Press.

Milloy, Jana. (2007). Persuasions of the wild: Writing the moment, a phenomenology. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Burnaby, B.C.: Simon Fraser University.

Sumara, D.J. & Davis, B. (1997). Enlarging The Space Of The Possible: Complexity, Complicity, And Action Research Practices. In T. Carson and D.J. Sumara (Eds.), Action research as a living practice (pp. 299-312). New York, Peter Lang.

Tarlington, C., & Verriour, P., (1991). Role drama. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Varela, F., Thompson, E., & Rosch, E. (1993). The embodied mind: cognitive science and human experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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