Cultivating Change by Integrating Drama: A Classroom Experience

During the eighth session of my ten-session residency with a combined 5th and 6th grade class, I asked the students to find new partners. As a small class in a modest-sized, rural charter school in Hawaii, choosing partners generally meant returning to favorites. In this eighth session, however, one boy hesitated, walked across the room and asked a girl standing apart. The teacher froze, looked over at me and whispered, “I can’t believe that just happened. I can’t believe it.”

Paraphrasing a favorite professor of mine, cultivating awareness does not equal creating change. When invited to conduct a drama-integrated residency focused on a global issue, I selected the threat of sea level rise on Kiribati. One of the world’s lowest lying island nations and a nearby neighbor of Hawaii, Kiribati’s ongoing reality would provide an unknown, yet engaging story that could challenge students to debate real questions that are wrangled over even today. As students imaginatively face the daily challenges and realities of other people, they encounter problems with little to no knowledge of real-life outcomes, so must draw on their own ideas to deal with the “unexpected” challenges.

When I design arts integration residencies, I keep my professor’s comment in mind. Through immersive drama-based experiences, students practice life skills, from collaboration to critical thinking to creative problem-solving. In that charter school, the one girl was often ignored, included only when the teacher required it. When that boy, a kind of social influencer, partnered with her, a significant change permeated the class. The teacher later noted, “This was an amazing experience for my students. Several learned to reach out to others formerly ostracized. We watched students evolve from silliness to seriousness as the lessons progressed.”

We started by engaging in foundational drama activities to explore students’ knowledge of king tides, climate challenges, and Kiribati. Once they trusted that I would provide both joy and safety, we took our first creative dive into the Pacific nation. Analyzing photos from Kiribati and reading descriptions of daily life and communal values, the students divided themselves into “families.” Each received several large pieces of cloth to help them define their land. I find that, when students use simple props to define their own space, their investment in the drama increases. As families they doled out daily tasks, from gardening giant taro to caring for their home and animals to maintaining local sea craft and going fishing.

One of the photos of Kiribati provided to the students. Photo by Charlie Mitchell, downloaded from Stuff.
Another photo of flooded Kiribati provided to the students. Downloaded from Wired.

In a following session, I read how the local hospital was unexpectedly inundated by a king tide. What might a small island community need to do? In small groups, the students imagined and dramatized a three-part action sequence: 1) The moments before the tide hits, 2) The moment it hits, and 3) How might the community react? The students created various scenarios of patients flailing, neighbors wading through the waters to save each other, and finding needed medicines and equipment. I then showed images from the real event. Students often respond more personally to such images when they have already imagined themselves there. As the teacher commented, “The pictures of the real situation added validity to the subject.”

As families, we discussed facing future king tides. The families suggested building walls or watch-towers to raising building off the ground to just leaving. As the students began to dramatize their ideas, I introduced another tide. In silence, I gathered up a cloth or two from each family. Several students attempted to stop me from devastating their land. The families then selected a slip of paper from several I offered. “On the paper,” I told them, “is the amount you lost.” Some lost multiple taro plants to saltwater, or their entire home, or the ocean wiped out a great deal of their coconut trees. More pictures showed trees afloat and people wading through chest-high pools of water. Now the families needed to consider, do we stay on our home island or migrate to a place such as New Zealand?

Swam taro, a staple of people’s diet on Central Pacific atolls like Tuvalu and Kiribati.

Families conferred, then presented arguments for and against. Having already experienced the challenges on the island we then, as a class, took on the role of climate migrants. Influenced by the story of Ioane Teitiota, a Kiribati man who sought climate refugee status, I guided students to first explore what changes people might face moving from a rural island to an urban setting. Once they invested in a new life, an official letter was delivered; their visas had expired and they needed to return to their island home. The family, now consisting of the entire class, discussed their options and actually decided to request an extension of their visa. I stepped into a government official role and denied their request. Out of role, the students claimed this was unfair. I asked what argument might convince officials? Small groups suggested the dangers of floods, losing food and land, and even their own lives. I then read about Ioane Teitiota, repeatedly turned down by New Zealand courts and taking his appeal all the way to the Supreme Court. “What happened?” students asked. “Let’s imagine,” I said.

One group took on the role of the family’s lawyers. One group became the Supreme Court. As the government lawyer, I argued why the family did not deserve climate refugee status. The family lawyers then had the chance to refute my points. And finally, the Supreme Court were given privacy to discuss their verdict. Although we had a sense of what the outcome would be, the Supreme Court group did take some significant time to discuss their ruling. The other students were visibly nervous. As the teacher wrote later, “The role-playing of local leaders and government officials by the teaching artist added to the drama and encouraged students to engage in their roles with commitment.” The Court finally ruled in favor of the Kiribati people. Real joy followed, students congratulating each other. One Court member did confess to being against refugee status, wondering if there “might be too many others trying to move.” I ended our residency experience with the true-to-life ruling; Ioane Teitiota was sent back to his island home. Although this disappointed the students, I felt it would help them realize the real challenges of fighting for change.

The main school campus of Hawaii Academy of Arts and Sciences Public Charter School. 

While the students may not yet be in a place to help climate migrants or address sea level rise, they did discover their capacity to overcome challenges as a class, to welcome working together or take a theoretical stand in support of their fellow human beings. In such a drama-integrated experience, students move beyond simply being aware of our world’s issues to realize that they have it within themselves to make change.

(Top image: Daniel A. Kelin, II teaching class 5 students at Children’s Garden School in Chennai, India in 2010.)

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An artist, educator, scholar, and playwright, Dan has been Honolulu Theatre for Youth Director of Education since 1987. He’s served organizations in American Samoa, the Marshall Islands, Pohnpei, Guam, and India and is on the Teaching Artist roster of the Kennedy Center and a current Fulbright Specialist. A Fulbright-Nehru Fellow in India in 2009 and 2019, other fellowships include Montalvo Arts Center, TYA/USA, the Children’s Theatre Foundation of America, and the Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts. Dan has five published books and numerous articles about his arts education work.

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