WMU News

Helping create anti-racist classrooms

June 21, 2001

KALAMAZOO -- The stage is set for an intensive weeklong workshop at Western Michigan University that will show a handful of area educators how they can use theater to improve teaching in multicultural classrooms.

The workshop, titled "Using Theater as Pedagogy," is being conducted June 25-29 by WMU's Lewis Walker Institute for Race and Ethnic Relations. According to workshop organizers Dr. Morna McDermott, assistant professor of teaching, learning and leadership, and Kevin Dodd, a WMU graduate student, the workshop will help teachers navigate the racial and ethnic landscape of their classrooms.

"The workshop's ultimate aim is to help participants identify ways to create anti-racist learning environments and develop techniques for teaching social justice to promote change," McDermott says.

"Many times in a multicultural classroom the students and the teacher don't understand one another because of the different racial and ethnic perspectives and experiences they have," she explains. "Using theater allows people to connect through dialogue. Theater can be used quite well with children to explore their perceptions of the racial and ethnic makeup of their environment, and many children are more comfortable than adults in utilizing this medium to express themselves and learn together."

The workshop is funded by the U.S. Department of Education's GEAR-UP ­ Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs ­ initiative. Being led regionally by WMU's College of Education, the initiative seeks to improve student achievement, on-time graduation rates and the percentage of students attending and completing post-secondary education. Workshop organizers say that student success can be improved if teachers understand the multicultural issues that may keep some students from achieving.

To that end, workshop participants will learn techniques for active listening and using oral history and ethnography inquiry methods in the classroom as well as be assessed on their own "intercultural competency." Workshop facilitators will come from various University departments, including anthropology, the Office of International Student Services, College of Education and the Office of Health Promotion and Education.

McDermott explains that by using the methods of oral history and ethnography, which involves studying and describing a culture, educators can learn how students' lives are shaped by their individual racial and ethnic experiences. In addition, active listening exercises will teach participants how to process and comprehend the information they have gathered.

"Teaching active listening is very important," she says. "How do we know if what we heard is what someone is really saying to us? We want our participants to learn to hear more than words; they should hear different perspectives and experiences. This understanding is essential in order to have dialogue."

Dodd will conduct the Theatre of the Oppressed session of the workshop, implementing methods developed by Augusto Boal, a Brazilian artist and activist. Often referred to as "rehearsal to reality," Boal's techniques will be used to identify problems that occur in diverse classrooms and participants will act out different strategies for resolving those issues.

Dodd, who graduated from WMU in April with a bachelor's degree, did his Lee Honors College thesis on Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed, and has presented his work at an international conference. He was recently invited to participate in training on the technique in Vancouver, B.C.

At the conclusion of the workshop, participants will have the necessary skills to present the workshop's strategies to colleagues at selected Bangor and Battle Creek schools, which are part of the GEAR-UP initiative. Participants also will return to WMU next summer for a three-week follow-up workshop.

Workshop organizers have planned a public panel discussion on using theater as pedagogy from 3 to 4 p.m. Friday, June 29, in the Gilmore Theatre Complex. Panelists will include workshop facilitators and participants, and the public is invited to attend.

The workshop is part of the Lewis Walker Institute's mission to provide research and education on race and ethnic relations to the University and community at large. It is one of several ongoing projects that the institute plans to unveil during the coming year.

For more information, contact the Lewis Walker Institute for Race and Ethnic Relations at (616) 387-2142.

Media contact: Marie Lee, 616 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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