Has slavery ended?
That was the opening question for the most recent unit of inquiry in the middle school Humanities department at my school, the American International School in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Over lunch one day I had a conversation with the grade eight humanities teacher about his Modern Day Slavery unit. It was a topic that was bigger then he had imagined and he felt that the way the students demonstrate their understanding needed to go beyond a simple report or a PowerPoint, Prezi, Keynote or any number of other common presentation tools.
My colleague introduced the question at the end of last year to segue between the topic of legal slavery in the U.S. and the modern era of slavery. He could have ended his study of slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation, as is often the case, but living in Dhaka, Bangladesh, he knew that the answer was much more complex. This year he wanted to go further, but he was struggling with exactly how.
I’m the theater teacher and have a background in developing drama units across the curriculum so I asked, “What if?” What if instead of a poster or a PowerPoint, students devised a theater piece to demonstrate that they understood modern day slavery?
There was silence for a moment.
I had been down this road before. Arts integration is a fantastic idea as long as it doesn’t require any more work and doesn’t disrupt the pacing of the core curriculum. More than once I was told that a class didn’t need any more drama, because they had already done skits.
“You mean like put on a play?” he asked.
“Well, not exactly a play like you might be thinking of, but something theatrical.”
Up to this point in my career I had incorporated drama into a variety of classes and situations; usually the topics were more academic or meant to enrich the experience, but I had never worked on a piece with so serious a topic.
“So how would that work?” my would-be-collaborator asked.
Having been here for just over a year I was surprised to find that there wasn’t a history of arts integration using the arts specialists to take the lead.
“I’m not sure. But I have some ideas.”
I went back to the magic “if”: What if they took the research that they were gathering in humanities and brought it to drama class? What if I came into his classroom and co-taught a few lessons with him? What if we could get the students to devise a piece of theater that would not only incorporate what they learned about modern day slavery but also support our school mission of working towards a “just and sustainable society”? What if I could tie it together with Augusto Boal, Frantic Assembly, Living Theater, and other techniques of theater creation? What if….?
There was another pause. I had probably said too much. Was too eager.
“You would have to lead that. I’ve done skits before, but not like what you’re talking about.”
“Are you interested in trying to make it work?”
“Do you think the kids would go for it?”
Here was an opportunity, an opening. This might be a collaborator who could put aside ego, I thought, someone who is willing to accept ambiguity and step outside of his expertise, who is ready to work as an equal in the classroom. Finding the right collaborator takes time but when you find the right one the possibilities are endless.
And that lunch conversation is how the Grade 8 Humanities and Drama departments embarked on a multi-week experiment: melding traditional humanities topics and research methods with experimental, movement-based, devised, social justice theater. At the start we had no idea what we would end up with, but I knew I had a collaborator who was willing give it a try.
Jeff Redman is the middle school drama teacher at American International School Dhaka, Bangladesh. He founded the Ivey Award winning Workhouse Theatre Company in Minneapolis where he served as Artistic Director for six years. Jeff leads workshops for educators and was invited to present his workshop, Injecting Drama! at the NESA conference in Athens, Greece. He holds a B.S in Theater and M.A. in teaching. Jeff is currently working on connecting ex-pat students to local Bangladeshi artists.