Recently a lesson on the Stolen Generations, conducted at a Sydney school, went horribly wrong. Year 4 students were engaged in a day long ‘role-play’ in which they were told they would be removed from their families.
According to reports , a nun entered the classroom in the morning, with a letter from the Prime Minister, and told the class they would be taken away from their parents, as they weren’t being looked after properly. The exercise continued for five hours until the end of the school day when students were informed that this was a lesson on the Stolen Generations, and were asked how it made them feel.
While there was extreme concern expressed from the media and parents, Drama teachers all over watched this episode aghast, wondering how such a potentially powerful lesson had gone so wrong.
It seems an attempt was made to use the drama conventions of teacher-in-role and role play. These are two strategies found in the beautiful and transformative pedagogy of ‘Process Drama’. Process Drama is a powerful teaching tool when used ethically, but it seems it wasn’t employed carefully in this instance. This lesson seemed much more like ‘invisible theatre’ where the participants did not know that they were in a fictional context or that the teacher was in role.
Invisible theatre is more commonly used with adults, whereas Process Drama has a pedagogy of care built in. In Process Drama, students know they are in the drama and in the fiction. Students and the teacher move in and out of role; they don’t play themselves, rather they take on the roles of other people. At the end of a particular strategy or moment in the class, students may need to de-role (get out of role) and discuss and debrief the moments when they were in role. It’s a process students are familiar with. We see small children playing and going in and out of role all the time. When educators use drama in this way, they are protecting their students in role. Through role, we avoid the manipulation of ‘psycho-drama’ and can explore the space where the real world and the fictional world overlaps.
The teachers in the school concerned were acting with the best of intentions. They may have seen highly transformative learning experiences, such as Jane Elliot’s Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes experiment and attempted to replicate these lessons. It should be noted that the Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes lesson sparked outrage at the time, but is now considered a watershed moment in addressing racism in schools.
However, there are limits to Process Drama’s reach. Process Drama has been critiqued for its attempt to replicate the experiences of disadvantaged people at critical times in history. Can we really ever understand what it’s like to be part of the Stolen Generations, and is it offensive to suggest that we can replicate those experiences? Indigenous children’s writer, Trina Saffioti, whose books were used to inspire the school’s lessons, was deeply uncomfortable with the exercise, stating that it almost cheapens the experience .
While it’s true that we can never truly understand what it was like to be a part of the Stolen Generations, the ability to see life from another’s perspective may be the most important lessons that one can ever learn.
It is abundantly clear that those facilitating these lessons were ill prepared for the nuances of this delicate teaching strategy. The transformative power of drama is still largely misunderstood in schools. New teachers can have as little as two hours training in Drama in their teacher preparation courses and this is a failure of our system . Many teachers would like to use drama to enhance empathy, challenge students’ worldviews, and to facilitate deep and critical thinking, but often don’t know where to start. If teachers make a misguided attempt, or no attempt at all, we deny our students the opportunity for them to engage with complex issues through an incredibly powerful pedagogy.
Lessons that are uncomfortable are not always bad, in fact learning itself is a dangerous act. Students cloaked in safety and shielded from discomfort will not be able to reach their potential, both as learners and active citizens. The Stolen Generations are also a dark part of Australian history which must be recognised by all members of our community if reconciliation is to occur. Students and schools are not exempt from this. Far from being too young, these students are in a prime position to discern racism, prejudice and injustice.
The school and Catholic Diocese have bravely said that these lessons will continue, albeit in another form, emphasising that the intentions were sound, but the execution was flawed. We need educators who are risk-takers, willing to tackle big issues, particularly our shameful treatment of indigenous Australians.
It would be incredibly sad if this isolated incident prevented teachers from being creative and using drama effectively in their classrooms.
Dr Rachael Jacobs is an Arts Education lecturer in the School of Education at Western Sydney University, Australia.