Ancona students have many opportunities to engage with issues of social justice. They explore recognize, discuss, and even propose and present solutions to topics ranging from discrimination (preprimary), water rights and civil rights (primary), and a broad range of self-selected topics in their own communities in the Social Justice Data Fair (middle school). But social justice is not taught as a separate subject at Ancona; it is integrated into every subject area and throughout our students’ school experience until it becomes part of who they are, part of how they think about and relate to the world around them.
As part of this year’s cultural unit on South America, Ancona middle school students are exploring the life and work of Brazilian Paolo Freire, as well as that of Brazilian director and social justice activist Augusto Boal, whose Theatre of the Oppressed worked to empower and inspire others to improve their living conditions. On a recent FLEX Day, our 7th and 8th graders participated in a workshop offered by Northlight Theater. Inspired by Boal’s work, Northlight Theater uses theater for social change to address contemporary social justice issues. The theater’s education program, Speak Up! “is a theatre for social change residency and asks students to address issues impacting their community. Speak Up! is a long-term active personal, artistic, and academic investigation that brings current events into the classroom and fosters social responsibility. Through the process of creating an original performance addressing topical issues, students use their voices to engage their peers in building positive change in their community.”
Guided by three professional actors from the organization, Ancona students addressed the topic of “microaggressions.” Students first reviewed the tools of the actor: voice, mind, and imagination and built community through games designed by Augusto Boal, after which they moved on to an examination of the labels we give ourselves and that others give us–in the different communities we belong to–through a poetry writing exercise. In groups, they then came up with a shared list of types and traits of communities and shared physical statues about what they wanted to celebrate about community and problems that exist in our communities. These groups then received an article about microaggressions from The New York Times with which they created blackout poetry to highlight the words, phrases and points in the article that they felt expressed their own points of view. Finally, they created culminating performances to share with the whole level. They could use all the material generated throughout the day as inspiration for the text and images they incorporated into their performances.
The team from Northlight Theater was very impressed with our 7th and 8th graders. They found the Ancona students “to be very open, intelligent, vulnerable and mindful.” They felt the students really learned a great deal by “creating performances about bullying, acts of microaggression that they previously felt were normal behaviors but thought more deeply about the consequences of, and gave examples of how to be upstanders when they would hear or see a microaggression happening.” And this transformative experience was just an introduction to theater as a tool for social activism for our students, as one of the teaching artists from Northlight is sticking around to offer an elective for 7th and 8th graders for the next six weeks, and we will certainly have them back again to collaborate with Ancona teachers in offering more opportunities for our students to engage with issues of social justice through the performing arts.