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Making invisible intersectionality visible through theater of the oppressed in teacher education.

   Do I contradict myself?
   Very well then I contradict myself,
   (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

   --Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, Section 51


For almost three decades, many educators have agreed that to be effective, teachers must be culturally responsive to their students (e.g., Gay, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 2009). Much of the work in teacher education and cultural relevance has endeavored to consider strategies to develop dispositions and skills to serve all children. Despite making progress in this area, there is still a great need for reflexive work on intersectionality and cultural competence. Arts-based methodologies offer an array of possibilities toward this end. In particular, Theater of the Oppressed (TO) has proven to be effective with service providers. The fields of education, social work, nursing, and public health offer several examples. The research from teacher education illustrates the impact of and need for further study (see Cahnmann-Taylor, Wooten, Souto-Manning, & Dice, 2009; Souto-Manning, 2011; Wooten & Cahnmann-Taylor, 2014). To add to this growing body of research, the authors implemented a study where preservice education students could engage in TO to explore issues of identity and oppression.

It is not a new idea that learning is dependent upon a sense of well-being in the classroom. Hawk and Lyons (2008) assert that implementing communities of caring (Noddings, 1988) improves engagement. They state, "Reform movements ... cannot be successful in producing truly equitable outcomes if such movements are not grounded in culturally responsive policies, initiatives, and pedagogies" (Hawk & Lyons, 2008, p. 87). Environments where students feel insecure, marginalized, invisible, threatened, and/or disenfranchised do not, of course, inspire meaningful learning.

Woollen and Otto (2014) citing Smith and Smith (2009) complicate the notion of creating equitable spaces when they suggest that teachers' beliefs about their students' identities and cultures impede the creation of such spaces. They continue, "Culture, which can be understood as a group's shared values, beliefs, and norms, is viewed by many teachers as a serious problem that gets in the way of education" (Smith & Smith, 2009, p. 344). Educators are challenged to create classrooms that support student learning and, in doing so, must acknowledge and move beyond their own biases. Such changes will not happen quickly but are vital.

Olitsky (2006) argues that learning is significantly affected by the sense of agency. TO offers promising possibilities to achieve agency within classrooms. Therefore, we wondered how using TO techniques might create small openings (Hatch & Groenke, 2009), or spaces of reflection and incremental change, where preservice teachers could make visible both their own and their future students' intersectional identities (Crenshaw, 1991; Purdie-Vaughns & Eibach, 2008). Small openings refer to the idea that often the path to conscientization (Freire, 1998) is made up of many small steps instead of grand gestures. These small but significant transformations can lead to change on a larger scale personally and societally. Altwerger, Arya, Laster, Jin, Jordan, and Martens (2004) suggest that teacher educators create "safe spaces" for beginning teachers to see alternatives and participate in critical reflection and intellectual engagement (p. 128).

Recognizing our own and our future students' intersectional identities is an act of creating small openings where teachers may become responsive to learner's needs and identities. We were interested in making visible whatever subordinated aspects of self the participants desired to reveal. We wanted to create an atmosphere where participants could move toward conscientization. This required developing a critical awareness of structural forces to take action upon them (Freire, 2000). As Freire (2000) asserts, "One must recognize and be responsible for one's own participation in and amelioration of oppression" (p. 2). Therefore, we wondered how TO can help preservice teachers confront essentializing views by embodying their perceptions of complex identities.

We asked the following question: Can TO provide small openings where preservice teachers can start the journey of conscientization? Subquestions included the following: (a) Can embodied theatrical encounters--those that enable one to use his or her body to physically participate in learning--create small openings where students feel supported and vulnerable enough to encounter the visibility of intersectional identities? (b) How can TO work with students who have varying identities and understandings of cultural competency in relation to intersectional identities? (c) Can students engage equitably in TO in an academic environment? (d) How can student comfort be balanced with providing opportunities to challenge preconceived notions? and (e) What are practical aspects of implementing TO in teacher education classrooms?

Theoretical Framework

A Rationale for TO in Teacher Education

TO fits with the goals of culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP) as a means of facilitating interpersonal, social, and political change through theater. It is not conventional theater where actors come with a script memorized to perform for an audience. TO reframes the actor from knower to a poser of possibilities. Participants are not expected to stay seated to watch ideas played out (though that is an option). The purpose of TO is to create a mechanism for communities to propose suggestions and alternatives to shared struggles. Babbage (2004) states that TO's aim "is not to 'reflect' a fixed reality; but to demonstrate how character and action are historically produced, and so how they could have been, and still can be, different" (p. 42). TO creates a dialogic space where ideas are suggested, alternatives proposed, and the community strengthened.

TO uses physical embodiments, sounds, words, and imagination to crystallize an issue with an eye toward transforming it. Boal (1992) asserts that there are three foundational elements of TO: games, image theater, and forum theater. Games are played as a means to create trust among the group. Also, they are a means to "demechanize the body" from the socially constructed ways in which we are acculturated to move and, therefore, to think. Image theater, as described by Perry (2012), "invites participants to play in the space between aesthetic representation and social reality for the purpose of developing counter-hegemonic stories, identities and subjectivity" (p. 103). Forum theatre, Boal (1992) states, "... is not the old didactic theatre. It is pedagogical in the sense that we all learn together, actors and audience" (p. 19). It is called forum theater because the community comes together and creates an improvisational forum that uncovers and explores shared ideas and concerns. Within local contexts, topics could include a group of nurses discussing how doctors treat them, or students exploring the impacts of high-stakes testing. Its goal is to use theater to address shared challenges with an eye toward devising multiple points of entry. As Boal (1992) says, it is "rehearsal for the revolution" (p. 122).

Intersectional Identity and TO

The multiplicity of students' identities is becoming more complex. Identity cannot be defined simply in terms of demographic categories (Brewer, Gonsalkorale, & Van Dommelen, 2013; Furlong, 2013). The concept of intersectional identities is the idea that one's identity is neither singular nor fixed, but rather a constellation of societal, personal, cultural, and political aspects of self that arrange and rearrange themselves to momentarily define us (Crenshaw, 1991). The shifting components of self coalesce depending on circumstances such as environments, peers, emotions, feelings of safety, etc. Consequently, it is critical for educators to consider that identities are constructed and subordinated, so that they understand their role in privileging certain identities over others even if they are unaware of it. This is important because teacher expectation significantly affects students' academic success and their conceptions of self (Jussim & Harber, 2005; Nash, 2012).

The authors believe that it is the teacher's responsibility to recognize that people are composed of multitudinous identities, and, therefore, to make visible the oppressive forces that silence authentic expressions of self (hooks, 1994). Purdie-Vaughns and Eibach (2008) describe the intersectional invisibility that occurs when a person's culturally subordinated identities distance them from what they refer to as the prototype (White, heterosexual, male). The more subordinated one's identity, the more marginalized one becomes within a group--even within marginalized groups. For example, as they illustrate, within a group of African American women, lesbians might be marginalized. African American lesbians are rendered all but invisible when more dominant prototypes are in the room (i.e., heterosexual White women). The more prototypes that exist, the more invisible people become when they perform a variety of subordinated roles or target identities (Hardiman & Jackson, 2007). It is vital that educators develop an understanding of intersectional identities to develop cultural competence.

While there is not one definition of cultural competence, there are typically five essential elements of most definitions. These are (a) valuing diversity, (b) having the capacity for cultural self-assessment, (c) being conscious of the dynamics inherent when cultures interact, (d) having institutionalized cultural knowledge, and (e) having developed adaptations to service delivery reflecting an understanding of cultural diversity (Cross, Bazron, Dennis, & Isaacs, 1989; Hall & Guidry, 2013).

It is not enough merely to recognize that students are comprised of multiple identities--even subordinated ones. To create learning spaces that support the whole child, the authors assert that teachers must act to create school environments where all identities (at least ones that students care to represent) can be safely expressed. If educators do not do this, or at least attempt to do so, we are complicit in the reinforcement of the status quo within schools. We contend that the arts hold means to express diverse identities. Although teacher educators do not typically consider artistic methodologies as part of their pedagogical practice, the arts offer opportunities for students to voluntarily express multiple identities. Boal's theorizing is rich toward this end.

The goal of TO is to use theater to initiate dialogue, so that communities can analyze their own dynamics and thus transform them (Duffy & Vettraino, 2010). Therefore, the authors draw upon the work of the critical pedagogists Freire and Boal. It is the responsibility of teachers to read their world (Freire, 2000) and become the authors of that context to move beyond the passive subjugation or, perhaps worse, the rendering invisible of our students. For the authors, the goal was not to represent the binaries of oppressor and oppressed within school contexts, but rather to complicate the multiple identities students and teachers possess in light of Freire's (1998) notion of conscientization or critical awareness.

From this perspective, teacher education requires that preservice teachers do more than just read about anti-oppressive education, but engage in ways that situate them within the shifting dynamics of teaching and learning (Hardiman & Jackson, 2007). That is why an embodied approach is essential (Calvo & Gomila, 2008). By embodied approach, we mean a physical and lived, fictive encounter with challenging ideas of identity and power to serve as a means of rehearsal for actual encounters by providing opportunities to use their bodies and physically participate in the learning. The inclusion of the full self--the body and the mind--into learning is of increasing interest to cognitive psychologists. Alibali and Nathan (2012) argue that "scholars of embodied cognition have begun to view gestures as an indicator of embodied mental representation" (p. 249). Using one's body involves not only active engagement but also creating mental representations for future recall.

Grappling with oppression in an embodied way affords students an opportunity to get up on their feet in order to collaboratively puzzle through the realities of inequity. If the only experience preservice teachers have with justice-based inquiry is to read about forms of oppression, they could summarily agree that discrimination is bad and not be changed by encountering that notion. Through a TO process, students potentially explore their own identity as teachers and learners, and therefore recognize the need to create a small opening for variable identities within themselves and others.

The Study

This study seeks to determine whether TO can create small openings for preservice teachers to critically reflect on their and their future students' identities beyond culturally normative prototypes. We asked the following question: Can preservice teachers engage in TO techniques to recognize subordinated positionalities in themselves and "the other" (Habermas, 2000; Sampson, 1993) to interrupt the cycle of socialization? Harro (2010, p. 45) asserts that this socialization process is pervasive (coming from all sides and sources), consistent (patterned and predictable), circular (self-supporting), self-perpetuating (intradependent), and often invisible (unconscious and unnamed; Bell, 2007).

Project Context

This project was conducted in a large research university on an urban southeastern campus. The students are all early childhood education majors enrolled in the required course titled "Culturally Relevant Pedagogy in Early Childhood Classrooms." The goal of this course is to develop proficiency in CRP to serve all students--particularly those who are culturally and/or linguistically diverse.

Preservice Teacher Participants

All 26 students enrolled in the CRP course participated in a series of two 75-min sessions held as part of this course. All participants were female undergraduates, enrolled in an early childhood teacher certification program. Participants ranged in age from 19 to 28 years old. The majority of students were European American with one student self-identifying as African American and one as Asian American. In addition, the students self-disclosed that they were predominantly Christian. Our location, in the southeastern United States, represents a particular context. However, our students' demographic characteristics are relevant because they mirror preservice teacher populations nationwide (Cochran-Smith & Zeichner, 2010).

Twenty-four students completed the preliminary survey and 21 completed the postexperience survey. All students who participated were invited to be interviewed with three agreeing to the interviews. The three students were (a) Lynda (pseudonym), a 28-year-old, female, European American; (b) Kelsey (pseudonym), a 20-year-old, female, European American; and (c) Kristen (pseudonym), a 19-year-old, female, Asian American.

Arts-Based Educational Research (ABER) Methodology

We side with Barone as cited in Finley (2008, p. 102) that arts-based research should cast "contents of experience into a form with the potential for challenging (sometimes deeply held) beliefs and values" (Barone, 2001, p. 26). Therefore, we sought out frameworks where preservice teachers could identify their current constructions of invisible intersectionality and how they manifest themselves within their classrooms.

The complex and subtle interactions (Barone & Eisner, 2011) of idea, text, position, intersectionality (visible and otherwise), agency, and other identifying markers make arts-based, specifically theater-based, research, an excellent vehicle to capture voiced and unvoiced perspectives. We agree with Marin (2007) who states,

   This methodology effectively combines the artistic elements of
   theatre techniques with the rigor of qualitative research methods
   to provide a safe space in which participants involved can offer
   their responses in a creative form and feel more comfortable
   participating in educational research. The participants respond as
   if they are participating in an interactive theatre workshop, not
   like they are being examined under a microscope. (p. 82)

This is one of the many reasons we chose to employ theater-based research methodologies, particularly TO. Barone and Eisner (2006) assert that two criteria determine whether a particular methodology qualifies as an arts-based methodology. First, ABER "is meant to enhance perspectives pertaining to certain human activities." And second, it depends on "aesthetic qualities or design elements that infuse the inquiry process and the research 'text'" (p. 95). ABER exists in this space between art and science and is a challenge to capture (Finley, 2005). Because the arts provide a multimodal means of representation, the data collected provide rich insights into the complexities of identity and oppression.

Data Collection

A variety of data collection techniques were employed during this research process. Like Marin (2007), we found that the verbal responses of participants as well as the visual images they created can be considered "raw data." The goal, as previously stated, was to determine whether TO creates an awareness of intersectional positionality--in relation to the prototype. It was our intention to "address ... complex and often subtle interactions and ... provide ... an image of those interactions in ways that make them noticeable" (Barone & Eisner, 2011, p. 3). Consequently, in theater-based practice, it is as important to look at what is contained within the image as it is to look at what is left out. It is as necessary to listen to the dialogue that is spoken as it is to hear the silences. Because we wanted to explore these phenomena, the researchers utilized qualitative interviews, open-response surveys, video analysis, written reflection, image theater, forum work, and in-class discussions to capture data about the students' experiences (Flick, 2014; Patton, 2005; Silverman, 2013).

Data Analysis

The authors coded both during and after the data collection period and used multiple techniques to engage in this process (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Saldana, 2013). We each read through the data multiple times independently to ensure that we were familiar with it and that we had a grasp on what the data suggested. Initial codes included student voice, cultural competence, emerging insights, socio/cultural relevance, and self-expression/innovative practice.

Saldana (2013) guides our layers of coding. We utilized descriptive, in vivo, emotion, motif, narrative, and verbal exchange coding. We went back to the data to identify subthemes by examining keywords in context (Ryan & Bernard, 2003). We engaged in an additional level of collaborative coding by discussing which codes were most relevant and appropriate to the data and research questions (Saldana, 2013). During our second cycle of coding, we employed both focused and axial coding to unify the diverse data we gathered. Axial coding categorized the students' representations of their experiences across domains generated by the data, so that we could look for patterns and inconsistencies. Next, we compared our categories to identify indigenous themes that reflected participants' experiences (Patton, 2005). After this third level of coding, we agreed that we had met theoretical saturation, meaning that no new codes were generated from additional review (Corbin & Strauss, 2007).

TO Workshop Description

In her book Augusto Boat, Babbage (2004) reminds readers of Boal's four stages for structuring a workshop: Stage 1: Knowing the body, Stage 2: Making the body expressive', Stage 3: Theater as language', Stage 4: Theater as discourse. Each stage of the TO workshop creates opportunities to encounter, confront, and reveal our own intersectional identities as we embody a variety of scenarios and representations of self and the other. Boal contends that workshop stages are paramount, and even the games and activities are crucial, maintaining that each exercise is a "physical reflection on oneself' (1992, p. 48). Or, when put within the context of this work, physical reflections on one's selves. The following activities demonstrate the dialogical interplay between game and exercise and how they might move participants through those spaces. The first game's intention is to create a low-stakes opportunity for participants to play collaboratively.

Day I

Warm-up activities. We played several of the games from Augusto Boal's (1992) Games for Actors and Non-Actors. Each activity engages workshop participants with a different aspect of one of the TO workshop's four stages.

Babbage's (2004)                        For full description, see
four stages of TO                         Games for Actors and
workshop (p. 110)   Activity            Non-Actors (Boal, 1992)

Stage 1: Knowing    Circle and the      p. 62
  the body            Cross
                    Columbian           p. 63

Stage 2: Making     Sculptor Sequence   p. 127
  the body          How Many A's in     p. 99
  expressive          One A

Stage 3: Theater    Complete the        p. 130
  as language         Image

Stage 4: Theater    Four Chairs         (See description in
  as discourse                            this essay)
                    Image Theater       pp. 164-177

Columbian hypnosis. We played Columbian Hypnosis, a game for pairs that explores power relationships and trust. We utilized multiple variations of this game as well (Boal, 1992).

After this exercise, we facilitated a conversation about how this game is a metaphor for the power dynamics that are at play within classroom relationships. Initially, students focused on how the game could be used to teach skills rather than a metaphorical and cocreated heuristic.

Author 2: "What is the point of this activity?"

Tina: "To make you more comfortable. Because everyone looks silly and you won't feel uncomfortable if everyone looks silly. We have a common background now."

Margie: "It can help children learn to follow directions."

Elizabeth: "It could be a period of time for children to hold their attention on something or focus on something."

Author 2: "What might we learn through this activity about ourselves and our own practices?"

Ashley: "It helps us be self-aware, like how to follow but also like how to ... lead too."

Talia: "For the kids ... it's a good way to work together."

Elizabeth: "It teaches, like leadership roles, but also how to follow."

Margie: "Yeah, it can teach you directions, like left and right and up and down."

Author 1: "How about adults?"

There was a long silence.

Shayla: "Cooperation."

Allie: "Along with cooperation also trusting."

This was followed by another long silence. Then, Amy asked, "What are we playing next?"

"Four Chairs." Author 2 replied after another moment of waiting.

Four chairs. The facilitator places four chairs at the front of the room and asks for four volunteers--one to stand behind each chair. The facilitator then says an incomplete phrase which the people must physically complete using only the chair. For example, during the workshop, Author 2 said, "Thinking about reaching each child individually in your classroom feels like ... " the students then used the chair and their bodies to help communicate their ending to the phrase.

The audience imagines that the image the person created with the chair is actually a photograph in a newspaper and they have to provide the caption. What is important is what the audience projects onto the image, not what the actor intends. It is more important in TO work for the audience to make meaning than for the actors to share their intended meaning.

Captions called out for individuals contained within this image included strength, joyful, overwhelming, anxiety-producing, stressful, magic, weight of the world on your shoulders, proud, hard work, and intense. After captions were called out, the class said that if they had to work with one of the images more, they would choose the seated student. According to the participants, this image represented the challenge and reality of reaching each individual child in their classrooms. To these preservice teachers, that task felt isolating, complicated, and burdensome.

They next complicated the initial image by adding multiple demands placed upon teachers such as parents, administrators, children, and family life. The university students wondered where and how, within this already exhausting context, is the space to recognize the complex and intersectional realities of their students. To cocreate possible answers to their questions, we invited other students to step into the image to create poses surrounding the initial image that represented what might live within the teacher's head and heart.

After this step, the participants were asked to come up with one line of dialogue or a phrase that would represent the character's need or struggle in that moment. They included the following:

   You don't know me.

   Please help me.

   Can I please come with you?

   Will you braid my hair?

   You're my only hope.

   Leave me alone.

   It'll be okay.

   I hate you.


   He's punching me!

   Thank you!

We ended there on the first day.

Day 2

After initial warm-ups, the students broke up into four groups. Each group, of about five to six students, was asked to create two to three tableaux that explored their positions within schools as it relates to the course of CRPs. After each group created two or three frozen images that unpacked their role as educators within the context of CRPs, they selected one that they would present to the class. Each group shared their one image, and from there a single image was selected as the class image. The students voted by closing their eyes and raising their hands for the image that spoke to them the most. Once that image was selected, we worked on the Image of Reality and the Ideal Image (Boal, 1996).

The participants selected an image depicting the isolation of a student who was transgendered. What was unclear to the authors at the time of the image's selection was that the image was a depiction of an actual student at a high school about an hour outside of the university. What came from this was that three of the students in the class knew the young woman personally and so the image became a blended space of a Active encounter and an accounting of their memory of what happened at their school. This information complicated the deconstruction of the initial image was with the student.

This activity asks that participants create an ideal after the image of reality to identify their desired resolution or outcome. From there, students construct a roadmap through images of how to move step by step from the image of reality to the ideal image. Before the students began creating the ideal image, Natalie asked whether the student who was transgender was comfortable at school. "Was the protagonist comfortable or did he feel like ... that he was okay with how he was? ... Was he confident?"

Stephanie responded,

   I went to high school with him and I think a little bit of both. He
   definitely walked with his head held high. I talked with him about
   it and he said his parents support him. His grandmother even bought
   him all of his clothes. He made some too. He would dress as a boy
   when he left his house, but before he got to school, he'd change
   his clothes. He got some support, but he didn't get a lot of
   support. Like he couldn't go to the bathroom at school. You know?
   Whichever one he went to, people would get upset about it.

Maya followed up with.

   But the town where this happened is tiny. It was the first time
   like we have ever seen anything like that. I mean, like, that was
   the first. I mean, there may be like one or two people at my school
   who were gay or lesbian or something like that. So it was very much
   like a shock. But that's the hard part about it too. Teachers
   didn't know how to handle it.

Stephanie said, "They didn't want to see him get made fun of, but at the same time they didn't want to offend anyone else by kind of standing up for him."

Maya said, "It was also very sudden. It was his New Year's Resolution to become transgendered. Like one day he just showed up in women's clothes."

Marcie said,

   I think he kind of made it a point, like he really wanted to stand
   up for it. But at the same time he didn't have a lot of
   support--especially from his family. I mean he had a lot of friends
   who supported him and a lot of people who, once he told them, felt
   like, "Okay, maybe you're not so weird. You're actually a human
   being too." But um, I think he made it more ... he dressed more
   flamboyantly more than he necessarily wanted to just as a person to
   make a point because nothing like that ever happened there.

The first several images reflected the participants' difficulties in embracing the transgendered students' preferred pronoun (i.e., she). While they tried to ameliorate the oppression for the transgender student, they actually decentered the student in her own image. This became clear when Laura remarked, "She's not even the focal point any more."

Suggestions were made to have a student serve as a bridge character between the transgender student and the gossiping group. Another suggestion came that there would be a circle of people who represent the community and the student who is transgender was simply a part of the community. A third student suggested that the protagonist should be out in front and the others in her school community would support her to "literally have her back."

Author 2 asked the question, "Are there other stakeholders who are not represented in this image?" Students quickly chimed in with, "her family" and "the school."

Talia said,

   I feel like the more you know about a person, the more accepting
   [sic] they become to you. There's always something that you will
   like about someone. So it's your choice to approve of them and
   accept them and to kind of do away with the things that you don't
   approve of and accept them as they are in this situation. Can they
   just say that they kind of just got to know who that person is and
   that's why they are accepting of them?

Second Author asked, "Is there any magical thinking in that?"

Talia replied, "There's not magical thinking, but she shared her story with all of us, and so we're just attempting to accept her as a person."

Tara followed, "As long as we minimize the people who stand against her, that would be ideal and real, I hope."

Alice offered,

   In high school I didn't know him very well until I had one class
   with him and he just sat beside me and I talked with him like ten
   minutes every other day. And I gradually got to know him and hear
   his story and after you hear it, I felt so bad for him that he has
   to face all of this. I couldn't imagine it at all. So, he can't
   possibly tell his story to everyone. So other people who do know
   his story can be like, "Hey, stop making fun of him. He has to deal
   with this on a daily basis, you know?"

Patrice stated, "So I think an important first step should be that the supporters should talk to each other. Cause at school, the students wouldn't automatically go and address the gossipers."

The class decided on subsequent steps which were as follows: One of the gossipers talks to the protagonist, then the gossiper talks to the supporters. Next, it was suggested that the gossiper goes back and talks to the other gossipers and finally, toward the ideal, the gossiper who spoke with the protagonist first goes and introduces another gossiper to the protagonist.


As previously stated, the primary research question was as follows:

Research Question 1: How, if at all, does employing TO techniques create small openings (Hatch & Groenke, 2009), or incremental spaces of change, where preservice teachers can make visible their and their future students' intersectional identities (Crenshaw 1991, Purdie-Vaughns & Eibach, 2008)?

The findings and themes align themselves with each of the research themes: (a) small openings: the visibility of intersectional identities, (b) varied levels of learning, (c) creating a "safe enough" space, and (d) practical aspects of implementing TO. It is important to note that although the direct quotes included in the following sections are only from three students, the quotes are representative of the broader findings. These quotes best encapsulated the sentiments of the 24 participants as reflected in their postexperience surveys.

Small Openings: TO and Visibility of Intersectional Identities

The following illustrates the authors' interpretation of instances where small openings occurred throughout the research process. This is relevant as it connects to larger concerns of valuing and creating room for multiple identities within the classroom. Through her TO experience, one student participant, Lynda, when discussing oppressive situations in schools, stated,

   This experience was a bit of a slap in the face--but in a good way.
   Obviously I know that this stuff is out there, but I didn't know to
   the extreme, I guess. I never really thought about it--it never
   really hit home to me that I am going to have children with totally
   different backgrounds from me, different cultures, languages,
   everything! And it can be hard. People can say you're going to be
   immersed in diversity as a teacher, but not until you really
   experience it--I am a hands-on person--so going into a classroom and
   experiencing it and actually seeing an image that is dealing with
   that [diversity] is so impactful for me. Seeing those images and
   seeing classrooms and how teachers will deal with it--I will carry
   that more with me as I become a teacher more so than the readings
   that say there is so-and-so diversity. Stats are important, but I
   can't remember them.

This student's experience reveals that embodying issues of diversity and oppression in classrooms through TO created for her a small opening--an insight that not only does diversity exist, but rather that she will have to decenter herself within that diversity. In particular, she held that, as a European American female, TO engagements enabled her to "experience another person's perspective" and to consider how to "solve difficult social issues" as well as to "challenge oppression." Her introspection demonstrated that she discovered why it is important to confront her original notions of race, class, and culture through the drama activities. Her language, however, revealed how centered she remained in solving issues for her future students. Words like experience, solve, and challenge show her to be the main actor in the creation of an inclusive classroom. The difference between being the main actor and an ally is that allies cocreate alternatives with students. Main actors create solutions for them--solutions that might not be at all appropriate.

Survey data revealed that theater engagements were windows for preservice teachers to experience their identity as teachers differently when the multiple identities of their students were complicated. Laurel shared that TO "teaches teachers to not be afraid of the unknown or unfamiliar." Marcie suggested that TO "made me see other people's viewpoints on certain ethical issues and how I should respect everyone's opinion even if they're different from my own."

Lynda described a scene where they explored observations of inequality. She states, "The scene we ended up doing was about someone being transgendered. I liked it and thought it was good that the topic was brought up and we were talking about that." While she was glad that her peers chose to explore how a high school class treated a student who is transgender, she was disappointed that they could not take the issue further. She said, "I remember feeling like I wanted them [her classmates] to be further along with their awareness of the issue." For her, the goal would be not only to be supportive of a transgendered student but also not to "make a big deal about their identity." In other words, she felt that a better solution would be for the group to accept and affirm the individual. She said,

   I remember making my tableau and I wanted everybody just hanging
   out together, like, not making a big deal that the person was
   transgendered. That would be my perfect vision, but other people
   wanted to make sure to support them and I think that's important,
   too--I don't know, maybe that's the way it is in the real world. But
   for me, I wanted it to be further than that.

This student had hoped that not only would people understand and value varying identity factors but that these elements, particularly gender identity, would not be seen as "abnormal." Her sentiments relate to the fact that the students' experiences with TO were just as complex as their intersectional identities.

Varied Levels of Learning

Students reported an increase in learning and understanding from the initial survey to the postexperience survey in the following domains: self-expression, sociocultural knowledge, evidence of student voice, and innovative practice. We found that while some students self-reported significant growth (e.g., depth of understanding and insight, increased knowledge, etc.), others appeared to have emerging understanding of new concepts.

Several students stated, "At first I felt awkward, but then once I realized everyone else looked silly too, then I felt more comfortable." Another student wrote, "I was nervous about the theatre work at first, but I ended up enjoying and benefiting from it. I thought it was a good way to get comfortable with everyone and explore some heavy topics." In addition, feeling that students invested the same intention and practice in these classes as their peers seemed to matter to them.

While Katie indicated that she did not think she learned much from the entire experience, others shared that they enjoyed engaging in learning that did not just involve "lecture and PowerPoints." For example, Sarah shared, "My experience was great in [TO], I enjoyed being able to express myself. The activities we engaged in were different, but were interesting." The majority of students indicated that the more they engaged in TO, the more they felt comfortable with it. One student wrote, "I felt comfortable in my class environment and with my peers. I was able to contribute to the process."

It was clear that just as students had varying experiences, they also may or may not have gained cultural competence. For example, some students seemed to confuse cultural competence with learning preferences. One student said, "TO makes learning more interesting and more interactive," and another student shared that TO facilitates student insights "by experiencing different ways of learning." That is to say that they thought that teaching in a culturally responsive manner equates to providing lessons that include "multimodality" and hands-on curriculum such as providing "art, movement, and other forms of lessons" that can "meet all students' learning styles."

Steps Toward Conscientization

While it is not necessarily true that a participant's fluent use of TO and/or intersectional identity terminology reflects an internalization of these ideas, students, through using such terms, began to frame their nascent understanding of them. It is clear that comprehending a term's definition versus its personal and professional applications are two different things. An emerging understanding may reflect a critical consciousness which, according to Suarez, Newman, and Reed (2008), is "a continuous self-reflexive process involving critical thinking in tandem with action whereby [learners] challenge domination on three levels: personally, interpersonally, and structurally" (p. 409). Suarez et al. continue that through a reflexive process, one begins to understand how "our historical and social identities have shaped our experiences and values" (p. 410). For the students in the study, apprehending and reflecting on their own multiple identities and the privileges or oppressions that accompany them encourage them to situate their identities within larger systems of power, privilege, and oppression. Such contextualization may create small openings to understand how the personal, interpersonal, and structural collide within identity factors. This research focuses on initial steps on the road to conscientization (Freire, 1998).

It became clear to us that there were varied levels of awareness of intersectional identities because the students' themselves had their own intersectional identities and, therefore, had varied experiences working with TO and engaging in ideas of intersectionality. Participating preservice teachers reported varying experiences with the TO engagements. Kristen shared that although she thought that "some of the experiences were fun," she also reported feeling preoccupied by a concern about how others perceived her. This, according to Harro (2000), is not surprising. Harro states, "People who try to contradict the 'norm' pay a price for their independent thinking, and people who conform (consciously or unconsciously) minimally receive the benefit of being left alone" (p. 19). This presupposes that the student who spoke of feeling uncomfortable was responding to unaddressed oppressive forces in her life.

It may not be surprising that student participants confused cultural competence with learning preferences. Perhaps participants held on to preconceived notions due to fear of what their peers would think. Another factor may have been due to conservative social norms that they were socialized into from birth and are reinforced by regulatory discourses (Edwards & Blake, 2007). According to Edwards and Blake (2007), regulatory discourses are educational practices that are based on apolitical notions such as "best practices" that they claim are "merely attempts to privilege or naturalise existing configurations of power and knowledge" (p. 1). Mahilios and Maxson (1998) find that even the adjectives preservice teachers typically use when they describe teaching and learning emphasize "niceness" and underscore a desire to avoid conflict. Preservice teachers typically rank qualities such as "caring" and "enthusiastic" far above qualities such as "open-minded" or "knowledgeable" as the qualities of an ideal teacher. In other words, the qualities that might enable them to complicate either their own or their students' identities were not as valued as those that might make them feel as if they are so-called good teachers.

These ideas are connected to our goal of facilitating TO engagements where students were supported to experience "small openings" or incremental moves toward conscientization in relation to intersectional identity. Given that the group was largely European American, Christian, and female, it was interesting for us if not problematic that they more readily raised the issue of gender (e.g., they chose to work with the image of a transgendered female) than race or even class. This dynamic raises interesting questions for us. First, we, as professors, still grapple with creating the class' focus while addressing the issues our classroom community deemed important and relevant to them. That being said, as teacher educators we strive toward a liberatory pedagogy aimed at addressing the complexity of diverse identities. Here, the work shifts from being primarily aesthetic to pedagogical. We must ask ourselves if we point the TO engagements too precisely toward a particular topic, does TO then move too far away from its focus on community development and collective action? Practitioners need to balance TO's aesthetic and pedagogical attributes. For example, we had to ask ourselves given the demographics of schools within the southeastern United States, should we make race a more central theme in this work? As in other TO engagements, it is what is left out that often speaks as loudly as what is left in. Clearly, race was not substantively addressed. As one early reviewer of this essay noted, in many ways, race was present by its very absence in our conversation.

Another consistent theme in the survey data revealed that, though the theater engagements were interesting or challenging, some students were not comfortable embodying the content and were more comfortable simply discussing it. For example, one student noted, "I was out of my comfort zone actually participating in the reenactment of it, but felt comfortable sharing my thoughts." Another student admitted, "I just don't like being in front of people doing something that I'm not confident in."

As previously noted, a student admitted that the level of discourse among her classmates was disappointing, and their simplistic understanding caused a few to withdraw from the activities and the larger class discussions. A nontraditional student explained, "I felt comfortable engaging, but my ideas were not similar to my classmates so I was unable to really express them." Feeling on the fringes of the group's collective (normed) identity was challenging for a variety of reasons. The data suggest that it was not until the participants collectively created an atmosphere of inclusion that more students felt welcomed to incorporate diverse perspectives. We asked Lynda, for example, whether she was comfortable with the format of the work. She replied, "At first no, but eventually yes. I wasn't sure if others would agree with my ideas."

Lynda indicated, "I love theater and acting" and, therefore, "really enjoyed engaging in TO." During her interview, she shared that she planned to "use all kinds of theater techniques with her own students in the future," but "wasn't sure how she would do it." After a longer discussion about the possibilities, this preservice teacher thought she might use such techniques to help children to "discuss their feelings" and to "solve conflicts."

Kelsey thought that she "gained a great deal from the experience," stating,

   It was so much more impactful. Honestly, seeing your friends do it
   and seeing that everyone else has a different vision of something
   ... it was really cool and seeing she was thinking something
   completely different from me, that opened up a whole new avenue of
   understanding that it [the meaning of the interaction] could be
   this AND it could also be that.

Kelsey's experience with TO reveals that not only did she understand that her peers perceived this activity differently, but that they also brought varied experiences to this interaction, and therefore there were many ways to process the activities. In fact, Kelsey's realization that there might be "multiple truths" to the experience was critical for her.

A consistent theme emerged from the data which determined whether the students had a positive or negative experience with unpacking issues of diversity through theater. The first was their notion of "comfort." The phrase "comfort zone" appeared consistently throughout the surveys: "I was challenged to step out of my comfort zone and do body movements out of my norm." Mary reported, "I thought that it was a good experience because it got a lot of people out of their comfort level." The data indicate that moving out of one's comfort zone was useful in helping students to cope with issues of diversity. But, if the work was too far out of their comfort zone, the students tended to withdraw. Analeese shared, "The experience was weird for me. It was something that I wasn't used to and it was hard for me to get comfortable." This statement reveals the importance of creating an environment within the classroom that supports risk taking, question posing, challenge, and honesty.

Creating a "Safe Enough Space" and "Comfortable Risk"

A question we had to ask ourselves concerned power relations in the classroom. In particular, we had to consider whether the fact that, as instructors working with students who care very deeply about their grades, could we truly engage in TO in an equitable manner? The fact that students were being graded on their work and participation made us wonder whether they would risk authentically sharing their thoughts and feelings. Teacher education faculty engaged in social justice work need to consider how, if at all, equity pedagogy can be enacted in a hierarchical grade-based setting. Third, students consistently reported that a "comfortable classroom community" is necessary for them to openly express their opinions. The authors agree with Shanley (1991) when he states that "theatre is a safe place to do the unsafe things that need to be done" (p. 5).

It was important for us to problematize this idea of "safe space" because one of our goals was to create an environment where students could feel supported to express their opinions, work through sometimes controversial ideas, and put themselves in a potentially vulnerable position. At the same time, we wanted to push preservice teachers to interrogate their preconceived notions of race, class, gender, and other identity factors in terms of their relation to their students and to how they address structural inequities in schools. In essence, we needed to hold two things constant, creating a safe space while also provoking students to engage in what Spolin (1999) refers to as "learning off balance" (p. 370).

We wondered whether we can create a truly safe space, if this is even desirable, or is it that we should just aim for a safe enough space? We asked ourselves, If students were comfortable, did we push them enough to challenge their preconceived notions? Students reported that they felt more comfortable engaging in TO when the instructors and their classmates created a "safe space." Some may assert that engaging in "risky" learning engagements is exactly what is needed for students to confront and shift their thinking. If "conflict is the midwife of consciousness" (Shor, 1987, p. 176), theater is an excellent way through which we can situate ourselves within the conflict generated from the intersections of identities within our classrooms to encourage consciousness from an aesthetic distance.

In reflecting on this process, we initially agreed that given the time and space we were allotted, we thought that we did the best we could to provide a "safe enough space." However, we realized later that we could have done better. For example, we could have scheduled additional sessions to ensure that trust could be developed and that issues could have been explored further. We also neglected to thoroughly consider our varied roles as facilitators. For example, one of us benefited from having a full semester to develop an instructor and student relationship with the class. Although this relationship afforded more time and a greater deal of personal interaction, the instructor was also responsible for grading students. However, one of us was a guest to the class and not just a class guest but one invited by the instructor. Therefore, while the author taking on the guest role was not grading the students, he was a guest of the person with the most power and was working with those who were the most vulnerable--the students. In retrospect, we think it might have been best simply to discuss this issue with the students instead of leaving it unsaid. At the very least, the students could share their concerns and possibly could have made suggestions about how we might collaboratively minimize risk. This is an area that needs more attention in the research on social justice, intersectionality, and teacher education.


Students shared a variety of suggestions for improving implementation of TO activities. Several students shared that they would like to have more time to discuss their experiences and ideas. Second, students agreed that TO cannot come in a "one shot deal," that they needed several repeated experiences that build upon the others (Hargreaves, 1995), and that instructors should consider when in the semester these experiences are offered.

The initial TO experience was implemented at the end of the semester, and many students offered that it was beneficial because they felt comfortable sharing their opinions with their classmates. Yet, other students revealed that they did not like engaging in TO activities at the end of the semester because they could not concentrate due to stress about end of the semester requirements. Timing and time frame do need to be considered when implementing such activities. One could assert that if they became a more typical element of teacher education curriculum, perhaps preservice teachers would feel more receptive to TO that is related to class content.

Given the findings of this study, there are several important ideas for teacher educators to consider. First, change may not come in sweeping gestures but in small, incremental moves. Second, if we as teacher educators are committed to positive social change, we must be willing to change ourselves. Finally, regardless of our pedagogical orientations, teacher educators need to work to create "safe enough spaces" where our students can grapple with the complexity of teaching and learning, so that they can develop the skills, dispositions, and knowledge to serve all children.


The hope is that throughout the entire teacher education program, a student will accumulate enough small openings to glimpse intersectional identities. Freire (2000) summarizes this idea, stating,

   First of all, we should be clear that our work, our activities as
   an educator, will not be enough to change the world. This for me is
   the first thing, not to idealize the educational task. But, at the
   same time, it is necessary to recognize that by doing something
   inside the space of the school we can make some good contributions,
   (p. 180)

Yet, we also must be aware of which experiences facilitate these small openings, and we can assume that embodied experiences, such as those described here, can leave lasting impressions with students. We leave you with Kelsey's thoughts on why TO can be a powerful experience to embody the ideals of intersectionality. Kelsey maintains,

   I wouldn't remember what I read but I still remember what we did in
   the class with TO. Having those visual aids, and being involved
   more in the hands-on experience and being with people especially
   breaking up in a four or five person group that was even more
   impactful for me and we could open up in that small group and talk
   about our different viewpoints. It stayed with me more and I don't
   know if it's because I am a visual learner, I just think it was
   really important for me to see and experience that and it
   represents things that really happen in schools.

The authors believe that TO provides a powerful framework for students to recognize, confront, and challenge beliefs about themselves and the multiple identities of their future students. This awareness is critical to create small openings for recognizing and embracing the multiple identities within our classrooms.

DOI: 10.1177/0022487115607621

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


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Beth Powers (1) and Peter B. Duffy (2)

(1) Millersville University of Pennsylvania, USA

(2) University of South Carolina, Columbia, USA

Corresponding Author:

Peter B. Duffy, University of South Carolina, Department of Theatre and Dance, 430 Longstreet Theatre, Columbia, SC 29208, USA.


Beth Powers is currently serving as an assistant professor in the Department of Early, Middle, and Exceptional Education at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. Her teaching, research, and service are focused on equity pedagogies and improving education for underserved children and families. She has taught and worked with children and families in Zimbabwe, Thailand, and throughout the United States. She has published and presented in national and international venues on topics, including culturally relevant pedagogy, activist teachers' identity and classroom practice, as well as using arts-based methodologies to provide culturally relevant and academically effective instruction.

Peter B. Duffy heads the Master of Arts in Teaching program in theater education at the University of South Carolina where he prepares future teachers to become drama educators. He teaches courses on drama-based pedagogies, applied theater, and arts integration. His research interests include play building as research, cognition and the arts, culturally responsive pedagogies, and performed research. He serves as the Director of Research for the International Drama/Theatre Education Association (IDEA). He coedited Youth and Theatre of the Oppressed with Elinor Vettraino and, his latest book, A Reflective Practitioner's Guide to (Mis)Adventures in Drama Education--or--What Was I Thinking, published by Intellect Publishing, 2015.
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Author:Powers, Beth; Duffy, Peter B.
Publication:Journal of Teacher Education
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Date:Jan 1, 2016
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