Engaging with Drama
A cross-border theatre project reveals the complexities of student engagement – and disengagement
This article reports on a multi-site global, ethnographic, and mixed methods study on student engagement. Our research has closely examined how engagement and disengagement operate subtly, simultaneously and relationally in the places and spaces where drama is made. Through years of qualitative time in high school classrooms and two different quantitative cross-site surveys, the study captured an expansive view of engagement across our very diverse local and global sites in Toronto, Boston, Taipei and Lucknow. Across our four international sites, all working with youth marked by socio-economic disadvantage, we saw that life in drama classrooms, inflected by life outside school, economic pressures, peer affiliations, stories of language and migration, and broader cultural politics, had tremendous influence on the extent to which young people could take up learning as the opportunity we mean it to be.
Urban School Performances: The interplay, through live and digital drama, of local-global knowledge about student engagement is a mixed methods, multi-sited ethnographic study spanning four sites: Toronto, Canada; Boston, U.S.; Taipei, Taiwan; and Lucknow, India. Using digital communication across sites, we have brought together students, teachers, researchers, and artists to examine student engagement, pedagogical practices, and success at school from a local-global perspective. Through this study, now in its final of four years, we have come to understand a great deal about how and why young people engage in, and disengage from, their learning.
We have used drama as an innovative lens through which to examine the complex ways in which students engage artistically, socially, and academically in their classrooms. We now know, for instance, that some young people thrive because of the nature of the collaborative pedagogy one typically observes in drama classrooms – that is, the kind and quality of peer-to-peer and teacher-to-student interactions that occur in drama spaces where the pursuit of a common goal through working together is prized. Further, opportunities for dialogue and deliberation in collective creative work in drama classrooms allows students to face those different from them from a position of solidarity, to face conflict from a desire to understand others.
We also know from student interviews that economic challenges, such as needing to pay for public transportation to school each day, are often a significant barrier to engagement. If even one day a week is missed for this reason, students fall behind very quickly because in drama they are not working from textbooks they can read to catch up; they are working every day with each other and a missed experience can never be repeated. Teachers in all schools cited absenteeism as the greatest impediment to engagement. Teachers in the North American schools also cited addiction problems as another significant barrier to engagement for at-risk students. In India, domestic work for young women and fear of women’s emancipation had the most negative impact on young women’s ability to engage with school. In Taiwan, social stigma and educational quality for socio-economically disadvantaged students became a significant barrier to school engagement.
Brady suggests that in order to succeed in school, students must attempt to master two types of inextricably linked curricula: the one mandated by the education authorities, and the “hidden” or “corridor” curriculum of engagement, acquired through informal daily interactions with administrators, teachers, peers, and others. We understand the concept of student engagement as a dynamic that determines what formal education means to young people and the degree to which they perceive their presence and participation in school as valued. Our project examines the dramatic performances imagined and created by students and the ways in which these reflect their concerns and their own valuations of life inside and outside school. These performances are then shared among the five research sites, through the use of multi-lingual digital technology, in order to open up the dialogue on engagement and performance.
Fredricks, Blumenfeld, and Paris suggest that, to date, research has not capitalized on the potential of engagement as a multidimensional construct that involves behaviour, emotion, and cognition. Our rich cross-border sharing of student performances led to such nuanced conversations among researchers. In some ways, our study of engagement became a long rumination on how young people come to care about an idea, a project, or a community – or in some cases, the ways in which social barriers impede their commitment. Why do some young people care and others appear not to? When is disengagement a mere consequence of economic disadvantage? When is disengagement a defence? When and how does an artistic idea take hold?
In Toronto we worked in two schools, one a large technical school in downtown Toronto and the other a special program in a downtown school for at-risk students. The Boston school was similar: a large multicultural school for primarily socio-economically disadvantaged students. In Taiwan, we also worked with a technical school, where the mostly male students were becoming educated in the trades. In India, we worked in a school for lowest-caste girls that was founded by a trailblazing woman who used funds from her fee-paying middle-class school to support education for students who would otherwise not be able to attend. Drama was used as a significant teaching methodology in all the schools.
Collective creation, caring and hope
In one of the significant drama projects we observed, 17- and 18-year-old students in a Toronto classroom created a collective performance based on the idea of “doors” as metaphors in their lives – doors that open, or close, or act as important thresholds. The students drew from their personal and cultural lives to create this ensemble theatre piece.
This idea was then taken up in an Indian classroom of 17- and 18-year-old students. The students in India explored the same concept in their very different lives and contexts. In the end, the researchers examined, through digital video, the rehearsal processes and the performances of diverse groups of young people all metaphorically exploring the place of doors in their lives. We noted the important ways in which the students worked together, sorted through conflict, and handled the difficult personal material of each other’s lives with great care and a sense of community. Their teacher, Preeti*, described it this way:
I think they have usually taken up issues which are very closely related to their lives. They have not taken any play which has not touched any one angle of their life, be it domestic violence, be it early marriage, be it drunken father, be it exploitative father, be it sexual abuse . . . It has empowered them. It has really empowered them because you know by enacting the problems, they have enacted the solutions also to it. And from that solution they have actually found solutions to their own problems.
Nested within our qualitative work in classrooms were two quantitative surveys. (See “The Surveys” for details.) In the engagement literature, we did not find any work that explored the relevance of life outside school to how young people choose to engage with, or disengage from, school. In our experience, it mattered hugely.
Through the online survey, we found there to be a significant, positive correlation between the amount of time students spent each week engaged in family and caring activities outside of school and their level of engagement in school, across all sites. In fact, family and caring activities that occurred outside of school was the most consistently correlated variable within the entire study. Students who spent more time each week in caring activities related to their families or to community, in general, also spent more time participating during class, studying at school, volunteering for school clubs or events, and completing academic tasks outside of school (e.g. studying, homework).
We saw clearly that involvement in family activities or being directly involved in the care of others outside of the school is related to important cognitive or motivational factors that influence the academic success of students within the school. This raises many questions: what kinds of dialogues occur within those family, social, or communal spaces that influence a student’s sense of engagement with education? Why is it that the number of hours spent caring for someone who is sick is positively correlated with student engagement? How then do we need to broaden our understanding of the function of communal activity and its significant role in academic engagement?
Drama, as a subject, has always been preoccupied with the relationship between the individual and the collective. Now, it appears, we have a considerable measure of the academic boost that communal activities within and beyond school afford. Many have studied the importance of social support for young people in their academic journeys. In our study, it was social support or care given to others by young people that was positively co-related with their sense of engagement and achievement in school. This give-and-take of social support or care is clearly a significant area to pursue in future research.
At the end of our four years, the significant qualitative finding we will carry forward into future research is what we came to understand as a kind of radical hope operating in the most dire circumstances and conditions in both our Asian and our North American schools. To us, the students’ sense of community and care for each other was palpable. In Lucknow, India, 12-year-old Lakshmi described to us how their sense of community in the school and especially in the drama classroom gave the students collective strength to face the ongoing burdens of poverty and sexism:
If someone have a problem in my class we always ask her, “What problem you have, why you are so quiet, and why you are crying?” so, if tells us, so we try to solve the problem and ask her, “How can we help you?” So if she is ready to take help, so we help her.
In Toronto, Peanut described in vivid detail the many difficult challenges in her life. But school, and the hope she felt in her drama classroom, had become a way for her to imagine herself as she’d once been, before addiction and poverty so mercilessly shaped all her experiences. The aesthetic space of the drama room was paramount in her re-imagining of who she was and what she was capable of. She described the classroom as the place that allowed her to return to her “younger, more innocent self that loved to dance” before being weighed down by an unrelenting addiction.
These signs of hope have given us a deep curiosity about the place of hope for young people in a time of overlapping global crises (financial, social, political, and ecological). In our experience with students across sites, hope was not a state but a practice of the most resilient youth we met. Hope was not a commodity, not something some students had while others did not, but something that students strived for, a way of working that slowly came to circulate, often in unanticipated ways, as the struggle to create something together took hold. Through drama, a walk in “another person’s words”  became, in striking instances, the source of radical hope. How might such radical hope be more deliberately cultivated? How do teachers and students practice hope together? How does this hope live uncomfortably alongside disappointment and disengagement, other recognizable student responses to classroom pedagogy that we observed in equal measure?
Moving forward, we will pursue research to better understand the ways in which different pedagogical models of working in drama prepare students for more deliberative and active participation in public life. The relationship between their sense of civic participation in schools and civic activities in communities (both local and global) will be examined. How and why does the temporary culture of collective theatre-making work, and how do specific models of collaborative work in the drama classroom cultivate certain emotional sensibilities and demonstrate political togetherness across differences – with the potential for catalyzing broader civic engagement? Our next project will study how students transfer the resourceful and democratic ways of working in drama classrooms to the wider world. There are serious implications here for how pedagogy should be reflected upon and the real role that drama has to play in processes of democratic citizenship.
* All names of participants have been changed.
First published in Education Canada, January 2013
EN BREF - L’article traite d’une étude ethnographique internationale multisite, réalisée selon différentes méthodes, qui a porté sur l’engagement des élèves. La recherche examine de près les mécanismes subtils, simultanés et relationnels de l’engagement et du désengagement dans des lieux et espaces d’art dramatique. Échelonnée sur plusieurs années d’expériences qualitatives dans des classes du secondaire et tenant compte de deux enquêtes quantitatives multisites, l’étude brosse un vaste tableau de l’engagement dans des lieux locaux et internationaux très différents à Toronto, à Boston, à Taipei et à Lucknow. Dans les quatre endroits étudiés, qui travaillent tous avec des jeunes socioéconomiquement défavorisés, nous avons constaté que la vie dans les classes d’art dramatique – influencée par la vie hors de l’école, les pressions économiques, l’appartenance à des groupes, des expériences de langue et de migration et des politiques culturelles plus générales – exerçait une influence considérable sur l’importance que les jeunes accordent à l’apprentissage, compte tenu de la portée que nous conférons à ce terme.
 P. Brady, “Inclusionary and Exclusionary Secondary Schools: The effect of school culture on student outcomes,” Interchange 36 no. 3 (2005): 295-311.
 J. A. Fredricks, P. C. Blumenfeld, and A. H. Paris, “School Engagement: Potential of the concept, state of the evidence,” Review of Educational Research 74 no. 1 (Spring 2004): 59-109.
 Anna Deavere Smith, Twilight – Los Angeles 1992 (New York: Dramatists Play Service Incorporated, 2003).