Letting High Schoolers Be the Playwrights They Want to Be

While I waited for the train on my first day of teaching artistry in Englewood, I had a dumb idea. I Googled “Englewood.” Englewood is allegedly the “most dangerous” neighborhood in Chicago’s Southside. The results popped up. At the top, from three hours earlier: “seven people shot this morning in Englewood. One dead.” Boop. The class started at 9 A.M. I’d be making the .7 mile walk from the train station to the school in broad daylight, but I suddenly felt a twinge of anxiety. And then on its heels, a swell of hope. I considered these “underserved” teens. How frightening that their home turf could be so unsafe, but how exciting that they were about to start a journey of artistic self-expression and social change via playwriting! I have to be totally honest: visions of a dozen arts-in-education-feel-good-movies flashed through my mind.

I teach for a program that brings in-school high school playwriting residencies to Chicago Public Schools. The curriculum works in four phases. First, students explore civic engagement and how art (specifically theatre) can play an important role in social change. Then, students get a crash course in the major Aristotelian elements of theatre. Next, each student writes and workshops a play that explores a social issue of their choice. On the last day of class, professional actors come in to perform the six  scripts selected by the classroom teacher and myself. That first day as I walked down blocks of closed shops and littered sidewalks, I imagined the plays that would be born from this class. My backpack was full of newspaper articles about police brutality, the racism of the American toy industry, and the economic disparity between the north and south sides of the city. Flash-forward forty minutes later. We had played name games, talked about how theatre can feel more present than film, and were ready to dig into the main course of the lesson plan. It was time for students to read the articles and start imagining what civic engagement they would attempt with their work.

Letting High Schoolers Write about High School Topics
I offered the police brutality article first. “I’m sure many of you are interested in Ferguson,” I said. They blinked back at me. This was November 2014. Every student, save one, was black. “Ferguson?” I repeated. Nothing. “The police brutality and then the riots?” One boy in the back made a sound like he had just woken up from a coma. “Oooh, yeah. Ferguson,” he yawned. I asked him to explain the current affairs to his classmates. He nodded, “A guy was shot a bunch of times and he wasn’t carrying a weapon, I don’t think. Or was he? No he wasn’t. Anyway, people are upset about it.” I thanked him and told everyone they should maybe check out the news. They shrugged. There was similar student response to the other articles. I asked them to freewrite about what issues were important to them. The students started enthusiastically penning some thoughts, but when it was time to share no one said “gang warfare” or “gun violence.” Most students had written about how rude people can be and how stressful senior year is. The only typical “issue” that cropped up was LGBT rights. Everything else was generic high school stuff.

For the next several class periods I gently nudged students toward what I thought they should write about. We watched a video about black prejudice. I used text examples from Raisin in the Sun. The class was responsive, but their hearts weren’t in the social change aspect of the program. During character-building exercises, they dissected young love, how to get along while working on a group project, and the anxiety of applying for college. One student started a piece about a father wanting his son to stay home all the time to do homework instead of going to parties. I asked if there was something else the father was worried about besides his son drinking. Was there a deeper message about the current state of society at the center of this play besides familial tension? This student responded matter-of-factly, “No, he’s just a normal kid.” A wave of embarrassment washed over me. Looking back, I doubt this student was disappointed in me, but I was disappointed in me.

This student wanted to write the traditional strict father/curious son narrative, and that was his right. I was raised on the Southside, but even I had completely fallen into believing the unfair narrative about the Southside by way of good intentions. It shouldn’t have seemed weird that these teens didn’t know about what I considered pertinent social issues. When I was a teenager I wasn’t watching the news every night either. It shouldn’t have been strange that the students wanted to write about the struggle of being students instead of what the rest of the city assumes are their biggest struggles. They’re normal kids. To treat them as anything different is a major disservice. And, yes, I still wanted to empower them to look outside themselves—but no more than I would encourage any high schoolers. In the end what spoke to them, what they wanted to change in the world, didn’t have to be big fat hot topic issues. Some craved more independence from siblings, others wanted to write about saying goodbye to a grandparent, jealousy between friends, the pressure of tests. The students went on to write beautiful, emotional, sincere, hilarious pieces mostly about the trials of teenage life. One play even addressed how people outside the Englewood community don’t view their home with appropriate complexity—writing it off as a problem place. I hope that wasn’t a slight to me, but I would have deserved it. Each piece was remarkable in its own way—once I stopped getting in the way. But I still had a lot to learn about letting students write what they want to write.

The students who wanted to write about a zombie apocalypse or a time travel machine or a dance off created work that was just as important to the vibrancy of the class community.

a pole at an intersection
The intersection of Englewood the author crossed to get to the school where she worked. Photo by Alice Stanley Jr.

Letting High Schoolers Write as a Method of Escapism
After my first residency, I felt much more equipped to take on my next classroom. This time I was working on the West Side—generally considered a lower-class area of Mexican immigrant families. I was teaching in a freshman history class, where contemporary global issues were being covered simultaneously. I had already learned students are far from stereotypes, but I still focused the first days of class on issues that might strike a chord with them: immigration, racism in Chicago, cartels, etc. This time the students were very interested in all the hot topics. The residency started with a bang—scenes about Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, family across borders, and the difficulty of getting work as a Mexican-American citizen. Their passion and drive was what I expected from my first residency. But, then, instead of getting fired up, many of them started to get sad. One girl specifically changed her play about racism overnight to be about grade bullying. I told her her original idea was stronger. She nodded, “But it’s my life.” The whole purpose of the program was to get students to deeply explore social issues. She had already explored racism. She had lived it. In her social studies class, the teacher spent much class time discussing borders. The current book everyone was reading in English was about a Mexican boy new to the states. She was swimming in “the issues.” Writing a play about being Latina wasn’t fun for her. The bullying play was bland, so we worked together on something she could write about that was true to her voice but didn’t make her delve into a subject that depressed her. She ended up choosing to write about food deserts since that is an issue that affects her community (and many Hispanic communities), but was something she still had to research. Other students did want to continue work on projects that hit close to home, but a majority of students didn’t. Both tracks were equally as rewarding by the time the final plays were performed. Yes, theatre is an excellent tool for social change and awareness, but it can also be an escape. The students who wanted to write about a zombie apocalypse or a time travel machine or a dance off created work that was just as important to the vibrancy of the class community. Sure, others spread awareness, but they spread joy. And joy should not be forgotten in teaching artistry!

Letting High Schoolers Write Conservative Plays
Whether students were writing for pleasure or writing for change, I finally knew how to foster both types of playwriting experiences. But one student in the next residency pushed me once again to let go of my expectations. Typically the students I work with are liberal-minded. They’re on the left of social issues, hope for more government programs to fix their schools and communities, and feel taken advantage of by big business. From nuanced topics like birth control access to general distrust of Republicans, the students and I usually agree. The point of the program is for students to create multi-dimensional and empathetic plays by truly exploring their “antagonist’s” viewpoint, but ultimately, the resolution is usually about pushing forward. And then I read Sophia’s (name changed) first draft. Sophia wanted to write a play about abstinence from sex until marriage and how teens who disagree are evil. When I read her scene about a young woman’s boyfriend asking if she wanted to get “more serious” and the boy literally explaining he was being channeled by the devil, an orchestra of sirens blared in my head. My personal feelings about “abstinence only” education and my concern for this girl who believed her body was a tool for shame overwhelmed my brain and heart. I wanted to stop class and have a long talk with all the kiddos about being safe but sexuality positive. Instead, I told Sophia I would give her feedback next class time. I took the play home and reread it.

Sometimes, plays with questionable ideas to one are exactly what another audience member needs. It’s not my job to make that call. It’s my job to let students write what they want to write and nurture them along the way.

Sophia was a mature and talented writer. She captured adolescent love in ways I had forgotten: how much it means when a crush remembers your favorite ice cream flavor, the clumsiness of hinting at sex, the way everything else can disappear the moment of first heartbreak. And Sophia was funny! This was a good play despite the message being alarming (to me, I had to keep remembering, to me). The next time we met, I asked Sophia to write a monologue from the boyfriend’s perspective. He seemed like a good guy and not Satan, so I asked her to write from the most “benefit of the doubt” place she could. The character became a little more fleshed out, but the moral of the piece was still “Sex is the worst.” That was her right. I gave feedback based on her writing skills alone, and I even recognized it was one of the best plays in class. I chose it to be included in the final showcase to be performed for her peers.

After every play we had a mini-talkback where the class discussed the techniques each playwright employed and how the play made everyone feel. Sophia’s play was the most talked about all afternoon. Students identified right away what the “message” was, and then they jumped in responding to that message. Some agreed that the protagonist was following her moral compass, and that is a good thing. Other students expressed concern that the moral was too cut and dry. They asked questions about body freedom and took the text to task. The discussion was riveting and progressive—all thanks to this play. If I had shared all my feelings and tried to influence the playwright when she wrote it, only she and I would have had a discourse about sexuality. Instead, via her honest, true to her viewpoint play, the entire class was involved. Sometimes, plays with questionable ideas to one are exactly what another audience member needs. It’s not my job to make that call. It’s my job to let students write what they want to write and nurture them along the way.

Final Reflections of Letting High Schoolers Be
It’s hardly news that arts in education bring confidence, inspiration, and joy to students. It was a newsflash for me that students already have all that stuff inside them, ready to leak out when the appropriate context is created—whether they create what I think they should or not. As a teacher I have learned what I most hope students learn through playwriting is to sincerely listen to others, respect varying viewpoints, and work hard. I now know that goes double for me.

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I don't think you should be quick to characterize the 'sexuality equals the devil' idea with political conservatism. I had a "born again" boy friend in college who said and believed this, about himself. It was less about politics and more about schizoid pathology.

Thanks for sharing this. The most impactful plays I see from young playwrights are those in which the writers are free to explore what they want to explore. That said, something that I often do early in a playwriting residency is discuss why we write. I suggest that the main purpose for writing a play (but anything, really) is to communicate with a larger group about the things that are important. This can be enough to lead some to explore, but also helps set up questions about what they feel is important enough to fight for, or something that makes them (insert emotion here), or a question that the writer would most like answered. Either way, I see some pretty interesting pieces, especially as I'm asking questions and letting the playwrights find the answers (with some support, of course).

Thank you for sharing, Alice! I can relate to some of your points from working with college students. I often think about social change and issues that students are on the brink of addressing and exploring in their work...but then they might be interested in going in a different direction—this happens frequently, actually. Although I support them, I always think, "but what if...?" However, I agree with you...playwrights have to write what they want to write and what calls out to them.

Thanks for sharing your insights, Alice! As a teaching artist in Chicago I've had similar experiences...students telling me they're bored of hearing about "issues," or they don't want to seem "stereotypical," they just wanna have fun. Letting their voices lead the way seems like it accomplishes the same end of dreaming the culture forward anyway - and issues still get addressed, in ways unique to each person. How awesome for you and your students that you've opened up to this!

Great article, Alice! I think there is a connection here with letting high school students not only write their own plays, but encouraging their peers who are mostly interested in acting to perform those plays. Much better training all around imho than yet one more High school production of CHICAGO or GREASE or DEATH OF A SALESMAN; plays that are totally out of their age range and usually promote bad acting ( and critical analysis) habits that can be difficult to break if they go on to pursue an acting major in college..

As a high school theatre teacher, I understand allowing students to explore their views and passions. I commend you for the way you approach student work. Great job!