Beating the Bystander Effect: Part III, Theatre of the Oppressed

One method for helping students beat the bystander effect is to allow them space to practice acting–and reacting. Theatre of the Oppressed (in particular, Forum theatre), is one way to do this. Developed by Brazilian actor Augusto Boal in the 1950s and 1960s, the games and techniques used in this type of theater can be excellent tools for engaging students of all ages and levels.

The goal of Theatre of the Oppressed in general is to break down the traditional barriers between audience and actors. Forum theatre, in particular, encourages audience members to intervene in the action that’s going on before them, usually to help the action move closer towards justice.  Boal himself referred to spectators as “spect-actors.” It’s worth noting here that Boal’s work was highly influenced by that of the radical educator Paolo Freire, writer of Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

While there’s plenty of theory to be read on the subject, and many variations out there now, the quick and dirty summary goes something like this: a scenario is played out, usually one with an example of oppression or injustice. Together, the actors and spectators intervene in order to address–and heal–the oppression taking place.

And it comes with a lot of student-friendly theater games, meant to help participants learn how to work together before they tackle the heavier issues.

The Resources:

To get started right away:

The Southern Poverty Law Center has a two-part resource, the initial article, “Flipping the Script on Bias and Bullies,” and a four-day lesson plan entitled “Circle Sculpture” for 6th-8th grade students.

“Flipping the Script” has a great example of an oppression scenario in action–and how the audience can respond.

“You people!” the cafeteria worker barks. “You come to this country, and you think it’s a free lunch.” She stands over the students, in her hair net and scrubs, glaring down at them. The kids, all students of color, sit at the table in a mixture of disbelief and outrage. Free lunch is indeed the issue. One of the students is on the school’s free lunch program, and he was sharing his meal with another student — a violation of lunchroom rules. The act has uncorked a hidden stream of volatile feelings in the white cafeteria worker. She snatches the lunchroom tray from the students, who respond with disrespectful words of their own. Soon the whole group is in the principal’s office, facing a lecture.

But then something amazing happens. A Latina grandmother shouts “Stop!”

Things do indeed stop. Because the office is not really an office — it’s a set on a stage. The principal and cafeteria worker aren’t really school employees — they’re students, playing theatrical roles. Only the grandmother is real. And now she’s climbing from the audience to the stage, eyeballing the “principal” coldly.

“You need to listen,” she says, with steel in her voice.

The lesson plan, “Circle Sculpture,” contains four days worth of warm up games, follow up questions, and various other Theatre of the Oppressed exercises. There are clear instructions for bringing in present-day scenarios. The curriculum also acknowledges that these types of exercises can present their own classroom challenges.

The first step this multi-day lesson involves safety and trust building. Take special care while guiding the activities to ensure that each student feels valued and heard, and that all opinions, thoughts, and feelings are considered equal.

Remember, once trust has been established, the community’s growth and learning can be both rapid and deep. At the conclusion of these activities, students can emerge with a shared experience that is powerful and transformational. Trust the process, your students and yourself.


To learn a little bit more history, along with some great theater exercises:

For those interested in a professional development approach, Organizing for Power has notes from a teacher training session, “Augusto Boal’s FORUM THEATRE for teachers,” led by Susie MacDonald and Daniel Rachel. The workshop was a part of the 2000 Athens Conference.

These notes include step by step rules for Forum theatre, notes on the traditional role of the Joker, a great list of theater games and exercises, and notes on two Forum theater scenarios that were used at the conference itself.

We can’t recommend enough their list of techniques, games, and rules for anyone who wants to put together their own lesson or unit.


Beating the Bystander Effect: Part II

For older kids and adult students, The Atlantic‘s City Lab has a six-step guide for standing up to a bigoted attack. This article dates from 11/15/16; it’s written with an eye to recent events and increases in harassment and hate attacks.

Notable here is step 4, detailing why it won’t always be the right strategy to contact authorities.

Doug Meyer, a gender studies scholar at the University of Virginia and the author of Violence Against Queer People: Race, Class, Gender, and the Persistence of Anti-LGBT Discrimination, says that if you witness a verbal or physical assault on a person of color and/or a LGBTQ individual—identities which are obviously not mutually exclusive—it’s crucial to tread carefully before getting an authority figure on the scene. “They might have had negative experiences in the past and don’t want it reported to the police,” he says. In any circumstance, make sure that the victim is safe before doing anything else—and then check to see what they’re most comfortable with.

United for Intercultural Action, a “European network against nationalism, racism, fascism, and in support of migrants and refugees,” has a guide/lesson plan for practicing some of these interventions. Scenarios include addressing racist attacks on the bus and in the pub , and the guide does a good job of breaking down the preparation, scene, and analysis steps to successfully conducting the exercises.

Often civil courage is associated with bravery, valor and heroism. But acting courageously often begins in everyday situations. Civil courage is not about playing the hero. It means listening to your inner voice telling you that something has happened which is not right and that you should do something against it.

This leaflet is about the need to “do something”. It shows why civil courage is needed and how it can be trained.

The resource also has a ten-step summary of what people can do in these situations. They also nod to Theater of the Oppressed and the way that theater games can provide a safe space for rehearsing these kinds of situations before they occur.

Next up, how Theater of the Oppressed can be especially useful today.


Beating the Bystander Effect: Part I

Reports of hate crimes and harassment have increased since the election. Several places are tracking these reports; a great place to get a current picture is the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hate Watch. (To note, as expected, this link does contain offensive language and racial slurs.)

How do we prepare students to resist this kind of social situation? One way is by teaching about the bystander effect. This is the first in a short series of posts about ways to model and rehearse effective intervention with studentshopefully before they are in a situation where they need to act.

First up is an article from The Greater Good that includes both notes on research, observations on how the bystander effect plays out across developmental stages in young children, and some tips on teaching kids to move into action.

Research points to a number of ways we can do this:

  • Explicit teaching. “It might be a good idea to teach children about the bystander effect and its consequences, and responsibility in helping situations, from early in development,” says Plötner. Other research suggests that explicitly communicating responsibility and singling out children individually (“I will be counting on you”) increases their helping.
  • Modeling. Preschoolers are more helpful and sympathetic to children who hurt themselves if their own caregivers display kindness and compassion. “It could be helpful if authorities model helping in bystander situations, so that children learn about the positive consequences of such actions,” adds Plötner.
  • Environmental cues. In one study, simply exposing children to a subtle image of two dolls facing each other was enough to increase helping in 18-month-olds. Schools could use that kind of imagery, along with slogans like “It’s my job to help,” to create a kinder environment.

And from Quartz, here’s a basic step-by-step procedure appropriate for older students about how to intervene safely in a racist attack. This article is short and includes some great concrete tips that high schoolers in particular might find helpful.

  • Speak only from your own perspective. Too often people start speaking for the person who is being attacked. This stops the victim from speaking up, who is likely to do so if he or she finds support from bystanders. For instance, if a person is being abused for wearing a hijab, don’t say that the victim does so because of her religion. Instead, speak about how people have the freedom to choose how they dress.
  • Ask others to help. In most situations, you are likely to outnumber the attacker.
  • Use your camera. Racial attacks are a criminal offense in most countries. If you don’t feel comfortable engaging directly, you can record the event on your phone. This could be vital evidence to punish the perpetrator in the future.

More to come!