Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Making Invisible Intersectionality Visible through Theater of the Oppressed in Teacher Education

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Making Invisible Intersectionality Visible through Theater of the Oppressed in Teacher Education

Article excerpt

   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. …

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