Academic journal article English Journal

Putting Research on Stage: Playwriting in the English Classroom

Academic journal article English Journal

Putting Research on Stage: Playwriting in the English Classroom

Article excerpt

The paint of the drama studio was peeling in several places and more than a handful of ceiling tiles were missing. The stage was a mere eight inches off the ground and some sections didn't meet at the same height.

A closer look revealed much more. The audience of more than 90 students was engrossed. Some students arrived with what seemed to be an expectation of boredom but had shifted their bodies toward the stage, where student actors were performing monologues. All of the performances focused on issues of human rights, but there was a range of topics, tone, and style. At one point, Manna was on stage performing a monologue from Aja's play Footprints Aren't the Only Thing Left Behind in Zimbabwe. Aja stood tensely in the back of the room, mouthing the words that Manna spoke: "They don't even use it! They got that food lookin like a giant sand dune of unshelled nuts in dat hospital's cavernous chapel. See, they care more about the food they're getting then the medical care of the people." Manna enacted Aja's stage directions: "Brings his left hand up to his waist then shakes it to all of the syllables in the next sentence. Then brings both of his hands to his sides." These student-created performances broke through many of the unspoken, yet accepted, assumptions about research, engagement, creativity, and creation in high school.


The research unit is a well-established component of the high school English curriculum. In most classrooms the culminating project of this unit is a paper that asks students to report their research in writing. In most cases, this paper is expected to adhere to a specific structure, style, and format. Teachers have long expressed their discontent with the rigidity of the traditional research paper, yet it remains a fixture in most schools. As early as the 1980s when Ken Macrorie introduced the I-Search paper, teachers have called for alternative ways to engage students in research and argued that ELA teachers should be able to develop the required skills in more authentic and intellectually stimulating ways.

According to the NCTE/IRA (http://www ra) Standards for English Language Arts, students are expected to "Conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems" (Standard 7) and "Use a variety of technological and information resources to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge" (Standard 8). If the intent of the research paper is to ensure that students demonstrate these skills, we believe there are meaningful alternatives to the research paper.

In this article, we, a university adolescent literacy professor (Molly) and a high school humanities teacher (Joshua), offer a dynamic and multifaceted alternative to the research paper. We offer playwriting as research. We believe that playwriting, as designed and enacted in the following account, is a powerful way to teach the research project. Our approach is unique in that students are required to represent their research not only in writing but also in dramatic performance. Thus, research is not an end in itself, but rather works in the service of rich learning about human rights.

Starting with the premise that playwriting and other arts-based literacies are complex representations of research, we contend that creating opportunities for students to use rigorous research processes in the service of a creative production has implications for deepening students' capacities as researchers and integrating the arts into classrooms that are increasingly limited by test-driven pedagogies. This article presents our analysis of what happened when Joshua asked his students to conduct research on a human rights issue and represent their research in a five-scene play. We argue that asking students to enact, instead of simply report, research has implications for fostering critical inquiry and engaging students in research that matters. …

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