Table of Contents

  • Free Editorial

    Just Math

    By the editors of Rethinking Schools
  • Free Whose Community Is This?

    Mathematics of neighborhood displacement

    By Eric (Rico) Gutstein

    Students use advanced math to study gentrification, displacement, and foreclosure in their neighborhood.

  • Transparency of Water

    A workshop on math, water, and justice

    By Selene Gonzalez-Carillo, Martha Merson

    Community educators bring math into an intergenerational exploration of the environmental, political, and economic issues surrounding bottled versus tap water.

  • Free Beyond Marbles

    Percent change and social justice

    By Flannery Denny

    Middle school students analyze a classroom full of social justice issues, armed with their understanding of percent change.

  • Other Features
  • Free Responding to Tragedy

    2nd graders reach out to the Sikh community

    By Dale Weiss

    When a racist attack kills members of a local Sikh temple, a 2nd-grade teacher involves her students in a journey of connection and solidarity.

  • An Unfortunate Misunderstanding

    Saga of a promising new charter

    By Grace Gonzales

    Helping create an independent charter school seems like a dream job. But teachers, parents, and children soon confront all-too-familiar charter school woes.

  • Creative Conflict

    Collaborative playwriting

    By Kathleen Melville

    A high school drama teacher searches for ways to encourage students to write about their lives without replicating stereotypes.

  • “Hey, Mom, I Forgive You”

    Teaching the forgiveness poem

    By Linda Christensen

    An English teacher builds community as her students write a poem about forgiving or not forgiving. She starts with her own story.

  • A Pure Medley

    Poetry By Adeline Nieto
  • Free Paradise Lost

    Introducing students to climate change through story

    By Brady Bennon

    The film Paradise Lost - about the rising ocean that threatens Kiribati - proves an evocative introduction to a unit on climate change.

  • Departments Free
    Action Education
  • Seattle Test Boycott: Our Destination Is Not on the MAP

    By Jesse Hagopian
  • Good Stuff
  • Encounters

    By Herb Kohl
  • Resources
  • Our picks for books, videos, websites, and other social justice education resources.

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Creative Conflict

Collaborative playwriting
Creative Conflict
Colin Matthes

The conflict in my classroom was explosive: defiant teenagers, raging parents, broken promises, betrayal among friends. Students were on their feet, shoving furniture, glaring menacingly, raising their voices. As I surveyed the room, part of me was very pleased.

In some ways, the project this class had undertakencreating collaborative plays about issues important in students' liveswas going very well. The students, 20 high school seniors, seemed engaged and invested in the work, from brainstorming and improvising to writing and revising. The class had read and watched a variety of dramatic pieces, and students had already written and performed some excellent monologues and short scenes. For this unit, we had started by generating an exhaustive list of themes and issues that interested students in the class. In the end, the students narrowed the list down to three topicspeer pressure, sexuality, and domestic abuseand formed collaborative playwriting groups to explore each issue and create original plays.

The students were also proving that they had a clear understanding of one of the foundational concepts in playwritingconflict. For the purposes of playwriting in our class, I had defined conflict in this way:

Conflict = want + obstacle

In order for an interesting conflict to develop, a character must have a want or need (for example, a young woman wants to play basketball), and there must also be something or someone standing in the way (for example, her grandma forbids her to leave the house). Students agreed that conflict is what makes drama interesting, and they quickly learned to incorporate it into the scenes they wrote in class.

The Conflict

In the midst of this creative process, however, I was troubled. Many of the scenes being enacted in the room were scenes of violence, and it was hard for me to watch my students play this out. Some of the violence I saw in students' work was physical violence taking place between characters. In one scene, two young women attacked each other in a dispute over a young man; in another, a mother beat her teenage daughter. I also noticed some vicious verbal abuse among characters who were spouses, siblings, and classmates. Given the topics students had chosen to explore, including peer pressure and domestic abuse, the violence was not surprising. I was committed to giving students authorial and creative control, but I still worried about the impact of these representations of violence, both on my student playwrights and on a potential audience of community members. What would it say about my students if they wrote and performed plays full of verbal and physical violence? Wouldn't it reinforce some of the most pernicious stereotypes about urban youth?

The first and simplest answer that occurred to me was to censor their work. I knew that if I tried this, they would lose some of their passion for playwriting, and we would all lose some of the integrity of the creative process.

As a teacher, I was facing an important conflict. My want was for my students to experience the power of creative, collaborative work. I hoped that writing plays would give them an opportunity to develop their voices and explore complex issues with one another. I imagined plays that could provide a more nuanced, authentic view of my students' lives than a media that often portrays urban youth as reckless and destructive. The obstacle in my way was that their work, in fact, resembled many of the TV shows and movies that I hated for their flat, negative portrayals of young people. How could I push their thinking beyond the stereotypes they saw in the media? How could I bring this conflict in my teaching to a productive resolution?

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