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.
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?