Tearing down school walls

Teacher Action Group and Simpatico Theatre present Philly Education Stories’

5 minute read
Both students and teachers were challenged to understand the others’ point of view in ‘Philly Education Stories.’ (Photo by M. Asli Dukan.)
Both students and teachers were challenged to understand the others’ point of view in ‘Philly Education Stories.’ (Photo by M. Asli Dukan.)

A cursory look at Philadelphia education headlines paint a dire picture: “Shuttered school turned into condo.” “Steady drops in funding persist.” “No Libraries or Nurses.” “Asbestos.” From the outside, the situation seems depressing at best and hopeless at worst. Philly Education Stories, a devised theater piece co-created by Philadelphia public-school students and teachers thanks to a partnership between Simpatico Theatre and Philly’s Teacher Action Group, might confirm your worst fears and anger, but it also spotlighted solidarity and hope.

Real-world connections

I was not surprised at the passion or power of Philly Education Stories, but I’m curious about why this group of teachers and students chose to perform it. In an age of viral social media campaigns, powerful union agitation, and polemical communication, a group of students and educators sat down together, talked about the issues, and then devised, rehearsed, and performed a piece of theater.

For the past decade, Teacher Action Group ‒ Philadelphia (TAG) has been a gathering place for educators, parents, nurses, counselors, and community members to learn from each other, organize, and imagine a better school system. They run member-led professional development around topics like “Math and Social Justice” and “Mindfulness for Teachers.” They have also helped charter-school teachers unionize. After years of work in the streets, cofounder Anissa Weinraub decided to combine her work as a theater-maker with her work as an educator and activist.

The process, not the product

Weinraub, a theater teacher and drama department head at the Academy at Palumbo, was inspired by a residency held by the California-based Cornerstone Theater Company. With Cornerstone, Weinraub was working on theatrical projects written alongside and about community. She decided it was time to bring this work to TAG by engaging in a “multi-phase project.”

To bring Philly Education Stories to life, TAG partnered with Simpatico Theatre, led by artistic director Allison Heishman. When Weinraub asked around about getting started, she said, “Literally everyone in my community was like, ‘talk to Allison!’”

Heishman was more than happy to collaborate on this project, which she called “completely in line with Simpatico’s mission and my personal goal to really make work that is both of the community and for the community. So not just looking at social justice as a product, but as a process.”

Finding the stories

Philly Education Stories started with story circles. Through the course of eight story circles, Weinraub and other TAG members convened more than 100 educators and students. To maximize the numbers of voices being heard, she partnered with the Philadelphia Student Union and led a district-wide professional development session. Questions for educators included “What is your purpose? Why are you an educator? What gets in your way?” Students got their own questions, like “What are stories and experiences of care [at school]? When have you felt cared about? When have you felt mistreated at school? Where is school missing the mark?”

With 12 hours of compiled audio material, the theater-making began. First, about 15 people came together for synthesis sessions to explore the themes in these stories. At this point in the process, Weinraub directed participants to bring out these ideas through devising strategies and theater games. Last summer, over the course of three workdays, 20 adults and youths put this piece together. According to Weinraub, it was “an intergenerational space of co-creation. We saw people really embody their experiences…[and] practice accountability for ways in which they have actually created harm in the past.”

In that space, Weinraub explained, adults were able to recognize past mistakes. They also reckoned with “the harm that’s committed just by being compliant with a dehumanizing schooling system.”

‘Philly Education Stories’ sought collective answers to systemic isolationism in our education system. (Photo by M. Asli Dukan.)
‘Philly Education Stories’ sought collective answers to systemic isolationism in our education system. (Photo by M. Asli Dukan.)

Students, too, reflected on their own misconceptions and mistakes. Weinraub described it as “a movement toward solidarity where we heard students say, ‘I always thought teachers were the enemy. Now I realize we have more in common than we have against each other. There is something larger at play that we need to be in this together to fight.’”

Collective understanding

While activists and school leaders are making great strides in education across the country in recent years through traditional labor tactics, it is clear that artistically driven forms of community activism are effective as well. Current neoliberal education reform measures focus on the individual. Students must work to reach proficiency, or they have failed. Teachers need to teach the curriculum or they have failed. What TAG and Simpatico have created is a communitarian response to these measures. Weinraub felt that Philly Education Stories “shows the ugliness of that isolationism and individualism and helps us move toward a larger collective understanding of the systemic nature of the problem.”

“What about tomorrow?”

Twenty-five students, educators, and teaching artists brought Philly Education Stories to life in November. The first two-thirds of the show used traditional theater structure (musical numbers, scenes, movement) to showcase the often heartbreaking absurdity of life in the public school system. We saw students’ needs get ignored, teachers get overworked, administrators miss the forest for the trees. The audience I joined chuckled along with knowing frustration.

This all came to a stunning climax as students literally tore down the school bell and the school walls to reveal a brighter future. For the last portion of the performance, the fourth wall broke as students and educators honestly and openly shared what they experience in their roles at school every day. The play ends with “what about tomorrow?”

The ending served as a call to action and reason for hope. As Weinraub put it, “There’s no happy bow. There’s nothing easy about this. It’s actually on us.” Teachers, students, parents, and community members need to fight for better and fairer schools for our city.

School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Dr. William Hite came to the closing performance as a guest of City Councilmember Helen Gym, an encouraging show of commitment for Philly students and teachers to witness. The show’s purpose was almost “diagnostic,” Weinraub said, and “must we act next if we want a transformed education system.” I hope those in power listened to what these theater-makers had to say.

What, When, Where

Philly Education Stories. Presented by Teacher Action Group ‒ Philadelphia and Simpatico Theatre. November 10 and 11, 2019, at Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th Street, Philadelphia.

Theatre Exile is an ADA-compliant venue with gender-neutral restrooms.

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