I hear from many theatre teachers who do not fundamentally trust their students, and whose students do not trust each other. Teaching drama is a tough job because the rules of a typical classroom often don’t quite fit. Trust in the theatre classroom cannot be a state without boundaries, but it is entirely fundamental to the process of teaching a good class and allowing students to truly thrive and grow. No amount of contracts, posted rules, or forced participation through points can create this for you. Restricting your students access to the bathroom, tallying their tardies, and punishing them with the gradebook will not make them trust you, unless you are also creating a curriculum where they don’t want to miss a minute. Fostering an atmosphere of intense competition constructed from unfair comparisons and favoritism will also not help your room. If you’re strict, that’s cool. If you believe you are creating discipline in your students by controlling these little personal behaviors, maybe you are. But if they don’t feel right, and you can, try making it a bit easier on yourself and on them. If you are just, they will trust.
Being just is different than than being fair. Being just means differentiating learning, and juggling multiple interactions with your students. It means giving students opportunities to monitor their own behavior, to self soothe, to take care of each other, and to promote from within. It means you don’t allow your room to be taken over or students to be systemically ostracized. It means creating a physically and psychologically safe space, and confronting it when you or students make it unsafe, and restoring it to that place of safety.
You create trust in your room through establishing an atmosphere of trust through the practice of trust exercises, being trustworthy and expecting trustworthiness in return. Trust exercises are only one part of that.
First of all, if you’re playing whole group games with your students, trust is already building, as long as you’re working with them on inclusion and cooperation. If you feel sheepish or uncomfortable about working with your students on the concept of trust, it will shine through. If you don’t trust them to trust each other, well, that’s something to think about. They’ve seen a lot of Youtube videos where people have fallen down. So start small and build, using the WHOLE GROUP to connect into raising, rather than falling, trust.
I used to give blindfolds to students and let them lead each other around the campus in pairs. I used to fill rooms full of obstacles and let them coach each other across. Both of those activities were overly time consuming, sloppy, and there was always some kid who ran into something, and that’s obviously not what we want.
So I suggest the following sequence.
Stand in a circle. Invite students to remain quiet and sense when it’s time to “run in”, towards the center of the circle. Tell them don’t signal, don’t make eye contact, just try to feel when. They will quickly try to go before they feel anything. Pull them back. Tell them to take a deep breath, wait, and….they’ll try it again. Do this a few times. Praise them for going all at the same time.
CROSS THE CIRCLE
Stand in a circle. Students cross the circle one at a time, again without signalling. Just feeling the room. This does two things. It helps the students pay attention to their own impulse, to the impulse of the group, and it mixes up the group, which breaks up cliques who like to stand next to each other and distract each other.
Stand in a circle. You go first. Yes, you. You close your eyes, and say, “Hey, kids, notice that I am crossing the circle, and that my eyes are closed. When I reach the edge of the circle, please reach out and gently redirect me by quickly touching my shoulder.”
You will reach the edge. You will feel a tentative little shove on your shoulder. It will send you walking to the other side, where you will feel it again. Do this a couple more times and then open your eyes and ask who wants to go . Let everyone go who wants to. Do not talk while the student’s eyes are closed and they are being redirected. It feels scary. Be vigilant about sharp corners or breaks in the circle. Make it clear that we are keeping people safe.
I have never been hurt or humiliated during this exercise, and I’ve done it many times with many groups of students. I have never had a student hurt during it either. If the unthinkable should happen and a kid should shove too hard, which sometimes students do to their friends, meaning to be playful. stop the exercise, ask the overly zealous shover to step out of the room and settle down, and keep going with at least one more student so that they get that this is important and worthwhile. If that’s impossible, shelve it and repeat it the next day. Move on to Brags and Accomplishments below.
But if this went well, move on to:
This exercise is from the teacher’s manual to an old textbook called THEATRE, ART IN ACTION published by Glencoe McGraw Hill. You may be able to get a used copy online by poking around. It contains numerous interesting exercises and projects. I always start this exercise by bringing up unpleasant Youtube trust fall videos. So that I can assure them that that’s not what we’re going to do.
Go to four circles, or groups of at least ten and not more than twelve. Ask for a volunteer, a young woman if possible, because young women have more trouble with this exercise. Ask them to lie down on the floor, feet together, arms crossed across their chest.
Station one person at their head, hands underneath it. Another person goes to their feet, hands pressing down on the tops of their shoes. At least three people go to each side, hands flat under their back, upper and lower legs.
The control of this exercise begins with the person being lifted. They say “One, Two Three”, and then the group lifts them TO STANDING by holding down their feet and raising them to a vertical position.
In their circles, ask for 2/3 of the group to participate. When they are done, tell them to sit on the floor.
Ask them what it was like if they went, or if they didn’t.
The next day, you can try
RAISING TRUST TOO
Same exact exercise and setup, only this time, after the student is raised to standing, the other students keep their hands where they are and guide the student back down to the floor.
PROBLEMS WITH RAISING TRUST AND HOW TO COMBAT THEM
The person being lifted bend their knees and try to help while coming up, resulting in a botched lift. Monitor and encourage them to take a deep breath and repeat.
Larger students don’t feel they can be easily lifted or experience a botched lift. in my experience, most students can be lifted if they allow themselves to be. Encourage everyone to pitch in to help. Big kids need body confidence as much as we all do. Deep breath, repeat.
Female students feel uncomfortable. Address this before you repeat this exercise. Call it like you see it. Make sure groups are as equal as possible with regards to gender. Ask the students if they want to be in a classroom where half of the people can’t do one of the exercises because of fear. They will say no. Stress to students that even casual comments about someone’s body while they are in a lift can cause the person to feel like they are unsafe.
3 GOALS, 3 BRAGS
If all went well, your students are now sitting in nice little discussion circles. Hand out index cards or half sheets and pencils. Have students write down three things they could brag about and three goals they have for themselves this year. THEY DO NOT HAVE TO BE RELATED TO SCHOOL. Let students share something from the card, either a brag or a share, with each other. Float around and don’t really listen too hard.
Drama students need to know they can trust the room, a small group, or another individual with information, emotions, and their working body. These exercises can bring them closer to getting to that place. You can help bring them the rest of the way.