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Why I Care
I believe that any problem in the world can be solved with increased empathy. If
we can observe the problem, connect our own existences to that problem and have the
imaginative capacity to innovate a solution for the problem, there is nothing we cannot
face together. For this reason, I entered this work, aiming to use one of my greatest
passion, the theatre, in order to give the world more of what I thought it needed:
empathy. Throughout this study, I sought to understand how playwriting activities could
help students build empathy.
As I worked with students and helped them each develop a one-act play, I saw
four major themes emerge through surveys I administered, writing I analyzed, and
interviews I conducted with the students:
1. In order to build empathy, a student must understand his or her own identity.
Playwriting is an active exploration of ones own identity.
2. Playwriting allows students to literally immerse themselves into characters. It
allows them to step into someone elses shoes.
3. Playwriting critique encourages students to understand the intent of the
creator. Playwriting encourages critical questioning. Good questions seek
understanding, and thats the heart of empathy.
4. There is a progression to building empathy: Understand self, be understood,
understand others.

I quote Pixars Andrew Stanton a lot because he said something during a lecture
that really resonated with me and helped my own writing immensely. Its a simple rule
of storytelling: Make me care. And truly, isnt this what all education is? Shouldnt
every class in every school in every state and country be striving to make students
Playwriting is a chance for students to show us what matters. Its a chance for
each child to show what he or she individually cares about by asking them to explore the
inner workings of their own identities through the task of writing a play. When I ask
students to write a play, I am asking them: What do you care about?
The playwriting process is an iterative one, and it allows for each playwright to
spot his or her own mistakes. There are no right answers here, simply suggestions that
either connect to the playwrights vision or do not. When we ask students to revise a
play, we are asking them: Why should other people care about this?
Most importantly to me, playwriting is an invitation to explore the impossible. It
is a process where anything in the universe can happen, and well believe it. When we,
together with students, walk through the creative process of writing a play, we are
saying: Now that we both care about this, how can we imagine together?

Practical Use
Theatre has always had a funny type of function in my life, and Ive known that
there was something very special about if from the first time a traveling acting troupe
entered my school auditorium when I was in second grade. Theatre is storytelling on its
feet, and the way that there is someone literally in front of you breathing and telling this

tale differentiates it from film and television where you could fall asleep or check out
without hurting anyones feelings.
On a practical level as a classroom teacher, there are three things that I feel like
are the choruses to the song of my playwriting project--things that I repeat over and
over again to my kids that I often find them repeating them to other students, and they
become class mantras as we walk through the creative process together.
First, I talk about
suspension of disbelief
and I ask my students to sustain our
suspension of disbelief. You can imagine whatever kind of world you want, but you must
be consistent, or we will stop believing you. This function of theatre captures the
essences of the three traits of empathy in this study: 1) Let me observe a consistent
world, 2) Because then I will believe it, 3) and Ill imagine with you and go along with
your story.
Second, I talk about honesty. Honesty is different from non-fiction. For me and
my students, it doesnt mean that what youre talking about is scientifically accurate or
even physically possible. It means that you are true to whatever youve written because
youve written from the heart, and there is something in the piece that you truly
understand from the core of your being. Theres a magical quote from a great educator
that I tie to this one as well. Albus Dumbledore said, Of course it is happening inside
your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?
Alongside this study, I have developed a series of lesson plans for use in
classrooms. Ive developed all the activities that, if done consecutively one after the
other, will lead to the writing of a one act play. Ive done my best to design each activity

in isolation as well, so that in case its scary to take on a theatre task without theatre
background, you can start with something simple and stand alone and see if you like it.
Ive taught in several schools, and while I have the good fortune of teaching at a
school that asks me to teach my passions, I understand that many teachers are tied to
standards, and that many administrators will ask you to defend what you are doing by
reciting out the numbers that correlate to the standards that your activities are teaching
toward. For this reason, I have also provided the 9-12 Common Core Literacy Standards
that each activity addresses. I want this work to be usable not only in learning
environments like mine, but by any classroom teacher who wants to use this work to
build empathy.
We know that theatre can be effectively used as a medium of education
(Bhattacharyya, 2013, p. 5). This is true both the standard driven reading and writing
way, as well as the way where we believe in growth mindsets and that students can be
educated with attributes like love, compassion and empathy.
Here are some of my favorite, but very simple, activities to do with kids, that you
can do immediately after putting down this study:

Overheard Conversation
(Building Empathy Trait: *The Art of Observation)
The way we talk to one another is fascinating. Go out into the world and find two or
three people who are having a conversation and transcribe it on a piece of paper to your
best possible ability. When it translates onto the page, does it look like theatre? Why or

why not? Whats different about the way we talk versus the way characters speak
onstage? Why do you think its important to note these differences?

What If?
(Building Empathy Trait: *Imaginative Capacity)
Set a timer for five minutes and invite students to ask as many What if questions as
possible. Invite them to ask things they are genuinely curious about. Invite them to ask
things that are utterly impossible. The important thing is that there are no limits on
what they can ask, and that they continue writing for the duration of the five minutes,
even if the questions are getting ridiculous or repetitive. Invite them to turn off the critic
in their heads and allow the creator to create.

Setting Brainstorm
(Building Empathy Trait: *The Ability to Connect)
Step one: 1. Invite students to list as many places as they possibly can in five minutes.
The places can be as broad or specific as possible. The important thing is that they are
continuing to build the list for the duration of the five minutes.
Step two: In literature and history, we talk about conflict a lot. Look at your settings and
find a setting that you can add details to to make it rich with conflict. For example, turn
An office building into On the rooftop of the office building, looking at your toes
dangling over the edge

Of course, each of these activities is helping to build all three empathy traits in
one way or another. It is also important to note that sharing with one another has been a

very key part of writing a play in my class, but I never force it. I often say, We are going
to share something from this next round, so be prepared, before starting a new quick
write activity, and this has helped prepare shyer students who will, with the preemptive
knowledge of what comes next, write something that he or she is comfortable sharing
with the entirety of the group. However, if a student is still too shy to share, I personally
would not push the issue, simply because the safety of the room is more important than
the isolated incident of a brief sharing out. It is simply a sign to me that Ive got to work
on the culture more, until we are truly a group of creative writers together.
Lila Watson once said, If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time.
But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us walk
together.... The safety of the room has always been of priority to me. There is something
about the culture of sharing our vulnerable selves with one another through our writing
that is akin to poetry itself. This sharing part of theatre has always made theatre
different from other mediums of fiction for me. Its not something to be enjoyed in the
corners of our own imaginations. We are meant to share theatrical experiences with one
another. We dont need to explain them; we dont need to defend them, though no one is
telling us not to. In a theatre, we are asked, only, to experience something together, and
with each shared experience, theatrical or not, small or large, we are unlocking tiny
doors to our empathetic selves.


While I loved having a diverse group of kids in certain measuresI had students
with IEPs and 504s and students without them, a pretty good gender balance, a few
students of color, students of three different grade levels, etc.there were some
limitations to this work. This study was conducted with only 14 students over the course
of only 12 40-minute class periods. This means that this study comes with several
limitations: 1. Small sample size, 2. Lack of a control group, 3. Short period of time to
see any significant shifts in mindsets.
I have to admit that I was rather disappointed to see several empathy quotient
survey scores drop at the end of the study. While the majority of the students grew their
empathy quotient scores throughout the study, there was one student whose score
stayed the same and four students whose scores went down. There are limitations in
survey data like this, of course, especially since this study was conducted with high
school students. There are extenuating circumstances of one kind or another in every
single students case, and at the end of the day, I had them for forty minutes a day three
times, sometimes two times a week. There were many other classes, life events, and
other situations that filled the other 23 hours and 15 minutes of the days that I got to see
them, so ultimately, I cannot say for sure if the growth on the empathy quotient survey
had anything to do with the playwriting experience.
However, the majority of the students empathy quotient scores
improve and
I think this is a celebration in and of itself. Overall, at the end of the study, I had a group
of kids who cared just a little bit more.

Further Questions
I would be curious to see this work created with a larger sample of students over a
longer period of time. I often wondered how much of what I was doing with students
helped their empathy because of the playwriting activities themselves and how much of
them were growing their empathy because of the small, intimate size of the group.
Getting to know people in a significant way across grade levels, socio-economic status,
gender and color helps build empathy in and of itself, and this group was small enough
to truly get to know one another and become curious about one another.

What about the students whose empathy scores did not increase?

I would be curious to see the rate of empathy growth in students with

Aspergers/Autism versus students not on the spectrum. How is teaching
empathy to students with Aspergers/Autism different? Is it different?

What other activities lend themselves to teaching students empathy?

Are these findings applicable to other forms of writing? How would this work
look different if students were writing short stories or collections of poetry?
Would it be as effective? I was curious several times throughout the study about
my own personal biases as a theatre lover.

I entered this work because of two truths I thoroughly believe. #1:

kids are mean.
During my own childhood, empathy seemed to be a natural byproduct of
schooling. We were forced to interact with one another. When we were assigned group
projects; we were forced to go to one anothers houses in order to complete the work. We
learned, one way or another, which behaviors were acceptable and which behaviors were
We are all, at heart, good
. I think goodness can be enhanced. I think it is
possible to nurture love the way we nurture gardens, pulling at weeds and allowing the
flowers to grow. I think our imaginations are so much more vast than we will ever have
the potential to know in our lifetimes. And in my small way, through my large love of
playwriting, I can prove this second claim true one play at a time.