Creative ways to teach historical social change

Aileen Gonsalves tells us how drama techniques can be used to help students understand the perspectives of historical figures fighting for change

7 June 2021

In this series of blogs, the writers of our Teaching for Creativity education resources explain how they chose which curriculum and topic area to focus their resource on, and how this works together with teaching creative habits.

Speeches that changed the world is a history resource for Key Stages 2 and 3, focusing on the creative habit of persistence from Butterfly Theatre Company.

The resource explores historic figures through their speeches that shaped and are shaping history: Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Mary Prince, and Malala Yousafzai. Using the approaches of an actor to inhabit the life of a character, and interpreting the thoughts and feelings of the people involved in past events from our own point of view, takes young people a step closer to understanding them. In exploring these figures and the powerful speeches they made, pupils will be fuelled to explore their own sense of justice, what they feel strongly about, and what speech they will create for themselves.

Why we chose to focus on this topic

I realised this year something about diversity. I am of Goan heritage but was born in Kenya and came to the UK as a refugee in the ‘70s. I was brought up in a very white, middle class town in Berkshire. I have often felt on the outside of things. Either I was too brown or not brown enough. My voice is very English sounding and people often get surprised when they meet me as my name Aileen comes from my mum’s best friend - an Irish nun in Kenya! Plus my surname is distinctly Porgtuguese influenced, as Goa was run by the Portuguese until the 60s.

All these historical influences and circumstances have created me. All these moments in history and events that led me to where I am now. As we know but don’t often consider, everyone is unique. There is nobody like you on this whole planet of 7 billion people. No one like you in the whole of human history or the future of humanity. And what that means is not only do you look different from everyone else, but your point of view is different. The way you see, smell, hear, taste, touch, feel and understand the world is unique. This also surely means your contribution is unique if you answer a question in class, if you say anything at all that is a thing that no one else could have said at that time. Therefore, if you don’t contribute to this world your thoughts, ideas, opinions, suggestions, insights or discoveries - the world will not have it. As only you can bring it because you are unique.

If everyone is utterly unique then diversity surely means every person is different. We cannot lump people together and so must treat people individually. I think teachers have an advantage here in that teachers know they have to treat everyone as individuals. This requires us all to really listen and see each person and each moment more mindfully. It also means we recognise people have diverse points of view and so the ability to communicate becomes paramount.

Why it's important

Teaching the skills of communication and inspiring each other to consider our differing point of view is essential if we are to stop just living in our bubbles.

Social media character counts mean we need to get even more adept at expressing our points succinctly and that is exactly what great speeches have to do. Seeing video footage of historical speeches that we know are not contaminated by being adulterated by computer editing, which is more possible these days, or we can trust more as being actually what someone said and have not the dubiousness of the ‘fake news’ stamp, are really helpful as the authenticity is what really shines through. Listening to a speech from an authentic speaker, even if crafted to make a particular point, can really help us feel what they actually felt in our own hearts, minds and bodies – we actually resonate with them. My company Butterfly Theatre Company are devoted to creating authentic performances that make our audiences feel something real moment to moment, so they actually go on the cathartic journey and experience the dilemmas with the character whether that's Macbeth, Juliet or Martin Luther King Jr.

It is true that an individual can change the world and the speakers we looked at in our resource did just that. Teachers and parents often talk about walking in other people's shoes to understand them. In Butterfly we talk about looking through the eyes of the characters we are portraying and seeing what they see; feeling what they feel; and understanding their ‘need to speak’. This helps us really relate to them and we want to speak and fight for whatever they are fighting for.

Learning how to be persistent

We all feel injustice however relatively small in our own lives. Young people feel it particularly amongst sibling rivalries and in a classroom environment. That is why the teenager’s cliched clarion call of ‘that’s not fair’ is something we can all relate to. Young people are very dependent on other people’s agendas. Babies cry to get things they need but once people can speak, they can use words to convince people to do things that they need them to do. As young people grow older, they get more adept at this. Watching a teenager try to get money from their parents to go to a party that ‘everyone else is going to’, you can really see when it matters, when the stakes are high, they have a lot of verbal dexterity and an extraordinary ability to see clearly if the other person is coming around to their argument. They read clearly the body language and tone of voice to see if their way of persuading is working. If it is, they keep going or if it’s faltering or failing, they change tactics.

When the issue is one that they have a strong point of view about, this is when their instinct for injustice and unfairness kicks in. They will need to find that persistence when the ‘world’ is against them like the various speakers in the resource. Like when they feel wrongly accused of something it gives them their need to speak. The great speeches of our time are simply grown from that need to speak up. The speakers use their ability to see clearly if it's working or not and respond from the point of view of their objective and then use their language, choice of words and particularly rhetorical devices and expression to get what they want.

Using the speeches in this resource, students can inhabit figures from history to see clearly through their eyes and respond honestly from their point of view. Speeches are particularly useful as you can encourage students to use the words to get their objective, which allows them to look at the devices around rhetoric and structure, in which to express their passions.

Thinking of the future

We would like as a company to look further into creating resources around approaching real life figures from history as if they were characters from a play. In order to bring these people fully to life, we’d use our same unique Butterfly Theatre ‘Five Conditions’: the real-life objectives, stakes and entitlement; the need to speak to that particular audience at that time; and making personal connections, in order to discover how the figure might have been feeling when they had to speak.

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