FORUM THEATRE AGAINST EARLY SCHOOL LEAVING - FOTEL PROJECT

Short summary

The objective of the FOTEL project is to prevent and reduce early school leaving under the aegis of the Forum Theatre. Our aims was to implement a complex programme: we attempted to explore the reasons behind early school leaving and, applying the method of the Forum Theatre, we were seeking possible solutions to bring about a shift in paradigm in school education with the assistance of informal education.

We worked together with teachers, parents and students; conducted research, wrote a textbook, organised a conference and played theatre. Information on the entire project is available on the websites referred to; below we only present the experiment with the Forum Theatre. 

Our work with the Forum Theatre had a double objective:

  • firstly, to provide teachers with a tool that may help them explore and solve problems; and 
  • secondly, to provide students with an opportunity to discuss their problems and to find such a solution where the individual exists as part of a community. It is also in this context that responsibility is taken and assistance is offered.

We worked together with the 9th grade and a few 10th graders as well as two of their teachers on a weekly basis for a period of 5 months. We constructed a Forum Theatre performance responding to, discussing and analysing the problems shared by the students. After the school performance, our play was also presented in four venues in Budapest and in the countryside.

Students were given an option to decide their own role in the joint work: they participated as actors, creative masterminds, cameramen, interior designers, etc. All of them remained active throughout the entire period. 

In creating the play and during the performance, the kids became experts in the subject of early school leaving as well, and discussed the topic in various communities. 

Their communication competencies improved, they grew better in cooperation, interpersonal skills, debate culture and conflict management, their empathy improved, they became braver and stood their ground more resolutely, and they experienced success and recognition.

According to the school’s feedback, classes participating in the process grew into strong communities and continued to work more purposefully and tenaciously even after the end of the project.

Participating teachers acquired the method and obtained a variety of tools that can be deployed in class any time in the interest of the individual, the community, etc. 

Context of good practice

Burattino Elementary and Technical School and Children’s Home is a foundation school established in 1991. Initially starting with 60 students, by now the school functions in a 8+4+2 year system; it operates three children’s homes, the number of students grew to 350, and it has 52 boarders. Primarily, the school supports children from disadvantaged families, in particular, Roma families, by providing complex education, childcare and psychological support under the aegis of school activities. The school also functions as a children’s home for the children of families in crisis and for children placed in temporary, conditional or permanent residential care. Accordingly, the condition for participating in the programme is clear. Many of the students have been through several schools already and experienced first-hand what early school leaving means.

The school is located in an outer district of Budapest, Csepel, which used to be an industrial centre before the political transition. After the regime change many workers lost their jobs, leaving a lot of children without sufficient care.

In the pedagogical sense, Burattino School is profoundly different from other schools: it teaches tolerance, it embraces diversity, it focuses on creating a personal connection and applying individual treatment, it employs various methodologies, cooperation techniques, theatre pedagogy, project pedagogy, skills development and extra-curricular activities.

These pedagogical methods are consistently utilised to ensure that students have an opportunity to learn how to compensate for their socio-cultural disadvantage and become well-balanced, mature personalities.

Since one of the goals of Burattino’s pedagogical programme is to fill these gaps, the school received the method offered by us positively because it enabled the school to expand the toolkit of working with disadvantaged students and to enrich the children’s own tools and self-knowledge.

Main characteristics of the challenge, description of the target group

There are numerous complex reasons behind (early) school leaving; in many cases, students drop out due to the combination of several reasons instead of a single factor. Among other things, in our research we identified the following factors working in tandem with students, teachers and parents of the Burattino School: the low education level of parents, a lack of parental responsibility-taking, the absence of a person-oriented pedagogy, the disadvantages of positive discrimination, a lack of cooperation between school and parents, cases where a student is shunned by his peers for whatever reason (e.g. clothing, ethnic background, etc.),a failure to integrate into the class community, special education needs, a lack of motivation, etc.

Whereas parental commitment, a sense of security and comfort, a sense of “feeling at home at school”, a student-oriented pedagogy, cooperative assignments, etc. encourage students to learn and to go to school eagerly. 

Burattino is an inclusive and accepting school; many of its students live in abject poverty and have left – or have been forced to leave – several schools already. Burattino aims to deliver information, knowledge, competencies and experiences to its students that any child can experience – with luck – in the family, whereas a large part of the children attending this school cannot. 

Since one of the goals of Burattino’s pedagogical programme is to fill these gaps, the school received the method offered by us positively because it enabled the school to expand the toolkit of working with disadvantaged students and to enrich the children’s own tools and self-knowledge.

The method was studied and acquired by two teachers: a drama teacher and a homeroom teacher.

The homeroom teacher’s students – 9th-graders at the time – and a few 10th graders participated in the process. The kids formed a fairly heterogeneous group; all of them came from disadvantaged societal/social backgrounds, many of them were students with special education needs, and around a half of the group comprised Roma children. It should be noted, however, that this had no significance whatsoever either in terms of the group work or in the kids’ relationship with other students. 

According to the interviews taken with 8–10 teachers of the school’s staff, parent/teacher and parent/student relationship, as well as the different role of women in the different cultures posed the greatest difficulty. In some situations, the socialisation values learnt by the student in the family clashed with the value system expected by the school, and tackling these problems caused some difficulty.

Success factors and processes

The FORUM THEATRE offers such a non-frontal and non-formal teaching/learning option to both teachers and students that enable the participants to explore everyday phenomena, experiences and problems thoroughly and efficiently in the context of a joint thought process.

Through a creative and democratic process, participants can intimately experience all aspects of the phenomenon in focus, as well as the related considerations and emotions. Although the purpose of theatre making is the creation of the performance, in our case it is important to stress that the emphasis is on the process itself. A theatre-making community embarks on a long journey for the production of a performance, and both the individual and the group go through a transformation in the process: the personality of the individual develops, his self-expression and communication skills improve, his ability to define problems sharpens, peripheral group members find their voice and integrate into the group, teamwork strengthens, group members augment their learning experiences and show progress in countless other skills.

The Forum Theatre itself builds up this process – the play – through 4-6 steps, and the first step is to identify the problem. There is a step-by-step description of the individual steps in the manual developed by the project team, and specific tasks are assigned to each phase. Since these are presented both in written form and in the form of short videos, below we provide only a very brief overview.

We addressed the issue of early school leaving and the problems arising in Burattino in several groups:

  1. with a group of teachers we detected, analysed and dissected the problems relying on the critical incident method;
  2. we interviewed a group of parents individually to gain insight into the difficulties;
  3. the elements and the storyline of the Forum Theatre performance were derived from personal discussions with the students, dramatic methods and own experiences – the play presented students’ own experiences and the difficulties they face. 

Teachers, students and trainers participated together in the joint work, which was also helpful in the sense that teachers and students shared with each other (in the context given by the theatre) their questions and hardships, underpinning the complexity of the issues.

Key activities and the pedagogical approach:

  1. Critical incident training for teachers, case analyses (2 days)
  2. Introductory play session for the students of two grades, introducing the topic of early school leaving (3 hours)
  3. A 3-day school year kick-off camp with lots of games, cooperative elements, movie and theatre-making exercises for the 3rd grade, selection of future participants
  4. Forum Theatre process and the production of the performance in 2–3 hours per week for a period of 4 months
  5. Performances – Burattino, Conference of Tempus Public Foundation, Budapest and country schools; project closing conference

Results

  • critical incident training for teachers, case analyses 
  • manual and the related methodological videos
  • international conference (the presentations can be accessed on YouTube)
  • creation of the Forum Theatre and performances

It is important to note that the pedagogical programme of Burattino contains numerous “reform pedagogy” elements; consequently, teachers in Burattino are already familiar with the establishment of the Forum Theatre and the non-frontal teaching methodology. 

Building trust, having an emphatic attitude, the right questioning technique, the creation of team cohesion, understanding attention, the existence of a methodological toolkit and an openness to theatre are extremely important factors in the theatre-making process that facilitates the identification of the background of the problems and the resolution of conflicts.

In this particular case it was very rewarding to see that kids with different abilities and motivation all found their place and their role (in which the help and support of teachers was obvious),thereby forming an integral whole.

Since in our case the theatre incorporates the life experiences and the experienced (perceived) traumas of children into the performance, it is critically important to process these experiences and provide help and partnership in the process.

The compassionate participation of the school psychologist and the drama teacher can also be an important part of the process.

By definition, the genre of the theatre cannot offer a fast solution either, but the process contains some methodological elements which might be helpful in certain situations, in resolving conflicts or recognising issues.

Yet, since the main emphasis is not on the performance itself but on the process, the interim work and change will exert a complex impact in the long run. 

Our experiences also show that the recognition of participating students, the deepening of their self-knowledge, the refinement of their vision and changes in group dynamics exerted an impact over the long term – the exercise clearly requires a greater time and energy expenditure in the long run, but it yields long-lasting rewards. 

A group can reach the end of the process by working through a single school year (even as little as 1 hour per week),but if the class – and of course, the teacher – have already gone through the process once, problem solving and tackling different situations can be accomplished faster in the future.

In this case, we analysed the complex issue of early school leaving, but our method can be used to resolve any problem faced by any community.

Impact of measures taken

The relationship of participating teachers with the students changed: the project placed teachers and students on a more equal footing and disciplining methods also went through a transformation.

Children’s attitude toward one another, their interpersonal relationships, cooperation and teamwork were given entirely new dimensions, group cohesion strengthened.

The self-knowledge, self-esteem and confidence of students strengthened, they became capable of assessing both themselves and each other in a supportive way and recognising the areas of improvement; moreover, their communication skills improved.

They earned recognition at school: they “grew” in the eyes of both their peers and their teachers, which bolstered their self-esteem and shaped their future plans as well. 

Their conflict resolution skills also strengthened.

Leassons learned

Acquiring the method is very time consuming and demanding, which might be problematic to already overloaded teachers.

It might be expedient to have an external trainer/participant on board as this may encourage the children to open up.

The programme should be implemented as an extra-curricular activity, perhaps in the framework of study circles, but some sub-questions may be also resolved or addressed within the framework of normal classes using the practices connected to the methodology.

The problem arising in any project work is the specific timeframe available for carrying through the process and accordingly, our time to work together with the teachers and the students was limited. The process could have been even more efficient if the entire academic year had been available for working together.

Resources needed

In an optimal case, the establishment of the Forum Theatre pays for the work of two trainers/teachers/facilitators.

It is an advantage if the school psychologist can also participate in the background work.

Purchase price of the supplies and accessories for the performance (negligible).

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Author:

Zsuzsanna Komjáthy

Institution:

Artemisszió Foundation

Institution Website:

http://www.artemisszio.hu/

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