Paulina Bronfman is a first year PhD student in the Department of Education at the University of York under the supervision of Dr. Vanita Sundaram and Dr. Sarah Olive. Her research is based on the use of Shakespeare as an educational tool to teach citizenship and human rights.

Previously she did an MA in Educational Studies at the University of York funded by the Chilean Government (Conicyt scholarship). Paulina has work experience as a drama teacher in higher education, theatre director and actress.

In December 2014 the Centre for Research in Education and Social Justice at the University of York organized two seminars; “Education, citizenship and drama in Japan and England” and “The arts, activism & social inclusion”. Distinguished guests from Japan and UK participated in the events along with students from our department, who contributed to the discussion by presenting their PhD research projects.

One idea that captured my attention is expressed in the following line: “Becoming cultural, becoming citizens”. This statement was the title of the presentation of Dr Victoria Elliott (Oxford University), who portrayed the idea that literature, theatre and culture can help students to acquire fundamental knowledge and skills for their development as citizens (e.g. empathy, respect for diversity, teamwork). This is based on the idea that culture is where citizenship education begins. It is within culture where the rights and duties of citizens are established along with their social and moral responsibilities. Historically, the arts and culture have been where large and small changes have begun to take place even long before they appear in public life. Examples of this are the early twentieth century avant-garde movements that broke with traditional concepts of art and questioned the individuals and their place in society (democracy). The aim of avant-garde was to teach how to see the world from a different perspective (Eco, 2007). This change in point of view happened before World War I, promoting a change in society that only began to appear in public life in mid-twentieth century.

Another thought relevant to the debate is how to develop a “democratic culture” through theatre and how the education for democracy and citizenship requires students to develop certain skills (not only learning concepts) that drama as an educational tool could promote. This relationship between theatre, democracy, and pedagogy was explored through the theory and practice of Jonothan Neelands and other scholars, and was deeply rooted in the work of Dorothy Heathcote and Gavin Bolton. During the two seminars there was agreement on the potential of theatre to develop a “democratic culture” inside schools, but that this potential has been largely unrealised. In my personal opinion, the word democracy should be a verb. Students need to practice in real life concepts like tolerance and empathy in order to exercise a “democratic culture” inside schools. In this way, the school acts as a rehearsal opportunity for civic life, where students can practice key skills prior to their insertion in social life. Theatre could help students to develop these skills in a practical way and connect them with real life. In Peter Brook’s words: “make the invisible visible”. Theatre has the power to materialize abstract concepts such as freedom or justice into something visible, for example, through the actions of the characters.

One idea that I consider central is the possibility of using drama to help students develop a voice as citizens. Theatre could allow students to find a voice, literally, in the sense of developing their expressive vocal and physical tools, as well as metaphorically. Theatre invites them to have an opinion, a stance. As spectators, theatre invites the students to take part, to reflect, to discuss; all of which are fundamental tools in public life. As actors, theatre could allow students to put themselves in the characters’ place. It is a practice of “being in other people’s shoes” and, thus, developing empathy.
The idea of finding a voice could also be appropriate for the process of being a PhD student. Is it not the process of becoming a researcher, a process of finding our own voice? Or should the researcher only collect data and present it in the most scientific way possible? Well, possibly both; the discussion is open. However, the data alone are worthless; they need to be interpreted and related to each of us and our experiences in order to have meaning and, only then, can they become knowledge. A researcher, a teacher, a student needs to develop a point of view, an opinion, a reflection, a contribution to public discussion. We need to find a voice. Otherwise how will we help our own students to do it in the future?

Finally, as was concluded in the seminar about Drama and Citizenship, one of the characteristics of democratic culture is community involvement. As PhD students from the Education Department at York we are a very multicultural community with a rich diverse cultural background and a lot of different specific disciplines. I would like to invite you to use this blog to contribute to our community dialogue, and would like to encourage you to find a voice not just as a research student, but also as a citizen.