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4 Role-Playing Exercises That Open the Door to Difficult Conversations

In her Course Hero Education Summit ’19 session, Dr. Gaye Theresa Johnson demonstrated theatre-based activities to help students feel safe sharing ideas.


Gaye Theresa Johnson, PhD

Associate Professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies and African American Studies, UCLA

PhD in American Studies, BA Sociology and Ethnic Studies, minor in Spanish

Gaye Theresa Johnson in Panel Discussion at Course Hero Education Summit (Video and Transcript)

The immigration and asylum crisis. Abortion bans. Police brutality. As a teacher of ethnic studies at UCLA, Gaye Theresa Johnson, PhD, covers these and other complex and politically charged subjects that trigger a range of responses in students, from heated debate to silent despair. While these responses can occur in any type of classroom (or around the dinner table), Johnson finds that the classroom space creates a unique opportunity for critical exchange.

“It doesn’t matter what the subject is, because even if you’re in an [organic chemistry] class, you still want to create a democratic environment in which people feel safe,” said Johnson. “They should feel OK to call out the wrong answer. Ideally, they feel like they’re not going to be attacked or belittled. They’re going to be treated equally, regardless of their contribution.”

Johnson’s session at the Course Hero Education Summit ’19—“Beyond Platitudes: Approaching Difficult Conversations in the Classroom”—included a series of activities that she has found to be powerful tools to help people find common ground. Here are four of them, with tips for using them in any group setting.

Bond with a partner through breathing

Johnson asked everyone to stand up and make eye contact with one other person in the room, then take a deep breath together—in through the nose and out through the mouth. She calls this an “embodied agreement,” which, she explained, is “something that gets us into our bodies” instead of getting caught up in our thoughts. “It creates an opportunity for a mutually produced state of feeling, one that is a shared experience of being present, of recognizing yourself and others in the room. As everyone performs the same nonverbal exercise, it initiates a moment of silence, letting go of the chatter and shuffle of settling into the classroom, and changes the mindset from distraction to presence.”

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Be and Follow a Leader

A mirroring exercise called Colombian Hypnosis comes from Brazilian theatrical director Augusto Boal, who used drama to explore social justice within a form of interactive and activist drama called Theatre of the Oppressed. In this activity, the partners from the “embodied agreement” exercise were asked to get closer together. Then Johnson instructed them to—without speaking—choose one person to be the leader and the other to be “hypnotized.”

Next, she asked the leader to hold a hand in the air 6 to 10 inches from the other person and use it to silently lead the partner around the room. Then the partners switched roles.

Finally, Johnson asked, “What did it feel like to lead? What did it feel like to follow? What kind of environment do we need to set up in order to feel all those amazing [things]?” The answers to the final question, she explained, are the same things that educators need to provide students in their classroom. Using the feedback from the participants in real time, she emphasized that students need to feel safe, have trust in the leader, and know they will not be ridiculed.

Turn the spotlight on students’ motivations

Johnson encouraged the session participants to answer the same question she poses to her students: What are you doing here?

“You had a choice,” she told educators. “Why did you choose this [session]? And that isn’t for you to answer to me.” For students, she wants them to think about whether they are there to satisfy a graduation requirement, to learn how to talk more sensitively about current events, or maybe even because they want to be disruptive. All of these reasons are OK, she added. Her point is to show students that they are not “subjects” in her class but “agents” of their own learning. “A class is not just happening to them. They are in their seats for a reason,” she said.

She also likes to share her own answer to the question. “I teach what I teach … to create a more just, equitable, and humane society,” she said. “That’s why I’m here. I always come back to those things.” Offering her own reasons can help open the door for students to look more deeply at their own motivations, which can help them set and achieve goals for themselves in the class.

Turn students into statues

In this audience-participation exercise—also from Theatre of the Oppressed—Johnson asks for two volunteers. “I’m going to give you an issue, and we’re going to create a live exhibit,” she told summit participants. Upon hearing the issue, one volunteer must silently strike and hold a pose that embodies that issue for them. Then the second volunteer must respond with their own pose. Next, the audience offers observations describing what they see in the tableaux. Finally, Johnson asks what could be done with regard to that issue that would cause these poses to change. This helps students begin to look for solutions, not simply feel despair.

For example, in the Summit session, a man and woman were given the issue of “the criminalization of youth.” The woman went first, posing stoically with her finger to her head to mimic a pointed gun, and the man responded by falling to his knees, head in hands, silently weeping. The audience shouted out words including overwhelmed, desperation, despair, helpless, sorry, embarrassment.

After reviewing some of the factors that contribute to the criminalization of youth, Johnson asked the actors another question: “If you had a society in which you didn’t have any of these obstacles … how would your pose change?”

The man immediately reached out his arms to the woman. And she smiled and walked toward him, simulating a hug. Finally, Johnson asked the educators what children need—in the classroom and in society—so that the second tableaux replaces the first.

Responses included caring, compassion, resources, safety, equitable education, second chances, and a belief that you can transcend.

Johnson pointed out to the educators—as she does to her students—that these needs are things that everyone can agree on, regardless of political party or personal circumstances. “When we started talking about what do you need in order to be whole, we can [all] recognize that a child needs education, safety, resources … and hope,” said Johnson. “All of those things allow us to come together in conversation.”

By holding tight to this realization and fostering an environment that supports it, educators can help students (and anyone else) feel more comfortable opening up—and opening their hearts and minds to one another.


The activities and insights in this article were gleaned from the session “Beyond Platitudes: Approaching Difficult Conversations in the Classroom,” presented by Dr. Gaye Theresa Johnson on July 18, 2019, as part of the Education Summit’s Student Engagement track.

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