Theater of the Oppressed in the Ethnic Studies Classroom

In partnership with the Creative Advantage, Seattle Public Schools teachers worked with guest teaching artists to develop Theater of the Oppressed strategies into Ethnic Studies classrooms. Pictured here: Ian Golash, Heather Griffin, Tracy Castro-Gill, Jéhan Òsanyìn, Lara Davis, Gail Sehlhorst, Jesse Hagopian, Jennifer Dunn Charlton, Rachel Atkins, Luke Azinger, Tina LaPadula, Tikka Sears.

by Jennifer Dunn Charlton

It is becoming clearer to me that Ethnic Studies is a mindset more than anything. It is the lens which we put on any particular subject or object of study. Once you understand the frameworks of the curriculum, any racial equity literate teacher could potentially deliver the content. But Ethnic Studies is not just content-it is a whole shift in the purpose and goal of education: Education for liberation-not assimilation. The challenge then becomes about moving away from traditional methods of content delivery and traditional assessments coded in white norms and what Paulo Freire referred to as “banking style education”. We remove barriers when we let go of high-pressure, independent assessments, but what do we replace it with? When I inform my students that we will be taking no tests, no quizzes and then ask students what they want to do instead, the default response is often a puzzled “give a PowerPoint presentation?” Students have been given so little autonomy over their own learning that they hardly know what to do-EVEN IN THE TENTH GRADE. Theater of the Oppressed (TO) is a gateway that leads to infinite possibilities beyond tests, quizzes, and PowerPoints.

In early spring 2019, I agreed to partner with a guest teacher to launch a series of lessons involving Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed in my humanities classroom. After meeting with the guest artist, we adapted lessons written by the Seattle Public Schools Ethnic Studies curriculum writers to incorporate TO moves. TO is a natural fit in the Ethnic Studies classroom because it transforms the room from passive consumption by spectators from traditional theater (and classroom?) space and everyone is a spect-actor. This can be a difficult shift for students who have learned to hide in the traditional classroom. Since everyone is involved simultaneously, no one can sit passively listening to a lecture, bubble in a long column of “C” on the quiz they didn’t prepare for or watching the clock for the class to end. Everyone is in because there is no “out.”

TO allows access to Ethnic Studies by making space to express through movements some of the things that are SO HARD TO SAY about topics like identity, privilege, indigeneity, white saviors, gentrification, etc. The work involves finding your real place in machines and confront your own role in perpetuating injustices-since we are all in the system-we are all guilty of complacency unless we as Mario Savio put it in his speech in front of his fellow students at Berkeley in 1964, “put our bodies upon the gears of the machine.”  

When I first agreed to pilot this work in partnership with Ethnic Studies, I worried that I would not be able to match the energy that experienced theater artists amaze me with, but by the second collaboration, I found myself almost talking over the teaching artist since I started having my own visions of how to help students create the motions and words in their work.

“We were preparing for real world communication needs without even realizing it.”

Over the weeks, a few days looked and felt similar: Warm up. Active machine or tableau work. Reflection. Warmups involved some fairly low stakes theater games. One game, red ball, uses imaginary balls of different colors being passed around a circle. Red ball requires making eye contact, listening, giving and receiving in a “gamified” format. We were preparing for real world communication needs without even realizing it.

The first full on TO activity we did together was build a machine. The machine represents the system; any system that we find ourselves inside of such as the patriarchy or racism. The machine that we rebuilt together was called the Machine of Gentrification. We first studied the Central District of Seattle by watching the music video “The Hood Ain’t the Same” by Draze and reading supporting articles and listening to a podcast about gentrification in Seattle housing and schools. We chose lyrics from the song that stuck out to us. Mine was “no white sheets but these suits and ties look the same to me.” Then we chose a gesture that would represent the words we were saying. After all coming up in partnerships with our gesture/word combinations, we moved into position on a pretend map of Seattle to identify where in the city this was happening and where we are in relation to the problem. We “ran the machine” in the order that we thought one thing was leading to another. This was very eye opening to students, “I think the machine of transformation really identified the problems we face and what it would look like if those problems were solved. It really got me thinking about how these problems are treated, where they’re located, and how our lives would be way different if these problems weren’t around.” -MH

Then we tried to imagine what the opposite of the problem would look like with our bodies. We created new gestures and words to demonstrate that change. This is where the magic happens. We identified a problem, imagined what we wanted to see instead and then we were able to explore different pathways to achieve the goal. Then we ran the machine sequentially with all of the moving parts cycling through problem, a change that needs to be made, and a solution. This was a little broad the first time we did it, but it absolutely led to students identifying real world problems that they were concerned about and helped them see ways in which they, as individuals, but also by forming alliances with other groups, could create change. I took photos and notes up on the overhead as they were creating all of this work.

We experimented in a few other activities such as tableau. In this activity, we built a tableau of the White Savior Complex. We read articles about different ways people accidentally or purposely do this in the world. Tableau is similar but different from Machines in that this activity involves identifying a problem, a change and a solution in the same way but differs in that it a robot style 3 pose sequence of movements as opposed to the machine which runs continuously with all of the parts moving at once. This was a good activity, since this class has a white majority. Had we just read about it, or even just discussed it, I don’t think it would have been as powerful as watching someone “act” a certain way and being able to see why it is problematic.

“Theatre of the Oppressed makes us ready to respond and ready for action.”

While I could (and probably will) write more extensively about all of the benefits of doing this work I really want to say this: TO makes us ready to respond and ready for action. In the first workshop I did to prepare for this work, it was suggested that this work is “acting like act-ivists until we become them.” I leaned into this energy to dive into topics that I am certain would have been harder for all students to engage in as a discussion and yet through TO, students were able to access the content, collaborate and create some truly meaningful projects using the same methodology that we developed in our theater work:  

The past few weeks have been very action-oriented. Students have organized open forums for the recent Abortion Legislation in several states, and also to some racist vandalism that happened inside the school among some really amazing other projects. These students have designed their own finals without feeling disengaged, left out, assimilated, bored or coerced. They are engaged in Freire’s “problem posing education”.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter @JenniferIsDunn

Meet the 2019 “Black Education Matters Student Activist Award” winners: Youth leaders of an uprising for racial justice!

By Jesse Hagopian – Re-blogged from I Am An Educator

At the first NAACP Youth Coalition Racial Justice Conference on Saturday, ethnic studies teacher Jesse Hagopian and Superbowl champion/bestselling author Michael Bennett presented the Black Education Matters Student Activist Award (BEMSAA) to three of the most dynamic and powerful changemaking youth in Seattle.

The 2019 BEMSAA award winners are:


Rena is an NAACP Youth Coalition leader  and one of the most outspoken leaders for ethnic studies and the Black Lives Matter at School movement.


Khabirah founded the Black Student Union at Madrona Elementary School and has served as the Garfield High School BSU president for the past three years. She has been a relentless advocate for Black students and lead many struggles for racial justice and initiatives to promote Black excellence.


Cece serves as the Nathan Hale’s representative on the NAACP-Youth Coalition and has been a leader in the struggle for ethnic studies and for the Black Lives Matter at School week of action. Cece has also recently finished a documentary about the struggle and promise of ethnic studies in the Seattle schools!

The Black Education Matters Student Activist Award (BEMSAA) offers a $1000 package to deserving Seattle public school students who demonstrates exceptional leadership in struggles for social justice, and against institutional racism.

Michael Bennett gave Rena the special Pennie Bennett award in the name of his mother saying,

“My mom worked in the school district for the last 30 years…Me and Jesse have been friends for a while and I wanted to be able to create an lasting award for Black education and give out an award out every year to represent what my mom believes in…My mom was looking at all the things you were doing and she said, that girls is amazing! And I’m lucky to be able to give this award to Rena!”

“I am so proud of this year’s winners of the Black Education Matters Student Activist Award,” said BEMSAA director Jesse Hagopian. “They have all contributed greatly to undoing institutional racism in the schools and have demonstrated brave leadership in struggles for social justice.”

Past award winners have been among the most impactful student leaders in Seattle, including leading mass walkouts against president Trump’s inauguration, leading the successful movement for ORCA transportation cards for Seattle students, leading whole teams to take a knee during the national anthem, launching the NAACP Youth Coalition, leading movements for food justice, and more.

Ifrah Abshir , 2016 winner of the Black Education Matters Student Activist Award, created this video to tell the 2019 winners what the award ment to her.

The BEMSAA award was started with funds Seattle teacher Jesse Hagopian received in a settlement after suing the Seattle Police Department and the City of Seattle when he was wrongfully assaulted by a Seattle Police officer.


On MLK Day 2015, Jesse Hagopian was pepper sprayed in the face by a Seattle police officer without provocation. The incident occurred not long after Hagopian gave the final speech at the MLK Day community rally.

Visit to learn more about the award or to nominate a youth leader.

Jesse Hagopian teaches Ethnic Studies at Seattle’s Garfield High School and is an editor for Rethinking Schools magazine. Jesse is the director of the “Black Education Matters Student Activist Award” and the co-editor of the new book, Teaching for Black Lives.  You can follow Jesse on Twitter or on his website,

Ethnic Studies in Bellevue

by Terry Jess

Bellevue School District may not be the place that pops into your mind when you think of racial justice work, including ethnic studies. It is a historically wealthy and white district, and while for many of our students the wealth remains common, the district’s student population has racially diversified in the last twenty years. In 2016, Bellevue became the city with the largest person of color population in the state. However, this diversity led to very little change in the district’s curriculum or how we educate our students.

Seven years ago, through the hard work and dedication of select groups of students and educators, the tide began to shift. Much is owed to the creation of an equity department, and the excellent leadership of the departments two leaders: Jose de Jesus Melendez, and for the last four years, Shomari Jones. In 2013, building principals were asked to form Equity Teams, and I was selected by my principal to join our team. I had been interested in anti-racism work ever since I heard Angela Davis’ challenging words in my teacher prep program and was excited to learn more. Our new Equity Teams received 8 full release days over 16 months to attend equity training.

During my first four years of teaching, I looked for how I could “fit” more culturally responsive teaching into existing curriculum but was left unsatisfied with the results. The conversations I had been having and books I poured myself into demanded more for our students. I began exploring the idea of creating an elective class on racial issues in our society. Fortunately, Shomari had also been exploring a potential black history class in our district and from this shared desire, we created a committee of social studies teachers in various buildings who were interested. This group included some amazing teachers like Lane Lopus of Newport HS and Matt Daniels of Interlake HS.

I had a connection to Tim Jones, a political science professor at Bellevue College, and reached out to see if he would be interested in partnering. Based on our committee’s vision, he thought we would be better suited partnering with BC’s Department of Cultural & Ethnic Studies. This is when the amazing Kimberly Pollock entered the picture. She welcomed us into her course and was willing to not only partner in the development, but to oversee the implementation of this course as part of the College-in-the-High-School program. Now we would be able to offer our students a class that allowed them to explore the history and issues of race and get college credit for it! This was music to my ears as I was already disillusioned with the AP model.

I took on the course-lead role for our district and we spent a year working on developing the scope and sequence, reading materials, and lessons for the semester long course. Due to the flexible nature of the course at Bellevue College, we were given remarkable latitude in creating curriculum for the course that met the needs of our students. To this day, the course will look different in every building it is taught in. Matt and I each piloted the course three years ago, and it has now spread to all comprehensive high schools and has been melded into the Government/CWA graduation requirement as the second semester curriculum for seniors at Big Picture School, one of our district’s secondary choice schools.

While I am immensely proud of this course and enjoy teaching it more than any course I have ever taught, I can’t get past the viral photo of a student defining privilege as “your history being taught in the core class, and mine being taught as an elective.” Based on this frustration, I scheduled a meeting with Sharon Kautz, the Director of Curriculum for Bellevue School District to ask if we could make Race in the US a graduation requirement. BSD already requires students to take 3.5 credits of social studies, rather than the state-required 3, and so I hoped to use the extra .5 for an ethnic studies requirement. Sharon responded to my request by asking, “Why can’t this be imbedded into all our social studies courses?”

I’ll be honest. I thought she was dismissing the idea and offering a stereotypical “sprinkle some people of color and women into the existing curriculum” type of response. So, I responded that if I were to do that in a course like US History, it would mean a total decolonizing of the curriculum. I would want to throw out the textbook, the timeline, and most every lesson the district currently had. I fully expected a response emphasizing a slow incremental change, but I was completely floored when she said, “So do it.” So… I am.

Our amazing BSD Social Studies Curriculum Developer, Patty Shelton, was on board and scheduled a meeting for all U.S. History teachers in the district in the spring of 2018. At the meeting, I introduced the concept and process of using decolonization as the historical framework to use for the course, and my colleagues committed to using it. We also chose to transition to a thematic approach, rather than the typical chronological, so we could spend more time connecting history to current events and issues. I left that meeting feeling very optimistic that we would be able to create a core U.S. History class, that specifically focused on anti-racism and centering the voices marginalized by whiteness in our nation’s history.

Our district offered some project pay for those who would like to work during the summer, and as it goes, there wasn’t much interest. However, I was able to build a potential scope and sequence and flesh out the first unit on Identity, which centered race. My colleagues were pleasantly surprised when we met in August to have a strong foundation to move forward with piloting the course this year. As we approach the end of the year now, we have been able to put together five units of study.

The course will constantly be a work in progress and should be as we adapt to our students’ needs and interests. I am also hyper-aware that a team of white teachers will inevitably see our own whiteness impact the curriculum and our students. More training is needed; more compensation is needed; more perspectives are needed; and more accountability to our students and families of color is needed. I hope to put the whole curriculum out for review and use by educators sometime this summer, but in the end, I am optimistic about our small revolution and how it is sparking other fires in the English Department and in the work of our SOAR Teams (Students Organized for Anti-Racism).

Race in the US and Decolonized US History are only the beginning of Ethnic Studies in Bellevue. It will take an immense amount of work and failure to create something that truly meets the needs of ALL our students. I often have people ask me, “Why Bellevue? Why don’t you teach in Tacoma or South Seattle if you care so much about race?” The work of ethnic studies is not just for schools with high populations of black, Latinx, and indigenous students. It is for white people. It is for wealthy people. It is for Bellevue. Besides… I enjoy the discomfort that sharing truth brings on this community and my fellow white folx.

Organizing for Racial Equity: From an Idea to a Movement

By: Organizing for Racial Equity (ORE)

The fight for ethnic studies in Washington State has largely been led by educators, especially in Seattle Public Schools, thanks to the organizing of groups like Social Equity Educators and the Center for Racial Equity. Ethnic studies, however, needs to be rooted in deeper efforts to achieve racial justice, and not just in education. Below is a piece written about the accomplishments of grassroots organizing for racial justice at the State level at the Washington Education Association (WEA) Representative Assembly (RA) this past April. This is what’s possible when teachers lead on racial justice!

Within our union, there are still racial inequities that need to be addressed. However, during the WEA Representative Assembly held from April 25th to 27th, the conversation began again as racial justice seemed to become the theme of the convention. Marquita Prinzing and Kaitlin Kamalei Jenkins from Seattle Education Association (SEA) tag teamed as lead organizers for Organizing for Racial Equity, a statewide movement that brought forth many racial equity policies at the WEA RA.

Organizing for Racial Equity started as an idea between a few educators at the SEA Mock RA meeting. However, the thought quickly grew into a statewide organizing effort. Many different locals were represented on the core team, including Seattle, Shoreline, Edmonds, Tacoma, and Mukilteo. The team drafted policy submissions, crafted floor plans, and wrote informative documents. The team also ensured that there was a concrete promotional plan, including networking, engaging with caucuses, creating a social media plan, and branding materials. By the start of RA, we garnered support from locals across the state.

With the hard work of the team and the support of the WEA community, we were able to pass all eight of the motions that our team presented. Our motions included:

  • Amendment #3: Adding a racial equity analysis question to policy submission forms
  • NBI #32: Calling for racial equity training and tools for the WEA Board
  • NBI #31: Supporting a Statewide Educators of Color Network
  • NBI #33: Creating an Ethnic Studies Taskforce
  • New Resolution #9: WEA supports Ethnic Studies
  • NBI #41: Supporting Black Lives Matter at Schools
  • NBI #78: Calling for more equitable race & ethnicity data
  • New Resolution #3: WEA acknowledges White Supremacy Culture

There were also many other racial equity motions passed by other members of SEA and other locals represented by Organizing for Racial Equity. Another huge win for racial equity was NBI (new business item) 40: in support of the i1000 Affirmative Action bill—a key step to legalize diversifying the teaching force, which was authored and supported by ORE members.

Thank you for all your support and thank you to all SEA members that were on our core team. We look forward to continuing the movement, especially with the National Education Association RA coming up soon. If you would like to join Organizing for Racial Equity, please join our Facebook group to stay updated:

SB 5023

by Tracy Castro-Gill

The Washington State Legislature has sent SB 5023, “Concerning an ethnic studies curriculum for public school students,” to Governor Inslee to sign into law. This is great news for many of us who have been fighting for years to get curricula that is relevant for our students and challenges white supremacy.

We should not, however, think our job is done. The bill reads very much like liberal multiculturalism and does not mention anything about anti-racism or the critical analysis of the the power structures in our country and the world. You can read the report here. But what’s disconcerting is the following language:

Summary: Essential Academic Learning Requirements.By September 1, 2020, OSPI must adopt EALRs and grade-level expectations that identify the knowledge and skills that all public school students need to be global citizens in a global society with an appreciation for the contributions of diverse cultures. The EALRs and grade-level expectations must be periodically updated to incorporate best practices in ethnic studies.
Ethnic Studies Materials and Resources.By September 1, 2020, OSPI must identify and make available ethnic studies materials and resources for use in grades 7–12. The materials and resources must be designed to prepare students for global citizenship in a global society, with an appreciation for the contributions of multiple cultures.

School districts are encouraged to provide ethnic studies courses that “incorporate” whatever materials are created by an OSPI Ethnic Studies Advisory Committee. So while this feels really good, and may be a win on some levels, it has no teeth. There is no mandate to provide ethnic studies. In a state whose teaching force is 90% white (some of whom feel emboldened enough to write trash like this: Diversity education is divisive education) I am not satisfied.

Please follow our website to keep up to date with what you can do to join the fight for ethnic studies in Washington State. Check the Follow tab to learn about organizations in your district and region, many of whom need your support!