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Write Your Way to Empathy:

How can playwriting activities help students build empathy?
by Carol Cabrera

Table of Contents:
.........................................p. 1
......................................p. 3
Literature Review
..............................p. 11
............................................p. 26
..........................................p. 29
.........................................p. 48
Works Cited
......................................p. 57

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Write Your Way to Empathy: How can playwriting activities help students build
In this action research, set in a project-based high school, I traced the development of
empathy in a small elective playwriting course for students in grades 9-12. Drawing on
literature on empathy and playwriting, as well as my own teaching experience, I
designed a series of activities that engaged students in writing and revising a one-act
play. Students took an Empathy Quotient survey before and toward the end of the
playwriting project, filled out exit cards, journaled, and completed an open response
survey on writing at the beginning and at the end. Analysis of this data yielded four
major themes: (1) the exploration of identity is integral to building empathy, (2)
empathy can be rehearsed when students write and read in a characters voice, (3)
playwriting critique pushes students to understand the intent of the creator, and (4)
there is a progression to empathy: understand self, be understood, understand others.
These findings indicate that empathy is not a fixed attribute. Rather, it is something that
can be taught, developed and nurtured in students, and playwriting is one way to do so.

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Empathy & Playwriting: An Introduction

I could swear by your expression
That the pain down in your soul
Was the same as the one down in mine.
That's the pain,
Cuts a straight line
Down through the heart;
We called it love.
So we wrapped our arms around each other,
Trying to shove ourselves back together.

~Hedwig, Hedwig & The Angry Inch

Who am I and why do I do what I do?

I am a short, 25 year old, straight female Asian school teacher living in California
and my experience with older, tall, transgendered/post-op female German immigrants
to the US who are rock stars is zero. Seeing
Hedwig & The Angry Inch
on Broadway in
2015, and feeling the amount of sadness, love and passion I did for the pieces
protagonist, Hedwig, was so powerful that it made me feel like I not only understood a
piece of that very particular American story, but that I was equipped to stand against the
struggles that she faces in her particular life journey.
Im aware it was fiction.

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I became a teaching artist when I was 19, and since then, I have helped hundreds
of students, from 4th graders to recent college graduates, develop hundreds, verging on
thousands, of plays. It was only natural that when I left the California Playwrights
Project to become a full time classroom teacher, the playwriting process would follow
me, would linger in my curriculum, and would transform the way I teach.

Playwriting as an Empathy Builder

Im sad for no reason. Really, no reason. I have a good family, a bunch of good friends,
but Im just sad, and I take everything personally, and its stupid, and Im sorry, I
dont make much sense, Im sorta bad with words, it--- Shit. Sorry, sorry I know
Im not supposed to do that self-degrading thing. It sorta just comes naturally, I guess?
I dont know if Im trying to be a good person and not a narcissist or something or if I
actually hate myself. Hell A lot of things I do are to appear nice. I dont think, uh, I
know who I am anymore. Im just that quiet kid who holds the door open for strangers,
but cant work up the courage to look them in the eye and smile, huh? I try so hard,
yknow, but its like, not enough, I guess.

High Tech High North County, California,
from the play
Perfectly Sane

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Inevitably, students always write about themselves, no matter how much they feel
they are hiding behind fiction. The playwright of the excerpt above, shared with me
shortly after the first reading of
Perfectly Sane
, that he, like Seth, was institutionalized
for his clinical depression, and he, like Seth, couldnt always understand why he felt the
way he did when he felt a deep melancholy set over his shoulders. Playwriting helped
this student put his feelings on paper, but reading his piece out loud with my class (and
eventually, putting it onstage through a college theatre troupe) did something equally
powerful: students around him were beginning to understand his story and his struggle.
They were beginning to see him clearly--even though we were discussing fiction.
An example that is a little more fantastical: I recently helped workshop a play by
a rather quiet and quirky daydreamer of a student. In the workshops that I run for
playwrights, it typically begins with a reading of the play out loud, with different people
in the room reading different characters lines--never the playwright. The playwrights
role is to listen, to let go of the work they have put on the paper and see it transformed
by the room. Then, we take some time to write down Pops, Questions, and What
Ifs? and then spend some time discussing these things. I will go further into what these
terms mean later in my methods. In *Lilys play, a plant becomes a sentient being, and
instead of sitting and observing the world, gets to speak up and participate in it. It takes
very little to connect Lilys quiet nature to the quiet nature of the protagonist in her
My students in Room 129 were seeing the quiet Lily through a
much different light- they were beginning to peel the onion that is her very individual,
very quirky personality that lay far beneath the poised, quiet and regal posture.

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It is wildly important that students be allowed to explore the world that they are
currently experiencing and that as educators, we craft experiences that allow them to do
this without fear of judgment. Equally important, however, is that students are allowed
to share this exploration with one another because this helps students gain a larger
understanding of the world outside of themselves. It does what literature has always
helped us do--understand one another. This research seeks to answer the question:
How can playwriting activities help students build empathy?

Why Empathy?
I became entranced with theatre as a child because it helped me live hundreds of
other lives.
Paula Vogels
How I Learned to Drive
helped me tackle my way through the
moral dilemmas of abuse and molestation. The stage adaptation of Steinbecks
Of Mice
and Men
helped me identify and understand Lennie in a way that I think helps me be a
more adequate teacher. It took a forced exposure to theatre in school in 2nd gradea
stage adaptation of
The Princess and the Pea
to make me fall in love with theatre and
then beg and plead with my parents to allow me to watch more of it and partake in it
with parts other than audience member. While I very much see literature as an empathy
building activity, I argue passionately that theatre allows
, even those with a
limited reading skill set, to witness a real human experience, in a live way, and that this
is an even more powerful empathy building activity. It is important to preserve this art,
and the first way to do this is to build a community of young people who are sharing

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stories worth listening to. In order to craft a play worth listening to, we must pay close
attention to the honesty and authenticity of each voice in the story. In order to build that
honesty and authenticity, students
be empathetic individuals. In the playwriting
process, writers try on many voices, and sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesnt.
When it doesnt, writers revise and revise and revise until they get that particular voice
. This takes empathy.
In my literature review, I go into detail about why actively teaching empathy is of
utmost importance at this time. As a teacher, I have myself used the art of observation to
see students interact with one another and with other teachers. I remember a teacher
friend of mine during my first year teaching showing me a 3 ring binder of referrals she
had written up. When I looked through the binder, there were many referrals written up
for Rudely speaking to another student Yelling at the teacher etc. My second year, I
co-taught with a teacher and we made it a point to not allow the words Shut up in our
classroom because it seemed to be a gateway for students to be mean to one another.
Here, at my current site, I have observed some of this similar behavior. However, there
are other things standing in the way of how we understand one another.
With the dawn of technology, it has become increasingly easier to interact with
one another without ever actually seeing one another face to face. Technology is one of
many reasons why it has become
important to actively help students build
empathy in the classroom, and not to expect empathy to be a byproduct of traditional

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At my school site, we have a significant number of students who have Autism

Spectrum Condition. Research has told us that individuals with ASC have broad
impairments in both self-referential cognition and empathy (Lombardo, 2007). This
school sites population made me even more curious and interested in empathy building
in our youth.

Identity Exploration, Reading & Writing Skills and Other Byproducts of

Playwriting Projects
Along the road to exploring this question, I have explored how students can
explore their own identities through the art of playwriting since it is not typically the
five-minute scribbles of rushed writing that transforms a persons empathic potential: it
is the pieces of theatre that are so honest, the pieces that reveal so much truth about the
human experience, the pieces that are so connected to the writers core identity that it is
almost difficult to call it fake by labeling it fiction.
I have to come clean: I cry a lot because I love touchy-feely stories. Im a sucker
moments in the classroom, the ones where you can tell a student has come to a
grand discovery not about some literary device or plot line, but about
him or herself.
As a literature teacher, the skills that come through reading and writing are
immensely important to me. However, it is my hope that this research will help writing
teachers of all levels to structure playwriting experiences that not only enhance literacy
experiences and learning but help students dive deep into the vast terrain that is the text

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of their own lives, and to expand their life books and their empathic potentials by
experiencing the stories of others.
I majored in Literature and Theatre when I was in college. I still love to snuggle
with Shakespeare, to drink tea with Hemingway, and I still make it a point to teach the
classics, tackling
To Kill a Mockingbird, Romeo & Juliet, Fahrenheit 451, The Joy Luck
with my students year after year, because I think there is something that we
must garner and learn from the past. However, what has come to the forefront of my
mind, and therefore my teaching, in recent years, is the vast importance of the
Who is the student
and what is he or she experiencing? The playwriting process
helps students uncover the answers to these questions, and by engaging in a community
of writers, each individual student comes to expand their story.

I want to be happy now. I only know what I want right now. And maybe what I want
now will be the last thing I ever want, but at least I would be happy right now. We
cant experience the future, we only can experience the now. You know what I mean?

High Tech High North County, California,
from her play
Together, Selfless

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You may write about anything. There are no limits to the subjects you can touch.
Be unafraid of your craziest, wildest questions. Ask them. This is a standard monologue
I give to students who enter my playwriting classroom.

You really think I dont know real life, that Im detached from the real world, because I
dont appreciate a culture where as soon as you walk off a campus in the rich part of
town, where the student body is almost all upper-class white kids, you see nothing but
the poorest neighborhoods and some of the poorest schools in the country, and nobody
really cares? Because I dont appreciate all the Confederate flags hanging up in every
county of every state in a five-state area? I feel lost here. I think everybody does, and is
afraid to admit it because theyve been here too long.

El Dorado High School, Arkansas,
from his play
On the Mississippi

I invited Brenda to my 10th birthday party at the YMCA and when she laid eyes on
you, you would've never thought this girl never saw a black person in her life. I don't
need a girlfriend...right now. Long Island is full of stuck up Madonna wannabes and
ditzy Tiffany wishies. And don't even get me started on the almost non-existent
African-American community.

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El Dorado High School, Arkansas,
from her play
My Mothers Keeper

*Jeremiah, a senior, was experiencing rather difficult ethical dilemmas in his

mind about his identity as a white male in the rural South when he appeared at my door
in 2012. A play written by *Glory, a quiet black 10th grader, entitled
My Mothers
opened up a dialogue and respect between the two very talented writers that
would last far beyond the time they spent in my room. They were experiencing two very
different sides of race relations as young citizens of America, living in the South. I
actually just recently spoke to *Jeremiah, who is now living in New Orleans, still
unraveling his feelings about race relations in the South.
It is okay to feel lost.
It is okay to feel sad, and happy, and quiet, and introverted, angry and loved.
All of these things are okay.
In this research, I wanted to unravel the specifics- the nuances of playwriting that
may help a student expand his or her empathic potential in a community of writers. I
have seen playwriting activities transform students in a multitude of ways--their writing
abilities, their reading abilities, their ability to listen and analyze, etc. I specifically
wanted to explore:
can playwriting activities help students build empathy?

Literature Review

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Playwriting with Honesty

How can we connect with our humanity and convey it honestly through writing?
Barba (2002) argues that, Theatre is intolerable if it limits itself to spectacle alone (p.
7). Opening students up to playwriting is a difficult task because many students have
been exposed only to film and television, and while theatre has similarities to these arts,
theatre is its own art form. Students often try to write film and television and inevitably
begin writing work full of only spectacle because its often all they know. Where
playwriting is powerful is when it can really be used to convey honest, human moments.
Vidalias (2008) has talked extensively about the honesty in the work that he
helps student create: If you want your play to work, you have to be honest. And my job,
as a teaching artist, is to help you do that (p. 136). Moving students away from the
spectacle requires extensive discussion about honesty which can move students in all
sorts of different directions. This is the power of playwriting: that honesty can appear in
so many different shapes and forms. It can be revealed in a small and simple monologue
or in a character description or even in a setting, but when it is revealed, it is
is it. This is something this writer really knows and understands. This is an
abstract way of looking at writing and the writing process, but honesty itself is an
abstract concept that can be explored in so many different shapes and forms.
Playwriting allows students to be honest while hiding behind fiction.

Playwriting for Literacy

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On top of this powerful mask of fiction, students are engaging in literacy activities
when they are writing a play. Just as in order to write a poem, students must learn what
a poem is, in order to write plays, students must first be shown examples of plays.
Students begin reading with the intent of discovering what could be useful in their own
work. Then, students begin writing their own work. Critique and revision in the
playwriting process is extremely natural: when playwrights of all ages hear their work
out loud, they can hear where change needs to occur. In this process, students are using
their reading, writing and critical thinking skills all at once, helping to show how
theatre can be effectively used as a medium of education (Bhattacharyya, 2013, p. 5).
According to Power (1938), plays are the most logical, most natural, and the
easiest art form for high-school students to write. Almost every student likes to act, and
what is more does act, if only in the imagination. Dialogue is to him as natural as living
(p. 401). This is the reason why students are so able to revise as easily as they do. They
where their work is unnatural. They know dialogue. They live it.

Playwriting as Project Based Learning

In a project-based learning environment, it is the teachers goal to have students
. This means that teachers in this particular setting must allow for the mistakes
that are inevitable in the creation process. Playwriting is a perfect fit in this setting. To
write a play is to create. Students try things out, they hear it out loud, they often change
their work (but not always!). There is no right answer when it comes to the playwriting
process, and indeed, when freed of the obligation to find answers, they ask what we call

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knowledge-based questions, questions that arise from their own puzzlement or

perceived lack of understanding (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1999). This connects well to
this studys setting, where authenticity is such a cornerstone of the pedagogy (Steinberg,
This is not the first time that I have experienced a playwriting project with my
students. However, this is the first time that I have conducted action research on what is
going on in the classroom and chronicling the day to day. My prior observations of what
happens in my classroom have led me to a very specific question. How can playwriting
activities help students build empathy?
I agree with Bhattacharyyas work, best summarized in the following excerpt:

One of the primary concerns related to education today is the excessive workload
upon the students that threatens to have a dehumanizing effect upon them where
they increasingly find themselves cut off from the mainstream society...The
theatre can come to our rescue in this regard. Techniques of drama blur many
boundaries by transforming the formal space of the classroom through the use of
games and conversations, sometimes even actually breaking down its physical
order. Some minimising of the social distance between the teacher and the taught
infuses trust in the latter and makes conversation possible (Bhattacharyya, 2013,
p. 5).

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In the setting of this study, teachers are encouraged to teach from their
passions--to do what you love and let the project drive the curriculum (Guerrero,
2009). As a playwright myself, I have found much joy in playwriting, and I have found
that sharing the playwriting experience with other people has helped me gain a deeper
understanding of who those people are. Because we live a playwriting experience in that
we speak to one another all the time, the structure is easy to understand, and we can
instead focus on understanding one another instead of analyzing a structure--although
this comes naturally to the process as well.

Playwriting for Empathy

There has been research that has proven that students who partake in arts related
activities, whether or not they are specifically playwriting or theatre related activities are
...more confident and willing to explore and take risks, exert ownership over and pride
in their work, and show compassion and empathy toward peers, families and
communities (Burton, Horowitz, & Abeles, 2000, p. 248). Springboarding off of this
work, I strive to develop three mindsets/skillsets in students that together create the
empathetic potential in a student: (1) the art of observation, (2) the ability to connect,
(3) the development of Imaginative Capacity through the very specific art activity of
engaging in a one-act play. Below, I will define empathy and explain how I have distilled
the research on empathy into these three categories.

Defining Empathy

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According to Jeffers (2009), Empathy, at root, allows the self to identify with the
other and individuals to connect with groups, and facilitating holistic learning in the
classroom and beyond, empathy is a vital resource that offers the promise of
intersubjective understanding so essential to the survival of the human community ().
We need empathy in order to progress forward. We need one another in order to
Truly, the value of empathy has increased in todays age, as we tackle our
generations own unique problems. According to Bateson (
), the more empathetic
the individual is, the more likely he or she is to help those in needBateson calls it the
empathy-altruism hypothesis and predicts that an empathetically aroused individual
will feel empathic joy at learning the victims need has been relieved...this joy is a
consequence, not the goal, of relieving the need (p. 154).
Batesons work suggests that empathy/sympathy does indeed lead to genuinely
altruistic motivation rather than to helping behavior because of predominantly egoistic
Olderbak et al. (2014) define empathy as something that refers to the thoughts
and feelings of one individual in response to the observed (emotional) experiences of
another individual. De Wall (2009) distinguishes empathy from sympathy in that
empathy is proactive. Empathy is the process by which we gather information about
someone else (p. 88). In this study, I will be focusing on three traits of empathy: (1) the
ability to connect, (2) the art of observation, (3) the development of the imaginative

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In The Empathy Quotient: An Investigation of Adults with Asperger Syndrome

or High Functioning Autism, and Normal Sex Differences, Simon Baron-Cohen and
Sally Wheelwright review the processes by which they vetted the survey that they
created to measure empathy in adults. In their initial studies, they found that scoring
fewer than 30 points was an indicator of autism (but not necessarily evidence of
autism). Their work revealed both significant empathy gaps between the general
population and a AS/HFA (Asperger Syndrome or High Functioning Autism)
population. Their work also revealed a significant empathy gap between men and

#1. The Art of Observation

Because theatre is a story-telling art form, we feel entitled to assume that the
playwright got there before we got there.
~Tom Stoppard

We see that part of learning empathy is to attain the ability to

observe--everything from how others love, how others look, and the different meanings
behind different postures and facial expressions--stem from an ability to observe the
world and its inhabitants. According to Jim and Tangen-Foster (1998), children who
feel loved, appreciated, and cared for are more likely to love, appreciate, and care for
others and for the environment (p. 3). Truly, children learn how to nurture through

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the experience of being nurtured. They learn respect for others and the environment
through experiences with others in the natural environment (Tangen-Foster, 1998).
Children are natural observers, and it is through observing that they learn how to
behave and how to treat one another and themselves.
Stuebers (2014) research tells us that empathy has also to be understood as
being the primary basis for recognizing each other as minded creatures (). Theatre can
help us recognize one another. Shakespeares Hamlet (199) says, Suit the action to the
word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you oerstep not the
modesty of nature: for anything so oerdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end,
both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as twere the mirror up to nature: to show
virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form
and pressure (Act 3, scene 2, 17-24). In this section, Hamlet speaks to the actors who
are to perform in his fathers show and tell them that by playing, or acting, they are
holding a mirror up to the world. When we dramatize something, we put it up for
exhibition, inviting others to observe what is occurring in the piece, and inviting them to
take something away that they might be able to connect to.
Stueber (2014) also tells us that, Ordinarily we not only recognize that other
persons are afraid or that they are reaching for a particular object. We understand their
behavior in more complex social contexts in terms of their reasons for acting using the
full range of psychological concepts including the concepts of belief and desire (2014).
We are able to read different peoples body language and gain meaning from them
because we are constantly observing the world around us. It is important to note that

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there is so much to see, and sometimes we miss details. However, increased empathy
seems to sharpen our observation skills.

#2. The Ability to Connect

I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms,

the most immediate way in which a human being can
share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.
~Thornton Wilder

Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright (2004) tell us that empathy

allows us to tune into how someone else is feeling, or what they might be
thinking. Empathy allows us to understand the intentions of others, predict their
behavior, and experience an emotion triggered by their emotion. In short,
empathy allows us to interact effectively in the social world.

The ability to connect is one of the key themes that courses through the different
literature that discusses empathy. Indeed, it is the heart of many definitions, to be able
to identify in others something that we recognize in ourselves.
Roman Knaric (2012), who has worked as an empathy advisor to organizations
including Oxfam and the United Nations, breaks down empathy into six habits, three of

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which are: Habit 2: Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities, Habit 3: Try
another persons life and Listen hard--and open up. What these three habits and
Baron-Cohen and Wheelwrights writing on empathy have in common is that
empathetic people have an ability to connect with one another.
In Jeffers research
On Empathy
, Vischer said in regards to his art, I transpose
myself into the inner being of an object and explore its formal character from within, as
it were (2009). Art is about this transposing. Playwriting and theatre, in particular,
asks the writer to become someone else, even just for a moment. This is a rehearsal of
empathy--the experiencing from the inside of someone elses mind and life. This
connection between the self and another being is key to developing empathy.

#3. The Development of the Imaginative Capacity

The stage is a magic circle where only the most real things
happen, a neutral territory outside the jurisdiction of
Fate where stars may be crossed with impunity. A truer and more real
place does not exist in all the universe.
P.S. Baber

The ability to observe and the ability to identify in ourselves something that we
can compare and contrast with something we see in someone else are only two pieces of
what creates empathy. The last, and arguably something we are not prioritizing when it

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comes to what must be taught (Barras), is the ability to imagine--the ability to fill in the
gaps once weve observed a behavior and linked it somehow to our own. With an
unlimited capacity for imagination, we can put ourselves in someone elses life. We can
see from their perspective; we can walk in their shoes because we can
De Waal (2009) further discusses emotional engagement as something that is
necessary for true empathy: ...seeing anothers emotions arouses our own emotions,
and from there we go on constructing a more advanced understanding of the others
situation (p. 72). While his work shows the ability to connect as an important trait of
empathy, he talks about how this ability comes from observing one another.

While there is plentiful literature that argues that engaging with the reading and
writing of fiction and the writing of and watching of theatre helps us observe, connect
and imagine, there is also much literature that argues against the notion that fictional
works help in the building of empathy. In Lipps (1979) work, most of the examples of
empathy zero in on the recognition of emotions expressed through different facial
expressions or bodily gestures. Davis (1983) claims that it is not apparent that a
tendency to become deeply involved in the fictitious world of books, movies and plays
will systematically affect ones social relationships. However, there is evidence that tells
us that the observing of different behaviors helps us sculpt our own. Indeed, Coplans
(2004) work with narrative fictions tells us that empathy plays an important role in
text processing and narrative comprehension (). Further, Black, Turner and Bowers

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(1979) work proved that subjects were able to remember a story better when they were
asked to view the information from a given perspective. Whether it is our ability to
understand the fictional work in the first place or its power to help enhance our ability
to remember, worlds of fiction intertwine with our own real life experiences.

Plan of Action
After reading about playwriting and the different areas that it helps students
grow in as well as after seeing my former students engage in the writing of a one act
play, it makes sense to use playwriting as an avenue for empathy building. The three
traits of empathy as defined in this research are clearly evident in the process of writing
a one act play.

Setting Description

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High Tech High North County is a progressive project-based learning school in

San Marcos, California. HTHNC is a public charter school that admits students through
a postal-code based lottery system in attempt to create a student body that mimics the
population of the surrounding community. The purpose of using postal codes in
admission is to work around unfortunate residential segregation to create a
socioeconomically and racially integrated student body (Potter, 2014).
Social class integration is a very important tenet of the High Tech High pedagogy.
It is important for students to interact with people who are different from them, and not
only inside a school inside a classroom and inside a group as well. Specific
demographics of the larger community that this research was conducted inside is: 56%
Caucasian, 22% Latino, 11% Asian, 4% African American, 2% American Indian, 2%
Pacific Islander and 3% other or mixed race. The schools gender population is male:
58% and female: 42%. The percentage of learners with special needs is approximately
20% of the student body.
A few other key pieces of High Tech Highs beliefs are that the work students do
should have an adult world connection. Many projects are modeled after real-world
experiences, or better yet, are real world experiences with very real outcomes outside
the classroom. One such example is a project that Alec Patton conducted with his 11th
grade students at High Tech High Chula Vista in 2014, where his students helped
develop a piece of theatre partnered with the California Innocence Project, where they
put voices of falsely incarcerated people onstage in a public forum.
That public forum is another cornerstone of our schools pedagogy. Public

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displays of student work, also known as exhibitions, are valuable in helping students
understand that their work can and will live beyond the classroom and that a certain
level of work ethic and pride should be taken when completing a task for a project.
The school strives to create projects that address the Six As of Designing Projects:
Authenticity, Academic Rigor, Applied Learning, Active Exploration, Adult
Relationships and Assessment (Steinberg, 1997).
These particular pieces of High Tech Highs project based learning pedagogy help
to validate the value of a playwriting project. When students engage in a playwriting
project, they are addressing in all aspects of Steinbergs 6 As:

Students project emanate from a problem that has meaning to the
student, since students are encouraged to write from their own experiences.

Academic Rigor:
In order to write a play, students must first understand the
elements of drama. Then, they must use writing skills in order to draft their pieces and
revision skills in order to better and ultimately finalize their work.

Applied Learning:
In a world filled with film and television, and easy access to quick
entertainment via social media, students must dig deep in order to craft a piece of
theatre that is moving, that will make an audience listen.

*Active Exploration:
While reading pieces of theatre is an important part of a
playwriting project, watching and interacting with live theatre is imperative for students
engaging in a playwriting project. It shows students that their words will not live on the

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page, but will live on its feet, being explored not only by their own imaginations but by
the imaginations of many others.

*Adult Relationships:
Students must interact with the current adult world of theatre
in order to understand theatre authentically.

Reading ones writing out loud is scary. Having others read your writing
is even scarier, because your ears--as well as the ears of everyone around you--can
literally hear the places where your work is in need of revision. This is an incredibly
powerful form of assessment, because students very often identify their own areas of
growth with relative ease.
This research was conducted in an elective classroom that included all grade
levels (9-12). Elective classes in the HTHNC community are designed so that teachers
are encouraged to teach their passions, and students are allowed to self select into an
elective that interests them. My population was rich with diversity in all sorts of lights. I
was also lucky to have a very small group of students. Student self-selected into this

Spring 2015 Playwriting Class


Male or Female?

Grade Level

Special Needs

Student of

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F (Kristy)

F (Megan)


F (Jenn)

F (Pinkie)

M (Herzler)

F (Natasha)


M (Skylar)


M (Tyler)

M (Isaiah)



M (Cory)


M (Abe)

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M (John)



M (Erick)


M (Jonah)


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My 40 minute playwriting classes occurred at the end of the school day on
Tuesdays and Thursdays and every other Wednesday, as an elective course, which
means my students chose
to take this class. I had 14 students enrolled, and several of

these students had taken a playwriting course with me in the past, or participated in a
playwriting project that I conducted embedded inside a Humanities class I teach.

Empathy Quotient Test

For my initial survey, I gave students the Empathy Quotient survey developed by
Simon Baron-Cohen. This survey is a self-report questionnaire typically used with adults
of normal intelligence. The test contains 40 empathy items and 20 filler/control items
and on each empathy item, a person can score 2, 1 or 0.
The maximum possible score is 80, and the minimum possible score is 0. I chose
the Baron-Cohen test over other similar surveys because of its shorter length and its
easy administration. I did not want to take up the entirety of a class period in order to do
something like the Empathizing/Sympathizing questionnaire, even though that may
have yielded some other interesting data for analysis.When I first administered this test
and revealed my action research project to my group, one of my students said, Hey- we
should take it at the end too. This was exactly my plan.

Open Ended Empathy Survey

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During my initial survey, I also gave students an open ended survey that I
developed based on some of the Empathy Quotient survey questions as well as on some
of my observations of student discussions in class.
I drew inspiration for the first question based on number 28 of the Empathy
Quotient Survey:
If anyone asked me if I liked their haircut, I would reply truthfully, even if I
didnt like it.
My purpose in drawing out this statement into a longer prompt that was
open-ended was so that I could see students written responses to some of these various
situations that resulted in only a numerical value in the Empathy Quotient test. The goal
of my project was to develop students empathy and the primary way I planned on
measuring their empathy was through their writing, so it is was important to me to
collect an initial piece of writing. This is what I drew the above Baron-Cohen statement
into for the open response:
You see a student walk into class who has been in your class for most of the
year, but she is not someone you have talked to very often. She comes in, and
her head is down, and she seems to be avoiding eye contact with everyone. She
has gotten a new haircut and it doesnt quite suit the shape of her face, and you
think her old haircut fit her better. She sits down next to you, and she asks you,
What do you think about my haircut? What do you do or say next and why?
Try to be as detailed as possible.

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Number 42 on the EQ Test is:

I get upset if I see people suffering on news
For the open response, I asked students to respond to the following prompt:
You hear on the news that a building has collapsed in Dhaka,
Bangladesh. Hundreds of people have died in the collapse, and on top of
this, most of the people who were inside the building were working on
less than minimum wage and were living in houses that lacked
insulation. Someone during the school day mentions that they also heard
the news segment. What do you do or say next when this person mentions
the news segment? Why? Try to be as detailed as possible.

For the last open response question, I wanted gauge each students emotional
engagement and ability to connect. I found that these two things were very important
traits of empathy when I was reading relevant literature, so I posed the following
Describe a time that a friend of yours was in trouble. Who was this
friend? What did you do about their troubled situation, if you did
anything at all? Why?
This initial survey would then be repeated at the end of the course to measure
both a quantitative number (the EQ test) and a more qualitative piece (the open
responses). If you would like to see the exact hand-outs of both qualitative pieces (both
the initial survey and the ending survey), please see Appendix 7. The ending open-ended
questions reflected similar situations but not the same storylines as the initial questions.

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During the playwriting course, students were asked to write responses to various
activities inside their notebooks which are stored in the classroom. Further, each
student planned, drafted, wrote and revised a one act play.
I read each of these pieces with an eye for the three traits of empathy that I have
narrowed down my research to in my literature review: 1) The Ability to Connect 2) The
Art of Observation 3) The Imaginative Capacity. These may appear in these writing
pieces in a variety of ways. For example, responses to the third open response question
that are lengthier, with more vivid detail, may indicate a heightened ability to observe
and imagine the other persons experiences. Responses that likened the friends
situation to the writers own experiences may indicate a heightened ability to connect.
Throughout this process, I analyzed the data in front of me from the lens I know
the best: a literature teacher with a critical eye. While I see poetry in everything my
students do, it was my hope that these methods would allow me to shine a light on the
important subject of empathy and how we can cultivate it in our students through a
creative process.


The Things I Learned

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Throughout this study, I sought to answer the question: How can playwriting
activities help students build empathy? I analyzed surveys, exit cards, open responses
and my day-to-day classroom with an eye for three attributes of empathy I distilled after
much reviewing of literature: 1. The Art of Observation, 2. The Ability to Connect, 3. The
Imaginative Capacity.
I present my findings in the following format:
a) How I saw this finding emerge in the playwriting process
b) How I saw this finding emerge in the reading and critiquing of plays
While I have become friendly with many different themes that have emerged over
the course of this work, I have chosen the most prominent to discuss, and I have housed
them in the following four sections:
1. Exploring Identity through Writing
2. Character Immersion
3. Critique
4. The Empathy Progression

Theme 1: Exploring Identity through Writing

The exploration of identity is integral to building empathy.

Inside the Playwriting Process

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Kristy is in 9th grade. When asked about her process, and how she went about
writing her play, Kristy said, I went to therapy once too so I thought maybe I can use
the therapist, because thats a typical conversation between two people. As Kristy wrote
her play, she was connecting the different fictional elements that she was writing to the
various real-life versions that she had herself experienced. As she explored different
voices, Kristy was figuring out how that voice was similar to or different from her own.
She was looking at her characters in a way that was helping her reveal different things
about herself. Even in reflecting on the activity of writing the first five pages of her play,
Kristy wrote in an exit card, I used observation to bring the therapy room Ive seen into
the story as another therapy room. The art of observation is a powerful tool when it
comes to practicing empathy. In the writing of her play, Kristy was employing this tool
without prompting.
As Jeffers (2009) reports, Vischer said in regards to his art, I transpose myself
into the inner being of an object and explore its formal character from within, as it
were. This transferring of the self into the pieces that we create occurred several other
times during the playwriting process with my students.

Reading & Critiquing Plays

When students read one anothers work and listened to their own work read out
loud in class, something powerful was occurring: they were learning more about
themselves by seeing their work live outside of their own bodies, and by interacting with
the work of their peers.

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When asked what he got out of reading a peers play, Isaiah exhibited a profound
ability to appreciate what another person was doing, displaying all three of the
attributes of empathy studied in this project-- the art of observation, the ability to
connect and the imaginative capacity. He said:

What I got out of it...what I get in general is its really interesting because its
from a different perspective and its a type of writing thats very different from
mine. What Im used to writing in plays is often very...darker...less comedic,
cynical in a way and I find its very interesting to get a different understanding
because it can really help build on what Im writing so just from listening to that
and reading it, I kind of just understood a way that you could add comedy but
still have a very serious topic where you can you know stay interesting but have
an absurd plot.

Isaiah was seeing how reading another persons writing could help him develop
his own writing, helping him explicitly give names to parts of his own style and voice. He
was able to identify someone elses perspective by contrasting it from his own. By
writing his own play, he had something that he could line up to Abes play. He had
something of his own that he had built that he could compare and contrast with Abes
work. In this section, we also see him talking about perspective which is a key idea
when discussing empathy--we must be able to adopt other perspectives. By actively
exploring his own identity through playwriting, he had a lens through which he could

Cabrera 35

look at, critique and pull something useful from another students writing for use in his
own writing. In talking with Isaiah about another students workshop, I noticed all three
of the attributes of empathy emerge in his answers, even though the questions never
once asked about his ability to connect, his imagination or his observations. I wanted to
know simply how his experience in the workshop was, and his answers showed all three
attributes emerging in the way he observed the other persons work, connected it to his
own work, and then imagined the way that it could help build on what he was working
on himself.
Kristy was able to identify with her own characters as well as the characters that
her peers were developing, demonstrating that she had observed these characters in
depth and found a way to connect to them. She said of her own play, I identify with
Charles Richardson because for some reason, people always tell me their problems and I
try to fix them. This was interesting to me, because it seems to be a big jump for a 9th
grade girl to step into an elderly mans shoes.
I talked to Megan, a student with Aspergers, about how she felt when we were
critiquing Joshs play. She said, Well, when I was reading his play, I think that it was
really interesting because I remember I did comedy as my second play. In order to
connect to someones work, there must be something at the core that we are connecting
to. While I saw many text to text, and text to world connections, all of these different
types of connections ultimately come through because of a text to self connection. Those
other texts had become part of who these students were, part of the repertoire from
which they were pulling feedback and drawing comparisons and pointing out contrasts.

Cabrera 36

Those world events and stories had become part of these students identities, part of the
stories that help craft their unique identities and perspectives on the world.

Theme 2: Character Immersion

Playwriting allows students to literally immerse themselves into characters.
It allows them to step into someone elses shoes.

Inside The Playwriting Process

I had had Skylar in class before this elective. I had had him for an entire year in
Humanities, and in a few other electives prior to the elective where this study was
conducted. This was interesting, because I could have Skylar compare his work with me
in this elective to his work with me in other classes. A talented writer, he has written
essays, short stories, letters and all sorts of other writing for me in the past. When asked
how playwriting, specifically, was different from the other mediums of writing he has
used, he said, A short story or a like an essay or anything, those I think I have to take
down in parts. He said, continuing, I feel like I hit blocks a lot faster with those
because theres so much I have to describe and a lot of walls and walls and walls of text I
have to put. And it like, when I write those, I feel like nobodys ever going to read this
and all that. When I write plays, it actually, I can write it fairly quickly and then go back
and edit it and usually with short stories I write, I have a hard time going back and
editing because its a lot but with plays, I can easily go back and edit things, switch
things around, change things. I also like the ability to just have it read and read in a way

Cabrera 37

that its not just one person analyzing it like blah blah blah, its a bunch of people taking
on some of my characters and I just like it. Its just cool.

Reading & Critiquing Plays

I allow my playwrights to cast their own plays during their readings in class.
They are allowed to choose which students will be reading for which roles in the plays
that they have written. For the rest of the reading and critiquing process, the playwright
is to stay silent. When I asked Josh how he felt when he was asked to read for Abes
piece, he said, I get kind of nervous but kind of ecstatic, like Im excited. Im gonna be
playing a character. I think I did okay. A lot of people laughed. Thats also probably a
product of Abes dialogue but honestly if I can make people laugh from reading someone
elses writing and infuse enough life and energy into it so that it can make people laugh,
then its really satisfying. When I was studying acting in college, I remember feeling the
excited nerves that Josh is discussing here. There is something about being
to be
someone else for a while that is very scary--you are being asked to live up to a character
that someone else has imagined. This is a very literal stepping into someone elses shoes.
Students, during this part of the process, are being asked to talk like someone else and
be someone else for this moment in time. In this section, Josh is impressively able to
observe the laughter of the group as not only a product of his acting but also a product of
Abes writing.

#3: Critique

Cabrera 38

Playwriting critique encourages students to understand the intent of the creator.

Playwriting encourages critical questioning. Good questions seek understanding, and
thats the heart of empathy.

Inside the Playwriting Process

I talked to Isaiah about what he thought of our critique workshops and he said,

You get to see all these people look at what you thought of.
I asked Josh what it was like for him to be silent in a workshop where people
were offering him critique. He said, Ideas that you normally wouldnt think of...other
people have thought. Its like a room. You have to bounce the ideas off the walls and try
to catch them and if they just dont fit, you wont be able to but the ones that do make
sense and are good, youll catch and youll put them in your story, or in this case, your
play and improve it over what you would have done before. For students to arrive at a
place where they can pitch ideas at all, they must ask questions to understand what the
playwright is attempting to make.
During a critique session, I ask students to come up with Pops, Questions,
and What if?s for the playwrights. They are to come up with at least one of each, but
over the course of the elective, students come up with far more than one for each
category per play they read! Pops are things that stand out. They are things that
popped out, and typically this is where students are giving warm feedback to their peers,
but sometimes things pop out because they dont quite fit, and its okay to point that out
here too. Questions are for plot. Students are to point out places where they dont have

Cabrera 39

an adequate understanding of the world that has been created or the objectives or fears
of the characters. Students here are asking questions that the writer
answers to, but they have not appeared on the page, in the writing, quite yet. What if?s
are for suggestions and wild and crazy ideas. Students are invited to pull in their own
quirks and writing styles to write What if? questions for anything about the other
students play. Like Josh said, sometimes, when it comes to other peoples ideas, you
try to catch them and they just dont fit. Sometimes, however, someone throws out
an idea, like the time Kristy threw one at Josh during his reading, and Josh reflected on
it later, saying, Thats a great idea, I didnt think of that.

Reading & Critiquing Plays

Kristy identified Abe as someone whose critique she valued deeply. When I asked
Abe what he believed made for good critique, he said, Aside from being kind, specific
and helpful it looks at the big picture and the fine details, tries to understand what the
creator was intending and what they created.
is empathy--the observation of the
work, the connecting to the writers original intent and the imagining of what could be,
given what already is.

#4: The Empathy Progression

There is a progression to building empathy:
Understand self, be understood, understand others.

Cabrera 40

Inside the Playwriting Process

Building empathy is a process. Many writing samples could be argued to show us
some movement but there were only twelve forty minute classes between the initial
empathy quotient survey and the closing survey. Further, the playwriting classes were
spaced out much more than I would have liked them to have been with spring break,
several school holidays and Monday and Friday advisories interrupting the flow of the
project. Below are the empathy quotient scores on February 24th, on the first day of the
playwriting class with this group of students and the second column has the scores from
April 30th, toward the end of the project.

Figure #1

Male or Female?

Empathy Quotient

Empathy Quotient



out of 80~ February

out of 80~ April

24th, 2015

30th, 2015





F (Kristy)


(May 10)

F (Megan)



F (Jenn)



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F (Natasha)



F (Pinkie)



M (Herzler)

17 (April 22nd)


M (Skylar)



M (Tyler)



M (Isaiah)



M (Cory)



M (Abe)




M (John)




M (Erick)




M (Jonah)



Figure #2

Cabrera 42

As you can see from the charts above (Figures #1 and #2), while the majority of
the students empathy quotient scores went up during the course of this project, several
students empathy quotient scores went down and one students score remained exactly
the same. When looking at the writing, however, we see radical movement in the way
students are observing, connecting and imagining.
For example, let us take a look at the differences in students answers to the
following questions:

Figure #3

Cabrera 43


Question #1a: You see a student

Question #1b: A friend from school

walk into class who has been in

walks into your house to hang out

your class for most of the year,

after school. She has her arms

but she is not someone you have

crossed and she doesnt make direct

talked to very often. She comes

eye contact with you when she walks

in, and her head is down, and she

in. She slinks down onto a chair and

seems to be avoiding eye contact

when you ask her how she is, she

with everyone. She has gotten a

says, Huh? and starts to bite her

new haircut and it doesnt quite

fingernails and look off into the

suit the shape of her face, and

distance. You know that she and her

you think her old haircut fit her

boyfriend are going through a rough

better. She sits down next to you,

patch. She turns to you finally and

and she asks you, What do you

says, What do you think about how

think about my haircut? What

I feel? What do you do or say next

do you do or say next and why?

and why? Try to be as detailed as

Try to be as detailed as possible.


February 24th, 2015

April 30th, 2015

I would tell her that her new

I think Id sit next to her and say

haircut is cute, and even if she

Hey, what your emotional reality is,

Cabrera 44

doesnt feel so, she should know

your emotional reality is. Whatever

that she is more than her looks

youre feeling--its real and its

and that no matter what, her old

justified and the best thing you can

hair will grow back.

do for yourself is to allow it--to

happen. Pushing it down only makes
things worse. If the mood was right,
Id offer her some things to help her
like her favorite food or a good movie.


I would probably say it was

I would ask her the details on her

unique or cool. Sometimes saying

relationship with her boyfriend

the truth isnt the best thing. I

(depends on how close we are) and

would not want her to be

try to give her my best advice, listen


to her and be there for her. I hate it

when my friends are going through a
hard time and I want to help. After
we are done talking, I would want to
distract her from her problem and
have fun like a girls night.


I would tell her it looks nice, but

I tell her that whatever she is feeling,


that I preferred the old haircut.

whether or not it has anything to do

Cabrera 45

with him, she should discuss with her


These are just three samples of the fourteen surveys that I took each time
pre-playwriting project and post-playwriting project but there are several things I can
pull from these samples that seem to ring true across the data. Students were given the
same amount of time during the first survey as they were during the second survey. The
first thing I notice of these responses when comparing them is the sheer length of the
second answer compared to the first answer. This helps me see that students are
growing their imaginative capacities-- that they are much more able to display, at least
through their writing, an ability to see through a different perspective.
The inclusion of more specific details helps demonstrate an increased ability to
observe and connect. For example, in the first sample, the student sits down, includes
the exact quote that the she would use to comfort the friend and offers specific examples
of things she would do to help the student feel better. These were details that were
lacking in their initial response to a similar situation.
In sample answers #2, we see a growth in the ability to connect. In the first
response, there is no writing to indicate that the writer was trying to experience what the
friend was experiencing. In the second response, the writer says, I hate it when my
friends are going through a hard time and I want to help showing us how she is
connecting the friends experience to her own experiences.

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In sample answers #3, we see a growth in the imaginative capacity. While the
students initial answer, I would tell her it looks nice, but that I preferred the old
haircut did not include action steps for the listener, the second answer did include
some suggestion and advice: I tell her that whatever she is feeling, whether or not it has
anything to do with him, she should discuss with her boyfriend. The writer seems to be
trying to
the student in the situation rather than temper the situation.

The Empathy Progression:

Reading & Critiquing Plays
When asked about how she felt her reading and critique session went, Kristy
responded, And when people commented at the end about how they liked the way the
girl could bond with parents because I was going for a more heartfelt thing at the end.
So to know that people actually saw that. Kristys empathy quotient score went down
from the initial survey to the final survey but her open response questions as well as her
experience during the reading and critiquing of her play as well as the plays of her peers
tell a different narrative.
She said of critique sessions,
I like being able to tell the story to other people who also write plays and have
them able to give critique on the play [with] one on one critique...its just one
persons perspective. In a group of writers, someone might think more romance
and someone might think more action- you get a different range of what to add,
get more advice on whats better and what will make the play more intriguing and

Cabrera 47


Why I Care
I believe that any problem in the world can be solved with increased empathy. If
we can observe the problem, connect our own existences to that problem and have the
imaginative capacity to innovate a solution for the problem, there is nothing we cannot
face together. For this reason, I entered this work, aiming to use one of my greatest
passion, the theatre, in order to give the world more of what I thought it needed:
empathy. Throughout this study, I sought to understand how playwriting activities could
help students build empathy.
As I worked with students and helped them each develop a one-act play, I saw
four major themes emerge through surveys I administered, writing I analyzed, and
interviews I conducted with the students:
1. In order to build empathy, a student must understand his or her own identity.
Playwriting is an active exploration of ones own identity.
2. Playwriting allows students to literally immerse themselves into characters. It
allows them to step into someone elses shoes.
3. Playwriting critique encourages students to understand the intent of the
creator. Playwriting encourages critical questioning. Good questions seek
understanding, and thats the heart of empathy.
4. There is a progression to building empathy: Understand self, be understood,
understand others.

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I quote Pixars Andrew Stanton a lot because he said something during a lecture
that really resonated with me and helped my own writing immensely. Its a simple rule
of storytelling: Make me care. And truly, isnt this what all education is? Shouldnt
every class in every school in every state and country be striving to make students
Playwriting is a chance for students to show us what matters. Its a chance for
each child to show what he or she individually cares about by asking them to explore the
inner workings of their own identities through the task of writing a play. When I ask
students to write a play, I am asking them: What do you care about?
The playwriting process is an iterative one, and it allows for each playwright to
spot his or her own mistakes. There are no right answers here, simply suggestions that
either connect to the playwrights vision or do not. When we ask students to revise a
play, we are asking them: Why should other people care about this?
Most importantly to me, playwriting is an invitation to explore the impossible. It
is a process where anything in the universe can happen, and well believe it. When we,
together with students, walk through the creative process of writing a play, we are
saying: Now that we both care about this, how can we imagine together?

Practical Use
Theatre has always had a funny type of function in my life, and Ive known that
there was something very special about if from the first time a traveling acting troupe
entered my school auditorium when I was in second grade. Theatre is storytelling on its
feet, and the way that there is someone literally in front of you breathing and telling this

Cabrera 49

tale differentiates it from film and television where you could fall asleep or check out
without hurting anyones feelings.
On a practical level as a classroom teacher, there are three things that I feel like
are the choruses to the song of my playwriting project--things that I repeat over and
over again to my kids that I often find them repeating them to other students, and they
become class mantras as we walk through the creative process together.
First, I talk about
suspension of disbelief
and I ask my students to sustain our
suspension of disbelief. You can imagine whatever kind of world you want, but you must
be consistent, or we will stop believing you. This function of theatre captures the
essences of the three traits of empathy in this study: 1) Let me observe a consistent
world, 2) Because then I will believe it, 3) and Ill imagine with you and go along with
your story.
Second, I talk about honesty. Honesty is different from non-fiction. For me and
my students, it doesnt mean that what youre talking about is scientifically accurate or
even physically possible. It means that you are true to whatever youve written because
youve written from the heart, and there is something in the piece that you truly
understand from the core of your being. Theres a magical quote from a great educator
that I tie to this one as well. Albus Dumbledore said, Of course it is happening inside
your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?
Alongside this study, I have developed a series of lesson plans for use in
classrooms. Ive developed all the activities that, if done consecutively one after the
other, will lead to the writing of a one act play. Ive done my best to design each activity

Cabrera 50

in isolation as well, so that in case its scary to take on a theatre task without theatre
background, you can start with something simple and stand alone and see if you like it.
Ive taught in several schools, and while I have the good fortune of teaching at a
school that asks me to teach my passions, I understand that many teachers are tied to
standards, and that many administrators will ask you to defend what you are doing by
reciting out the numbers that correlate to the standards that your activities are teaching
toward. For this reason, I have also provided the 9-12 Common Core Literacy Standards
that each activity addresses. I want this work to be usable not only in learning
environments like mine, but by any classroom teacher who wants to use this work to
build empathy.
We know that theatre can be effectively used as a medium of education
(Bhattacharyya, 2013, p. 5). This is true both the standard driven reading and writing
way, as well as the way where we believe in growth mindsets and that students can be
educated with attributes like love, compassion and empathy.
Here are some of my favorite, but very simple, activities to do with kids, that you
can do immediately after putting down this study:

Overheard Conversation
(Building Empathy Trait: *The Art of Observation)
The way we talk to one another is fascinating. Go out into the world and find two or
three people who are having a conversation and transcribe it on a piece of paper to your
best possible ability. When it translates onto the page, does it look like theatre? Why or

Cabrera 51

why not? Whats different about the way we talk versus the way characters speak
onstage? Why do you think its important to note these differences?

What If?
(Building Empathy Trait: *Imaginative Capacity)
Set a timer for five minutes and invite students to ask as many What if questions as
possible. Invite them to ask things they are genuinely curious about. Invite them to ask
things that are utterly impossible. The important thing is that there are no limits on
what they can ask, and that they continue writing for the duration of the five minutes,
even if the questions are getting ridiculous or repetitive. Invite them to turn off the critic
in their heads and allow the creator to create.

Setting Brainstorm
(Building Empathy Trait: *The Ability to Connect)
Step one: 1. Invite students to list as many places as they possibly can in five minutes.
The places can be as broad or specific as possible. The important thing is that they are
continuing to build the list for the duration of the five minutes.
Step two: In literature and history, we talk about conflict a lot. Look at your settings and
find a setting that you can add details to to make it rich with conflict. For example, turn
An office building into On the rooftop of the office building, looking at your toes
dangling over the edge

Of course, each of these activities is helping to build all three empathy traits in
one way or another. It is also important to note that sharing with one another has been a

Cabrera 52

very key part of writing a play in my class, but I never force it. I often say, We are going
to share something from this next round, so be prepared, before starting a new quick
write activity, and this has helped prepare shyer students who will, with the preemptive
knowledge of what comes next, write something that he or she is comfortable sharing
with the entirety of the group. However, if a student is still too shy to share, I personally
would not push the issue, simply because the safety of the room is more important than
the isolated incident of a brief sharing out. It is simply a sign to me that Ive got to work
on the culture more, until we are truly a group of creative writers together.
Lila Watson once said, If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time.
But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us walk
together.... The safety of the room has always been of priority to me. There is something
about the culture of sharing our vulnerable selves with one another through our writing
that is akin to poetry itself. This sharing part of theatre has always made theatre
different from other mediums of fiction for me. Its not something to be enjoyed in the
corners of our own imaginations. We are meant to share theatrical experiences with one
another. We dont need to explain them; we dont need to defend them, though no one is
telling us not to. In a theatre, we are asked, only, to experience something together, and
with each shared experience, theatrical or not, small or large, we are unlocking tiny
doors to our empathetic selves.


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While I loved having a diverse group of kids in certain measuresI had students
with IEPs and 504s and students without them, a pretty good gender balance, a few
students of color, students of three different grade levels, etc.there were some
limitations to this work. This study was conducted with only 14 students over the course
of only 12 40-minute class periods. This means that this study comes with several
limitations: 1. Small sample size, 2. Lack of a control group, 3. Short period of time to
see any significant shifts in mindsets.
I have to admit that I was rather disappointed to see several empathy quotient
survey scores drop at the end of the study. While the majority of the students grew their
empathy quotient scores throughout the study, there was one student whose score
stayed the same and four students whose scores went down. There are limitations in
survey data like this, of course, especially since this study was conducted with high
school students. There are extenuating circumstances of one kind or another in every
single students case, and at the end of the day, I had them for forty minutes a day three
times, sometimes two times a week. There were many other classes, life events, and
other situations that filled the other 23 hours and 15 minutes of the days that I got to see
them, so ultimately, I cannot say for sure if the growth on the empathy quotient survey
had anything to do with the playwriting experience.
However, the majority of the students empathy quotient scores
improve and
I think this is a celebration in and of itself. Overall, at the end of the study, I had a group
of kids who cared just a little bit more.

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Further Questions
I would be curious to see this work created with a larger sample of students over a
longer period of time. I often wondered how much of what I was doing with students
helped their empathy because of the playwriting activities themselves and how much of
them were growing their empathy because of the small, intimate size of the group.
Getting to know people in a significant way across grade levels, socio-economic status,
gender and color helps build empathy in and of itself, and this group was small enough
to truly get to know one another and become curious about one another.

What about the students whose empathy scores did not increase?

I would be curious to see the rate of empathy growth in students with

Aspergers/Autism versus students not on the spectrum. How is teaching
empathy to students with Aspergers/Autism different? Is it different?

What other activities lend themselves to teaching students empathy?

Are these findings applicable to other forms of writing? How would this work
look different if students were writing short stories or collections of poetry?
Would it be as effective? I was curious several times throughout the study about
my own personal biases as a theatre lover.

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I entered this work because of two truths I thoroughly believe. #1:

kids are mean.
During my own childhood, empathy seemed to be a natural byproduct of
schooling. We were forced to interact with one another. When we were assigned group
projects; we were forced to go to one anothers houses in order to complete the work. We
learned, one way or another, which behaviors were acceptable and which behaviors were
We are all, at heart, good
. I think goodness can be enhanced. I think it is
possible to nurture love the way we nurture gardens, pulling at weeds and allowing the
flowers to grow. I think our imaginations are so much more vast than we will ever have
the potential to know in our lifetimes. And in my small way, through my large love of
playwriting, I can prove this second claim true one play at a time.

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