Creating the “In-Between” A Playwriting Exchange Between Students in Philadelphia and Ketchikan Alaska

In her article “Evaluation and Dignity,” Maxine Greene refers to Hannah Arendt and her concept of the “in-between.” The in-between, says Arendt is a place where people can achieve their full humanity with one another. It emerges through a web of relationships woven through authentic disclosures. This concept is helpful in thinking about and reconstructing the complex and complicated collaboration that has transpired over nearly three years, thousands of miles, two school districts and three classrooms. PorTrait created the context for teachers from different parts of the country to get to know one another as people as well as educators. During the initial conference, the workshops and activities were structured to encourage teachers with similar interests and concerns to find one another and begin to raise the questions we would pursue in our mutual inquiry. We were able to build on that relationship during the school year as we communicated via email and through the BreadNet network. When the time came for the actual visits to occur, we already knew each other fairly well. During the visits, we stayed in each other’s homes, experienced life with each other families, schools and communities. We got to know what life was like in towns and schools very different from our own in ways that would not have been possible without those visits. The time we spent literally sharing one another’s lives helped to create an openness and intimacy between and among us. We had come to know and trust each other enough to create the context for our students to get to know one another as well. The nature of the PorTrait cross visitations made it possible for there to be authentic human disclosures among the teachers and subsequently our students.
During the first year of this project, I was a teacher on special assignment serving as Executive Director of Philadelphia Young Playwrights, an arts in education organization that taps the potential of youth and develops critical literacy through playwriting. The program pairs professional theater artists with classrooms teachers for the purpose of teaching young people how to write, revise and perform their own original plays. For the previous fifteen years, I had been a teacher in the program and my students at two high schools in Philadelphia had achieved extraordinary success: three students won the national playwriting competition, seeing their plays performed professionally off-Broadway. Dozens of other students won the local playwriting competition, seeing their plays performed by local universities and professional companies. In addition, I had written extensively about the ways in which teaching playwriting had transformed my practice as an English teacher and I had helped plan and implement professional development programs for teachers wanting to study the impact of playwriting on their teaching.
During the first year, most of my questions were about the playwriting program. Specifically, I wanted to know the impact of the classroom visits of the professional playwrights and actors as well as other elements of the program. After the first year and partly in response to my involvement in Dina and Rosie’s classrooms, I opted to leave the job as executive director and return to the classroom.

In the second year of the collaboration, the web of relationships became more complex as Rosie and I carried out our exchange. I had been to Rosie’s school and talked with her students, but she had not been to mine (the year she visited Philadelphia, I was not teaching – though she did attend a playwriting workshop run by PYPF that I had developed.) While I had more experience in the teaching of playwriting and drama, Rosie had developed expertise about on-line exchanges through her involvement with BreadNet and the Rural Teachers Network. Also complex was the nature of our very different contexts: Kayhi is the only high school on the island of Ketchikan (except for one or two religious schools and an alternative high school for struggling students.) Rosie’s classes included students of all achievement and ability levels. Masterman is a magnet school for high performing students located on the fringe of the center city and students come from every neighborhood in the city.
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I found Ketchikan to be a unique combination of almost 1890’s frontier life and 21st century sophistication. While we were in Ketchikan, we saw a logging rodeo and a community theater production of Wit. We saw a performance by Japanese children visiting Ketchikan as part of an exchange program and a local talent show of sorts called the monthly grind. I have very vivid recollections of one of Rosie’s students, a Native young man who knew every single Beatle song ever recorded. Dina Rosie and I sat with him for over an hour one afternoon after school in the high school’s beautiful atrium – it was raining outside ( as it had been for almost our entire visit) but it was warm and bright inside as this young man played his guitar and we sang Beatle songs together. Not only was the school beautiful, clean and filled with extraordinary local art, the halls were neat and quiet —Rosie’s classroom was also a lovely sight with carpets, new furniture, computers and colorful student work from floor to ceiling,. Even as I write this, I cringe when I try to imagine how my run down aging and crumbling classroom must look through Rosie’s eyes.
I had my own concerns about my students and my school. Masterman students score the highest in the state on all standardized tests. Virtually every graduate goes on to a four year college. This makes Masterman a very interesting place to teach. The students are bright, and very motivated to do well. And it can be a lot of fun. But this also has a down side. There is among some students and teachers an emphasis on grades and test scores. There is an air of competition that interferes with true learning and impedes the establishment of an authentic learning community. While it was difficult to avoid this kind of grade consciousness in my Honors English classes, I was able to try to establish a different atmosphere in my Drama and Inquiry Elective. In the course description I gave to the students in the beginning of the year, I wrote, “Over the years, I have come to appreciate the genre of drama as a powerful tool for investigating complex moral, ethical and cultural questions about human existence. In this course, I hope that we will become a true intellectual community filled with members who raise heartfelt and complex questions and explore answers together. We would do so by reading, writing and performing plays.
The central question driving my current inquiry has to do with the ways in which I was successful and unsuccessful in the establishment of that kind of learning community. I am particularly interested in the nature of response and responsibility in my Drama and Inquiry class and how the Alaskan exchange both brought into focus and called into question my practices concerning responding to student plays and the kind of moral, ethical and intellectual community I strive to establish in my classroom. As the community was extended beyond the walls of the classroom, how did seeing my students, my teaching practices and my school through Rosie’s eyes and the eyes of her students help me get a better understanding of what was happening in my classroom?
The exchange worked as follows. A week or two before Rosie began her playwriting unit, my students sent scenes from their plays to Rosie’s students. Along with the scenes, they sent short personal introductions, then brief descriptions of their scenes. Many of them also sent a list of questions they wanted their Alaskan reader to think about while reading the play and respond to in their email. We also sent a video that included introductions and some of the activities we did in drama class. Rosie’s students emailed back (to me who distributed the emails to the students… wrote back, including in their emails, personal introductions, and responses to the plays in progress. Shortly thereafter, Rosie’s students sent their scenes and a video to which my students sent their responses. The exchange ended abruptly at that point when Rosie ran into some flak from colleagues who questioned the efficacy of the project and complained to administrators in Rosie’s school.
There were many positive things I learned about my students from this exchange. I was encouraged and gratified by the number of students who responded to the Alaskan plays with thoughtful and respectful questions. This mirrored the kinds of responses I would give my students and the process by which I was teaching them to respond to each other. I was pleased to see reflected in these emails just how much my students had learned about the craft of playwriting – about the development of character and conflict, the use of the space on the stage and the importance of stage directions.
But there were some other things I saw in the email exchanges that raised questions for me about certain dissonances or conflicts in my own class of which I may not have been aware. One such incident related to do the different approaches students took to playwriting as seen in the following exchange. Bronwen, a student in my class sent her play to Andy in Alaska. Her play is about a teen age girl, her father and his lover who contracts AIDS.
Andy writes to Bronwen: “I thoroughly enjoyed your play. I am also writing a play about homosexuals. I view their rights or lack thereof as a big problem especially in small isolated Ketchikan.”

Bronwen replies:
It’s really cool that you are writing a play dealing with homosexuality too. It’s a really difficult subject matter especially when so many people are homophobic. When we workshopped my scene in class, I was really nervous and there was a lot of tension in the room. But something you said really sticks in my mind. I remember that you wrote something about my play being “about” homosexuality. It made me think that I don’t want my play to become like another after school special, you know? I don’t want it to be one of those educational plays that’s like, “now this is why we don’t discriminate against Harry the homosexual.” It’s like I have gay characters in my play but I don’t want that to be the ultimate focus.”

After the initial exchanges, we had a whole class discussion about our collective reactions to the plays we had received and the term “After School Special” took on a somewhat derogatory or condescending connotation when applied to a play. What is particularly interesting about this exchange and the conversation that followed in class is the way that it revealed dissension and fissures not with how my students were seeing the Alaskan plays, but how they were seeing each others. Indeed, many of their plays WERE about issues and many students were writing about actual events that happened in their lives. To hear their classmates deride some of the Alaskan students’ plays because of their supposed lack of sophistication made some of my students very uncomfortable to share their work in our class.

In an email sent to in the summer in response to the exchange project, my student Kathleen writes:

“Some in our class took on a “we’re better than them” attitude, when that was not the case at all. It was more of a we’re both different from different backgrounds. And I felt as though we as a drama class we should be trying to get to know and become familiar with something different. … because we had the professional playwright and more resources it made us have a better and more developed background into playwriting and more of a chance to lend what we have learned and give helpful suggestions because we were lucky to have access to such things. I learned more from my Alaskan pen pals than students in my class… and in fact I did use their suggestions because they made sense. I think the students in Alaska should have been hurt and angered by the comments that their plays were After School Specials and I said that in class. Who are we to tell them that? I felt very nervous from the students in Alaska who were on the receiving end of these emails. What may seem like an after school special to someone may be real life for someone else.”

It is clear to me that Kathleen was not only writing about the way some of my students responded to the Alaskan plays but how they responded to each other’s as well.

Another area of dissonance had to do with the difference in our contexts. There were two questions emerging simultaneously: How well had each playwright depicted his or her context and how well did each reader understand the nature of the playwright’s context. This became evident as students in both Alaska and Philadelphia made judgments about how “realistic” their partner’s play seemed.

Many of the emails from the Alaskan students to my students focused on the use of profanity and the “unrealistic” nature of the dialogue my students had written. Erin from Alaska wrote to Addie: I think that how the kids are talking and being so intensely sarcastic to the teacher is a little unrealistic.” Clearly, Erin didn’t understand the context of an urban magnet high school.
Two of my students were writing plays with overt Jewish themes – one set at a Passover seder and another in a sukkah at an Orthodox synagogue. They had some concerns about how their plays would be received and understood by their partners. While there were some Jews in Ketchikan (on my visit I had met the mayor, a singer in an aging rock band and the cooking teacher at Kayhi) there was no synagogue nor organized Jewish community on the island. It raised questions for them about whom they were writing for and how much responsibility they had to depict their particular Jewish context accurately.
While their counterparts didn’t respond to the Jewish themes, they did offer helpful feedback. The student responding to the Passover play said he could relate to way the children were bickering at the family holiday dinner and the student responding to the sukkah play asked for more dialogue and a longer conversation between the main character and the rabbi to flesh out the nature of their relationship.

One of the most wonderful moments in this entire exchange occurred when two of my students, Natalie and Ben, were acting out a play that had been sent to us from Alaska. They were having a difficult time with some of the vernacular and they were infusing their performance with undue melodrama. In the midst of the reading, Natalie stopped abruptly. She had apparently had a sudden vision of the students in Alaska acting out her play and getting it all wrong. The realization that the students in Alaska might not “get” the reality of the characters in the Philly plays, led Natalie to make a very important leap. She might not be getting the reality of their plays either. She would have to take a different stance in how she approached their plays, one in which she was the novice, the outsider, the learner.
The experience of receiving feedback from people so far away in a very different context and questioning the efficacy and usefulness of that feedback heightened the experience of reading and offering feedback to others. Many of my students shared Natalie’s epiphany. If their Alaskan penpal had misjudged or misunderstood the scene that he or she had written and sent because they were unfamiliar with the realities as well as subtleties of our context, it was then possible, even likely that they too misunderstood and misjudged the plays written by the Alaskan playwrights.
Drama allows people to imagine worlds and possibilities both inside and outside of themselves. It can provide a mirror in which we can see our own lives reflected or it can offer us a window into worlds and lives we never knew existed. But sometimes something magical happens and we get to see ourselves reflected in the unlikeliest of places… discover mirrors in the distant windows and re/discover new dimensions of ourselves. While this exchange was short-lived, it did open up many new possibilities for my students to raise new questions, to expand their notions of audience, to look at their plays and their lives through new and different eyes.

Marsha Pincus

Marsha Pincus is a post-mid life woman, riding the Age Wave and writing for her life.

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