Can Activism Improve Arts Education?

Mario Mabrucco
November 27, 2021
How culturally responsive pedagogy can save high school Drama class.

Originally posted on Blogger (July 23rd, 2021)

Sorry — This Is Not About Critical Race Theory

Asa Canadian educator, I’m fascinated by the discourse swirling in the U.S. around critical race theory and it’s place in children’s education (this conversation is also happening in Canada, of course, but perhaps to a less vitriolic extent). It’s an important discussion about when, and how, critical race-based pedagogy can improve the academic success of all students.

Generally the conversation steers clear of arts education. My guess would be that few people outside the world of arts education actually think about, let alone discuss, arts education. Yet as a high school Drama teacher in a culturally diverse community, and graduate of a performing arts high school, I cannot help but think: What am I missing? How can I make this better? How do I get my students to actually engage and, dare I say, care about Drama class?

Research suggests the answer is simple — and it’s not critical race theory. Rather it’s what could be termed its misunderstood kin: culturally responsive pedagogy.

What is Culturally Responsive Pedagogy? (CRP)

One of the leading voices in CRP research and implementation is Dr. Gholdy Muhammad, at Georgia State University. Her work Cultivating Genius is a touchstone for educators who want to understand how race and culture shape their work with students.

A culturally responsive educator intentionally nurtures the cultural uniqueness of their students, to create effective conditions for learning. They see student diversity in terms of student strengths, rather than as challenges. Yet Muhammad’s work highlights that educators have struggled with this goal: “The ways BIPOC have excelled in literacy historically are absent from the ways educators engaged them in instruction today”, says Muhammad. This is compounded by the reality that “teachers are largely white, female, and monolingual, while classrooms are increasingly multilingual and multi-ethnic.”

So how should educators start this work? They need to recognize and challenge the systemic barriers that prevent BIPOC students from succeeding in their classrooms. They need to demand excellence, and help their students achieve it. They need to use texts that actually reflect the experiences and communities of the students they work with. And yes, they have to recognize their privilege.

“But wait”, you say, “I decorate my class for Black History Month every year. Isn’t that a good start?” According to Zaretta Hammond at St. Mary’s College of California, it’s something, but it’s not CRP and it’s not enough. CRP is not multiculturalism — a perfunctory series of time-constrained events that temporarily acknowledge the existence of a race or ethnicity, without enabling any systemic change. Nor is it social justice — the goal is academic excellence, not moral formation.

CRP in Drama Class

My school has seen declining enrollment in recent years, as have many schools in my area. Our Drama program in particular has been hit hard. Considering that the majority of students in my school are Filipinix, it makes sense to implement a CRP program to increase enrollment, retention, relevancy, and success.

To address this, Drama teachers need to recognize that creativity isn’t just a fun add-on; it’s a critical tool that promotes rich learning environments, while maintaining students’ cultural identities.

CRP in Plays: Through the Bamboo

We know that high school students disengage for many reasons. They’re very much aware of a white-centered curriculum that doesn’t change; they don’t get to pick their own texts; they see no diversity; and more. In a culturally diverse school, then, choosing BIPOC authors/playwrights, characters, and narratives is the first step.

To that end, I propose adding Through the Bamboo, by Canadian-Filipinix playwrights Andrea Mapili and Byron Abalos, as an additional core text and performance piece. Through the Bamboo is a play for youth based on Filipinix culture, song, mythology, language, and identity. It addresses themes of family, grief, and language in a magical-realism style similar to Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz.

As an example of how Through the Bamboo celebrates the language of the Philippines, consider the following exchange from Scene 8 (36–37):

GITING: It’s a kapre.
IPAKITA: A giant trickster that lives in trees.
GITING: He controls the forest and likes to make people lost.
PHILLY: Give me my lola’s malong back!

PHILLY tries again and the forest shifts around them. The trio chase after

KAP. KAP sings “Pakitong Kitong.”
KAP: Tong, Tong, Tong, Tong
Kap Kapre sa gubat
Malaki at matangkad
Mahirap mahuli
Sapagkat syia ay suwitik

PHILLY: Wait. The forest is moving in a pattern! Like that “Apples and Bananas” song.

Here we see not only Filipinix naming conventions and terminology, but mythology, songs, and traditional games. Filipinix Drama students can see themselves, their families, and their histories reflected through this text, with their language and culture celebrated at the forefront — “Pakitong Kitong’’ is a children’s alphabet song in the same vein as “The ABC Song”.

Creativity isn’t just a fun add-on; it’s a critical tool that promotes rich learning environments, while maintaining students’ cultural identities.

Though it is a play for young audiences, Through the Bamboo also explores, through symbolism, the Philippine’s history of colonial oppression at the hands of Spanish and American occupying forces. Scene 13 (69–70), near the climax of the play, shows the locals rallying against the magical forces that have enslaved them for generations:

MATALINO: Nale has returned to fulfil the prophecy […] The Sisters have silenced our stories for too long.

(GITING climbs on to KOYO’s back and uses the Taas Taasan conch, signaling MATALINO to begin the attack.)

GITING: Sssssssstttttt!
MATALINO: Ssssssstttttt! This is the moment we have waited for.

(KOYO gestures “good luck” and the Taas Taasan sign. KOYO and GITING race to the Eastern Tides.)

PHILLY: Let’s go, Lola.
MATALINO: Duwende tribes, pick up your sticks! Siyokoy, take up your spears! I call on the light of our ancestors to lead us into battle!

(The ANCESTORS glow.)

Here again we see not only Philippine language — both physical and verbal — and symbolic history, but also using Drama as a means to both explore and speak back to a history of colonial oppression.

CRP in Practice: Culturally Responsive Artistry

Choosing culturally responsive plays is great, but it means nothing without the in-class practice to back it up. Roxanne Schroeder-Arce, at the University of Texas, says Drama teachers need to move towards a system of culturally responsive artistry. This is about building bridges between what art students make in school, and what their lives are like outside the school. Research from around the world shows that CRP in arts programs benefits not only students, but their home communities too.

For example: consider the action research of Tracy-Lynne Coady in New Zealand with Māori youth. Her work centers on taking Māori cultural concepts and using them to bridge achievement gaps in Drama by decolonizing curriculum. Coady’s deep understanding of Māori culture leads her to posit “relational pedagogy — that is, teachers who develop quality relationships with Māori students and consider the social and emotional climate in their classrooms.”

Filipinix Culture in the Drama Classroom

Examining the cultural practices of the Philippines, then, is key to CRP in the Drama classroom for my purposes. Specific cultural practices can be enmeshed with traditional Western approaches to Drama education, such as:

The workshopping, rehearsal, critique, performance, production, reflection, and outreach processes of Through the Bamboo all must revolve around culturally responsive artistry. It cannot simply be mixed in to regular instruction. Instead, the goal should be to learn more about our students and their families, then consult with them on how we could best incorporate these practices into the creative process. As researchers from South Africa and Denmark have found, this gets teachers to better understand the ways children experience the complexity of elements that contribute to the atmosphere of the classroom.

Outreach and Outro

In recognizing my privilege, and in keeping with the tenets of CRP, my attempts to decolonize the Drama class cannot begin and end with me. Localizing my narrative as a white male settler means ceding ground to other people and organizations who are better positioned to guide conversations within the Filipinix community. This outreach process would serve as community consultation on implementing a CRP-based Drama program in a majority Filipinix youth population. Members would be invited into the creative process as observers, to offer critique and reflection, and to invite others in the community to join.

Rebuilding any academic program is complicated. For so long, our goal as educators has been to force students up the mountain of the Western canon. CRP is a way to ease that journey for students and teachers, but also to use shared experiences to reconnect with our local communities —a skill our increasingly polarized world so desperately needs.

Mario Mabrucco is a educator with almost 20 years experience teaching literacy, arts, and social sciences to youth in Canada, Greece, France, Italy, and Monaco. He holds an M.Ed. in Curriculum Studies & Teacher Development, specializing in Education Policy, from the University of Toronto, where he mentors new M.Ed. students. He also designs curriculum for the National Film Board of Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @mr_mabruc


Abalos, Byron and Mapili, Andrea. (2021) Through the Bamboo. Playwrights Canada Press.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2013) Capacity Building Series — Culturally Responsive Pedagogy: Towards Equity and Inclusivity in Ontario Schools. Queen’s Printer for Ontario.

Cody, Tracey-Lynne. “Whakawhānaungatanga: Culturally Responsive Teaching in the Drama Classroom”. (2013) New Zealand Journal of Research in Performing Arts and Education: Nga mahi a Rehia no Aotearoa, Vol. 6

Gonzalez, Jennifer and Hammond, Zaretta. “Culturally Responsive Teaching: 4 Misconceptions.” Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 78.

Muhammad, Gholdy. (2020) Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy. Scholastic.

Goode, Tony and Neelands, Jonothan. (2015) Structuring Drama Work, 3rd ed. Cambridge University Press.

Ndandara, A., & Hambandima, E. (2021) “An Application of a Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) Approach to Drama Teaching Based on Local Wisdom”. Lire Journal (Journal of Linguistics and Literature), 5 (1), 1–15

Samuel, Gerard M., et al. (2020) “Seeing and Being Seen: An Embodied and Culturally Sensitive Arts-Integrated Pedagogy Creating Enriched Conditions for Learning in Multi-Cultural Schools.” International Journal of Education & The Arts, Vol. 21–2.

Schroeder-Arce, Roxanne. (2014) “Towards Culturally Responsive Artistry: Implications for Institutions, Artists, Educators, and Audiences.” International Journal of Education & The Arts, Vol. 15–20.

Mario Mabrucco
Mario is Toronto educator | M.Ed in Curriculum Design & Education Policy | Research & reflection.
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