Hewitt’s Dean of Teaching and Learning and Head of Middle School Dr. Maureen Burgess says, “empathy is fundamentally about embracing the experience of walking in another’s shoes,” and Hewitt drama teacher Colleen Britt asks her seventh grade students to do this in an almost literal way. Believing strongly that an artist must have empathy in order to tell and honor another human being’s story, Ms. Britt asks her seventh grade drama students to step into the shoes of a classmate through a project in which girls learn and reflect on another’s story and then honor, embody, and ultimately perform that story.
First, Ms. Britt divides students into groups of two, intentionally pairing students who have not previously worked together. Finding a quiet nook or corner in the theater, paired students are given a prompt asking them to talk about a moment in their life when they felt a genuine experience of surprise, whether it be good, bad or shocking. The listener is instructed to refrain from taking notes so that they can just listen; once the speaker is finished, the listener begins to ask questions and take notes. Once the interview is complete, students switch roles and repeat the process. Over the course of one week, each student uses her partner’s words to create and then perform a monologue in the voice of her partner.
Ms. Britt notes that initially, students expressed nervousness and concern about what their partner would think of their writing or interpretation — a sign that the girls were learning what Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of a single story,” or the danger of showing someone in an overly simplistic or reductionist light. Responding to students who expressed how difficult it was to try to become another person through performance, Ms. Britt explains, “We talked about how, in order to live in another person’s given circumstances and reality, you have to be open and imagine yourself in their shoes and really allow yourself to be vulnerable, allowing you as the performer to tap into your truth and use that truth to help tell another’s story.”