Challenging Immigration Policies

Photograph showing two men seated in chairs. Two women pretending to be police officers stand on either side of the men.

Participants act out a scene using Boalian theatre techniques during the JoLLE Spring Conference.

 Challenging Immigration Policies through Critical Performative Pedagogy

Reflections on our Workshop for JoLLE Activist Literacies Conference

 Ruth Harman, Kinga Varga-Dobai, Monique Evans Newsome and Brittany Bogue

 Anti-immigrant discourses and policies have posed daunting challenges for immigrant students and their communities in the Southeast of the United States in recent years (Allexsaht-Snider, Buxton, & Harman, 2012).  A ban instituted by the University System of Georgia Board of Regents in October 2010, for example, prevents undocumented students from gaining admission to selective universities in the state regardless of high achievement records (Board of Regents Website). Senate Bill 160, recently approved in April 2013, may well prevent mixed-status immigrant families from accessing Medicaid and food stamps for their children.


Photograph of two men

Workshop attendees engage in a sculpting activity.

As multicultural educators very troubled by these civil rights issues, we conducted a theater workshop at the conference where we used performance and critical discussion to embody and challenge these immigration policies.  After engaging in warm-up Boalian games for actors such as body sculpting and mirroring activities, participants were asked to do free writes on personal experiences related to immigration (e.g. their own stories or those of their students). With three other participants they negotiated which story they would improvise for the whole group. In one mesmerizing scenario, the performers enacted a potentially very dangerous encounter between a Mexican immigrant driver and an overzealous police officer. Using Boalian techniques, members of the audience were encouraged to break into the scene and take on the role of the protagonist. One member of the audience, for example, changed the dynamics of the scene by enacting culturally responsive policing strategies.

In reflecting on our work for the conference, we believe that the ways in which our workshop participants engaged in the performance showed powerfully both the deep embodied knowledge they had of immigration issues and how the embodied re-enactment of painful experiences related to immigration helped us as a group to engage more deeply with the issues.  This type of critical performance work can be used by educators and activist groups for social justice education (Enns & Sinacore, 2005; Nieto & Bode, 2012). In alignment with the main principles of social justice education as described by Enns & Sinacore (2005) critical performance enacts and affirms the experiences of those peoples who have been marginalized and opens discussion about resistance strategies and pedagogies that can be used to counteract egregious policies. In the context of teaching, critical performance allows for perspective taking and valuing of diversity, and promotes classroom climates built on equity.

Workshop attendees act out a scenario.

Workshop attendees act out a scenario.

Economically disadvantaged, undocumented residents, refugees, middle-class, struggling readers are all labels stamped upon our students’ educational passports. Critical use of performance supports teacher researchers to partner with students in collaborative youth participatory research that challenges institutional oppression (Cahill, 2007).  Indeed, presenting Boalian scenarios to those who traditionally hold power allows students to have voice and dialogue with existing power structures.  In sum, this work empowers educators to teach within the context of culture and to challenge the institutional structures of learning. Below we outline a sample lesson of activities for teaching in K-12 levels.




Our demonstration lesson for the conference:  So far from the sea and Japanese American Incarceration during World War II


By imaginatively and experientially delving into scenarios that relate to specific socio- political and historical events, students begin to understand the complexity and multi- dimensional nature of history. Perhaps, the results of participatory and performative instruction will generate interest in readdressing issues of social justice.

  • Students will be able to experientially connect to the concept of incarceration without trial.
  • Students will explore strategic and tactical responses to social injustice and racial discriminatory practices related to immigration issues.

Questions to ask students after they sculpt their scenes:

Who are you? What is your story?

Where were you?

What did you want from the situation?

Was your story similar or very different from the sculptor’s master story?

Sequence of Activities in CPP Workshop

  1. Name Game and other Theater Games (Do regularly in class before workshop day)
  2. Reader’s Theater to activate discussion of key issue for group (e.g. immigration policies)
  3. Voting on emotions and counter emotions (Group vote on what emotions they would like to embody in their work)
  4. Body Sculpting and Museum Walk
  5. Debriefing with partner (What did you notice? What did you feel?)
  6. Journal write about personal experience related to immigration (or social issue being discussed) and triggered by the body work
  7. Story sharing and negotiation with three others on which story to tell
  8. Rehearsal of scene through silent sculpting of scene and verbal improvisation
  9. Jokers (facilitators) help groups to rehearse their scenes and encourage spect-actors to become involved in the scene as alternative protagonist
  10.  Discussion of the scenes and strategies used by spect-actors
  11. Returning to the readings on immigration (connecting the theater work to the class curricular unit).


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