The Acting Keys:

Allowing Students to Not Only Unlock the Door to Themselves, but Others, and the World

Alex Burkart
Alex Burkart delivering his keynote speech at Adams State University in CO

This written speech was my base for a keynote presentation I recently did at Adams State University in CO as a part of their Middle and High School English Teachers’ Conference.  It was initially presented on April 13, 2018.  

Atticus Finch says in To Kill a Mockingbird…

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view… until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”

I want all of you to take the moment to do just that:

First and foremost take a moment to close your eyes.

Now.  I want you to set back the clock a little bit.  I want you to imagine yourself as a teenager, sixteen to be exact.  A time that puts us in the turmoil and conflict of self and value identification.  A time where you feel as if you are a stranger to your mind and body.  I want you to give yourself permission to remember back that far, and I don’t want you to run from it; rather I’d like you to simmer in it.  Like vegetables sitting in a buttery sauce pan.

Now, I want you to stretch this sense to the imagination.  I want you to now imagine a rope of failure wrapping around you.  You are still a teenager.  Only now you face the reality that you have failed out of three schools. 

On top of that you’ve been seeing a psychiatrist for treatments.  You don’t talk about it however.  Talking about it would only make things thicker and harder than they already are.

On this particular day, the one we are on right now, you received notice that you will be expelled from your fourth high school.  You know your parents are going to destroy you; but you try and push their image away, because their disappointment is starting to become monotonous.  Instead you seek out a past teacher, wanting to say goodbye.  When you go to his office however, all he can do is scold you about your past performance.  You then stumble across your next door neighbor, but you find his lack of hygiene annoying: his pimples to be even more specific.  You then see your roommate, but an insecurity builds up in you while seeing him, you don’t trust him, in fact you suspect he may have slept with a person that you also like.  Your roommate sees this insecurity however, and starts to make fun of you.  It’s a simple tease, but it’s enough to light the stick of dynamite that has been inside of you for the past hours, days, weeks, years.  Your failure reeks everywhere.  Nobody gets you.  Nobody understands you.  All of this is THEIR fault.  THEY are the reason for your failure.  THEY have made life such an utter pit.  One impossible to crawl out of.  This festers in your mind so much that finally it bursts; you attack your roommate.  He easily takes you however, and ends up bloodying your nose.

And then you are left with a choice: should I stay and take responsibility for all of these things happening to me, or do I run.   And you decide on the latter.  You are going to start everything anew.  Abandon this rotten life.  Everything.  You are going to leave.  You are going to go back to your hometown and bum around for a little bit.  Not tell your parents.  Not tell anyone.  At least for now.  At least for now.  You put on your red baseball cap, take a breath, and begin walking forward.

Now open your eyes.

A lot of you may know the story I walked you through was the beginning of JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.  It is a popular story amongst young adults, and it is one that has stuck with me after wandering out into this so called “real world.”   Perhaps it stays with us because it hits so close to home.  That even though we joke later about what a brat Holden Caulfield is, we still can’t help but admit, deep down inside, that there is a little bit of Holden’s angst inside all of us:  whether we like it or not.  And perhaps because of this, it is easy to, as Atticus Finch says: “climb in his skin…” to imagine ourselves as that person: to relate to him.   And some of you have probably already acknowledged that it’s a place where you have been before.  Wanting to run from everything; and it’s a place a lot of your students have been as well. 

Climbing into someone else’s skin is something that actors do all the time when creating characters.  It stems out of two components: personalization (the ability to relate to one’s own self), and imagination (the ability to relate to one’s self in imaginary circumstances).  It is also a technique used by directors when getting their performers to learn and explore with someone new.  To make a given situation real.   It is also a tool needed by the general population; to create something known as empathy: the ability to relate to others in different situations and circumstances.  And Empathy is important, because it unlocks the door for us to think critically not only about ourselves, but the world.  It allows us to all be more connected.

I am originally from a city located in Southern, WI.  It is made up of a mostly white, working-class demographic.  I come from a generally happy life, filled with positive experiences, and admittedly very little failure and struggle on the grand spectrum.  Since then, I have ventured to many different parts of our country: Los Angeles, St. Louis, Richmond, Denver, New York; and I have met a very diverse array of people, and stories, and lives.  What I have noticed through these adventures is that under limited circumstances my ability to relate to these people would be impossible.  I’d be stuck in my own self-involved life, thinking that only my thinking and ways were correct, and I’d never continue to grow.  But if I use the keys of personalization and imagination, and I keep my mind, my ears, and my heart open, my empathy takes me the rest of the way; and in turn, the people I meet become so much more to me: they become inspiration for my future motivations and actions.  They become the sources of my art: and my stories.


Stories are the doorways to any subject that may be taught.  History is none other than the story of our own country and/or world; science is the story of the way things work; English and language is the story of communication, whether that be through written or verbal methodologies. 

What’s hard about learning stories however is that students don’t see them as doorways.  They don’t see them as potential portals to other worlds and deeper understanding.  Instead they see them as tedious facts, out of touch with present day, and non-applicable.  Students learn by placing words on flash-cards, memorizing definitions, rather than putting them in their mouths and actually using them.  Don’t beat around the bush on this!  I know I’ve said “Why am I reading Crime and Punishment?” Or why am I learning trigonometry?  I’ll never use sin, cos, and tan in real life.  I also know that if I’m saying it, others are saying it too.  I’m not the exception.  And chances are you once said it in your adolescence as well. 

But in order to crawl into another person’s skin, we have to be able to open the door first.  And in order to open the door, we have to see it for what it is!  And here we run into the key problem.  How do we get our students to see it as more than just a lesson?  How do we get the students to remember it more than just the hour before the test, only to be forgotten minutes later?  The answer to this is that we need to trap them.  We need to give them something more than just a lesson.  We need to give them an experience.

In theatre studies, we often learn that the most successful stories are those that are experiential.  They are the ones that cause us to have emotional reactions, and because of this, they have the power to change our thoughts and behavior.  We’ve all experienced this walking out of a terrific film or theater performance, feeling the overall need to discuss with one another what we just witnessed.  Thinking deeply about the decisions and experiences of the central characters.  Examining the themes of the piece.  Asking what it says about society today.  We look at the world in a slightly different way after viewing, after discussing.  We are learning.

But it doesn’t feel like English class!  That’s because it’s not English class!  We aren’t being forced to watch a play or movie because we have to.  We are watching it for our own enjoyment.  It’s not framed as “class my parents and society makes me take.”  It’s framed as “entertainment.”  We aren’t being tested on it.  We take what is most valuable to us, and we simply apply it.  It is what we as teachers WANT in the classroom, and it is through this experiential behavior that students can actually learn for life.


I’m sure as teachers none of you are strangers to critical literacy.   Although I do want to take the time to ensure that it is different than critical thinking.  It is very possible to “think” about something without being literate in it; as thinking only applies to the mechanics in our minds, rather than the behavior that it can execute.  It’s like when Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man creates his snake-oil “think method.”  “If you think you can play the trombone, you can play the trombone; there is no need for practice…” We all know that this doesn’t work.  You can never play a musical instrument by only simply thinking about it.  It’s why you as teachers test your students; you create assignments; you make them do reports; you make them do speeches.  You are making them prove that they can do more than just think about it.  You are asking them to prove literacy. 

As far as social-emotional learning is concerned: the education of self-awareness, social awareness, empathy, relationship skills, decision making skills, and self management; you all are even stressing the importance of that.  In a national survey of teachers 97% of you said that social emotional learning can benefit students from under-represented socioeconomic backgrounds; and 95% of you said that it’s teachable.  What I tell you however, is that it’s not only good for those from under-represented backgrounds, it’s good for everyone in general.  Because it creates the connection of learning to every day life (Greenberg, Domitrovich, Weissberg, and Durlak 17).


I want to rewind for a minute, and look back at the “climbing into his shoes” exercise I did with you in the beginning of this essay.  The reason I did this is because the skill of empathy (created by personalization and imagination) is one of the main components of social emotional learning, which leads to critical literacy.  It is also a skill that creates a brilliant actor.  It’s how Meryl Streep can transform herself believably time and time again. It’s how actors and actresses alike can explore so artistically the role of Hamlet: his many complicated dimensions, emotions, and volatile behavior.  It’s how they can approach a character without any judgement whatsoever.  It’s also why some of our most notable actors have become incredible activists and leaders in society.  It’s also something that even you all said you can teach.

Acting and performance in the classroom is one of the easiest ways to obtain this key, the key of empathy; as it integrates the practice of critical literacy and comprehension in an experiential way.  Most prominently because the students have no choice but to put themselves in the situations of other people when they act.  If you can truly get them to give over to it, they will not just read; they will experience.  Similar to an entertainment-based experience.  And through this experience, they will understand the character’s humanity, and the need; they will discover the actions the character takes to achieve this need; and they will be able to discuss it in depth, because they’ve lived it: and they’ve experienced empathy.

This “experience” is partly driven by the key of imagination.  A skill that the most incredible actors have, a skill that can connect an ordinary mid-westerner’s body to the mind of an alien from a distant planet or a knight fighting a dragon. Imagination is created by a simple question: “What If?”  This magic seed of thought inspires writers and artists to create their art, and it also unlatches our imagination as readers, students, and performers.  What if I was in Holden Caufield’s shoes?  What if I was Boo Radley?  What if I was Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter?  What is amazing about this question is that it immediately cracks the whole story open.  It allows the students to see a book not only as a brick of paper, but an entire world full of choices that they can possibly relate to.

But how can we do this when theatrical plays are not regularly listed in curriculum?  The answer is simple really.  You don’t need actual plays.  All you need are stories.  You have books.  You have magazines.  You have newspapers.  You have each other.  There are an infinite number of possibilities just there.  One of my favorite monologues of all time is actually taken from Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Goldfinch. I pulled the dialogue out of the book; a beautiful character facing angst and the need for validation and belonging.  And when I speak the words he says, I obtain glimpses from his experiences.  I learn about him.  I feel his rejection, his lack of family, and his struggles: all things I do not necessarily routinely feel.  But by saying them truthfully, and asking What If?– I can obtain his to a degree.  It is almost like a creative imaginary osmosis.

What’s even more important is that when I perform it: I understand the story better, I comprehend it better, and I know it better.  They aren’t facts or flashcards.  They are a part of me.  A door has been unlocked.  So use Of Mice and Men.  Have your students craft scenes from the story (if you aren’t already using the play version by John Steinbeck himself).  Have them perform with one another, and encourage them to really live.  Not to just mess around, but to feel their way through it with one another.  Afterwards, have them discuss what they experienced and ask them why they made the choices with the character they did.  Believe it or not, this will be a much better test for you to identify whether or not they truly understand the material- as their choices will be rooted out of the themes, character, and story, and it won’t seem like work to them, as it is experiential.  It is an opened door.

This doesn’t have to be only about fictional works either.  I know many of you face the increased need of your districts to integrate non-fictional works as well.  Just remember, everything is a story; whether it be fiction or non-fiction.  Even a bus chart has something lurking underneath it: the people who made the chart, the people who use the bus system, the people who work the bus system.  You just need to uncover it all; like pigs looking for truffles. 


The second key is personalization.

When we practice personalization we go through a process of reflection, transformation, and then action.  For example: we read an article in the New York Times about school shootings.  We then reflect on it: this is what happened, how does this relate to me?, how does this relate to others?, how about the world?  After reflecting, the person changes to a degree, they transform.  They may develop an opinion that the government isn’t doing enough to protect our schools, one way or another.  What is important is that things are slightly different than they were before in our consciousness: and then we act.  This action is a decision that we all make, and everything in its own right is an action; even the choice not to act.  The student reading the article about school shootings may choose to lead a rally.  Or they may choose to just sit at their desk and do nothing.  This process ultimately defines our position in the world.  Are we the leaders, or the followers?  Are we the do-somethings, or the do-nothings?  How do we act?  How do we behave?  When you notice this process, you understand the individual’s place in the world: and I challenge you not to judge a person based on their place: as the idea of one role being more important than an other is often proven arbitrary. What’s also important to note is that every single person on this planet will have a slightly different action, no matter what, as each source of meaning is relative to us. 

In performance studies, there is a French guy by the name of Jacques Derrida.  He developed a concept known as deconstruction.  Deconstruction basically became a key tool for disempowered groups to read against certain texts; debunking the author’s intent, and exposing fallacies, lies, and arbitrary relationships and meanings.  It’s also a huge tool for developing the key of critical literacy.  The reason for this is that it actually empowers students to have their own opinion about what they are reading: to relate to it on a completely personal level.  As I said before, empathy for actors comes from two components: the imagination of being in those circumstances, and the personal connection to that image.  Deconstruction is an excellent way to exercise that second handle.

Theatre in the classroom is another key tool when developing personalization.  You can do this by using the techniques of a theatre practitioner by the name of Augusto Boal.  Now Boal is most famous for his Theatre of the Oppressed, which was basically rehearsal for life.  A leader, known as a “joker,” would pull out through discussion a particular experience that was making someone feel oppressed. This could be something seemingly as futile as “the person next to me is more stylish” or more severe, such as racial oppression.  The ensemble would then re-enact and rehearse this experience making slight adjustments to see how the conflict could be remedied.  It can be a key tool when understanding certain peoples’ points of view and given situations.  It’s also a way your students can take non-fictional circumstances that they read in a magazine or newspaper and deconstruct it, or personalize it, as many of your students will have their own personal view on the problem at hand and the solutions needed to solve that problem.

Another main component of Boal’s work was something called Image Theatre.  Image theatre involved groups creating still pictures with their bodies telling specific stories.  What is amazing about Image theatre is that it provides an opportunity for students to deconstruct and express texts and ideas, as well as practice comprehension and collaboration.  So give readings to your students, and have them work together to create a still response that they need to share with the class.  Then have the observers take time to analyze the still pictures.  What is being communicated through the relationship?  Who has power over whom?  How is this affecting them?  After all, even though you spend many hours teaching the meaning of linguistic symbols, you should never abandon the need to teach the comprehension of the symbols created by our gestures, bodies, and behaviors.  Language, you all know, is way more than just what’s in books.

What’s also beneficial about using Boal’s methods in class is that you cannot only teach emotional learning and critical literacy, but you can make notes about pictures and staging for your school productions. Oftentimes, the most captivating behaviors, pictures, and moments come from those influenced from real life events.  Let your classroom become your lab.  If someone is making still of a person on trial defending their own name, perhaps it might be perfect for you current or future production of The Crucible.  If someone creates a scene about the oppression of women; perhaps it’ll spit up some amazing behavior that is perfect for your production of Antigone.  There is inspiration to be found everywhere.  Just make note of it.

When we explore with theatre and performance students are exposed to another important element that allows them to climb into another person’s skin as well as develop critical literacy: and this is the ability to analyze the complexity of problems. 

Believe it or not, we all have problems.  I have them, you have them.  It’s what makes us human, and ultimately we spend our entire lives entering new problems and fixing others.  Problems, because of this, if we are able to admit we have them, are incredibly powerful when fueling both imagination and personalization; equalling empathy.  Structurally in class, we learn about problems in stories as a part of a dramatic arc: a stasis, inciting incident/crisis, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution, new stasis.  If only things were that simple, huh?  But it makes for easy, clean, and focused storytelling.

The issue with books sometimes, particularly with the analysis of problem, is that sometimes authors can get wrapped up in poetics, which ultimately muddy the clarity of the arc.  Plays however, are drafted for something else entirely.  They are made to be listened to, and watched.  The material has been stripped down to the single arc, the very core, because that is what can be physicalized and watched.  Therefore, it is with this that I actually encourage you to use plays during early stages of dramatic mapping, because it cuts out the fluff.  

What’s also great about focusing on complexity of problem is that it can give your students an order of events: a cause and effect.  This often will become much easier to remember when compared to a bunch of facts scattered on the table.  It’s also how we behave every day. An example may be: I know that if I run away from home my parents will come looking for me, and then maybe I’ll try to disguise my identity,  and then maybe they’ll find me, and lock me away for all eternity.  I can remember this timeline, as it is an order, a through line, a process.  History also becomes significantly easier when you just don’t memorize dates, but see things as a series of problems stemming from one point of time to the next.  World War II is easier to comprehend if you understand how it spread from World War I.  Life, after all, like I said, is none other than a super long story, similar to a book.  And just like a play, we need to find the problems that start each particular moment, in order to comprehend it, and possibly share it. 

Focusing on this way of thought (the thought of problem rather than the thought of answer) can also be beneficial for those of you who teach students with special needs.  I just read this amazing book called Drama Highthey’ve made this new TV show called Rise based on it.  Anyway, they track a high school’s theatre department in Levittown, PA.  The book also tracks several students at the high school.  One story I found incredibly interesting was centered on a young woman who, because of high doses of chemotherapy used to treat childhood leukemia, stalled her ability to retain large amounts of information.  The one thing this student could remember however, were situations (problems, cause and effect) and dialogue.  She can remember order of events when they are staged, when they are in her imagination, and when she understands the problem.  She can latch onto information through her What if?

So that said, our ability to introduce, analyze, and contextualize problems is more than just for critical literacy and social emotional learning.  It’s a way of learning for some people in general.  Just as deconstruction proves, meaning is different to everyone, and if we all have different senses of meaning, then we all perhaps learn in different ways as well.  Perhaps presenting things as a series of connected problems, a greater arc, a story if you will, rather than simply reading your notes to the class, could turn into a useful teaching tool, as it allows that question of What it? to percolate.  And maybe this storytelling approach cultivates an opportunity for your students to personalize the lesson and adapt the teaching to them, rather than you having to adapt your methods into thirty different ways.  And perhaps with this personalization, will come a greater experience. 

The keys of personalization and imagination are great facilitators in social emotional learning and critical literacy.  They also give us access to the doors of story: the stories of ourself, the story of others, and the story of the world; the stories of beyond this world.  Once a door opens, students can then experience the minds and settings on the other side, and then they can start to articulate them: through word, through voice, and through performance.  But before that, they really do need to open the door.  Otherwise, they are just going to face-plant into a big, thick, slab of wood.

Perhaps what is most amazing, is that what happens in your classrooms while cutting these keys, plants the seeds for perhaps a better world: full of even more doors, and even more stories.  Some will perhaps even be shared on the stage and screen. 

As we sign-off for today, I want you to take the time to not only walk in your own shoes, but other shoes as well.  I want you to look around and see the stories lurking behind your peers’ and students’ eyes.  The next time you are angry or frustrated with someone, imagine if you were them.  What is it like inside their story?  I want you to take time to deconstruct and personalize these stories as well: to find your own personal meaning and expression behind them.  How can this help you understand humanity in a better way?  Is this something you can use in your own art?  And I want you to realize that your own personal experience and opinion is an okay thing to have, as long as you recognize that others can have that as well.  I want you to acknowledge that just as with any story, our lives are nothing but a string problems, and these make up our own arcs.  Arcs that are outlets for other people to understand more about us: our own personal stories.  I want you to also embrace that these problems can be our greatest teaching tools, if we acknowledge that everything happens with a cause and effect. 

I want you to use your imagination and personalization to access your empathy: with both your students and others.

And I want you to see that there are an infinite number of doors.  All waiting for someone to unlock them.  It might as well start with you.



Greenberg, Mark T., Domitrovich, Celene E., Weissberg Roger P., Durlak, Joseph A. “Social and Emotional Learning as a Public Health Approach to Education.” The Future of Children, vol 27, no. 1, Spring 2017. pp 17.