Naomi de la Tour
Playing with perspective
In my work as a writer, both when I’m typing away and when I’m exploring writing in schools and community settings with fellow writers from the age of seven to members of U3A, much of what I do involves exploring the development of character and the telling of stories. Play can offer a way of stepping into the experiences of other people, of trying on new roles or ideas; an essential aspect of much literary writing. But this skill, of exploring other perspectives with a view to developing understanding and compassion - something many have argued should be a central pillar of higher education (citations needed) - can be just as valuable in an educational setting.
The techniques described below need not be confined to exploring the perspectives of other humans. Playing within the perspective of animals or plants can offer potentially valuable insights into drivers for non-humancentric behaviours or changes. It can also give us, as humans, techniques for attempting to relate to the non-human world in a way which is more meaningful for us. In addition, it can help us to explore more abstract ideas or problems in new ways; the tale of Einstein developing the theory of relativity after imagining what it would be like to ride on the back of beam of light is often described in educational texts about imagination and creativity in the classroom.
For students, these techniques offer the possibility of opening up new ways of understanding. The same is true for lecturers. I’ve used some of these techniques when planning my teaching to seek to centre the perspective of students from disciplines other than mine or to explore in different way the perspectives of those I sought to study with my students.
Hotseating is a well-established technique in classrooms, particularly within primary and secondary schools, as a way of helping students to develop an understanding of a character, but it is perhaps not considered to be play. The element of make-believe and improvisation, however, means that this can be, if handled carefully, an useful example of ‘serious play’. I have developed and adapted the attached worksheet for use in my teaching, after being inspired by a workshop run by the writer A.L. Kennedy for the Warwick Writing Programme in which I was a participant in 2009.
For this particular example of hotseating, it is useful if students can ease themselves into the character they are to inhabit. A technique which can be effective in achieving this can be to ask students to begin by describing their character’s appearance and traits from the outside, in third person, then prompting them to start sitting like the character or person they describe, and finally to move into first person before starting to engage with the more complex questions suggested in the worksheet. I have found it useful to remind students that they are having a conversation, and that the people asking the questions are there to help the person in the hotseat get to know the character they are inhabiting better.
This can be effective as a means of ‘getting in’ to character or as an alternative to hotseating, particularly for ‘non-human’ characters such as animals about which we may learn more through movement. This technique draws on meditative, imaginative and physical aspects. Again, it offers ways of seeing or experiencing ideas from a different perspective or defamiliarising ideas.
Begin by asking the students to visualise the ‘character’ they are going to become infront of them. Prompt them to notice specific physical aspects, small details as well as the overall impression, of the character in front of them as if it were real, drawing on a similar methodology to body scan meditations, starting with the feet and working the way up the body. What do they notice about the character? Can they draw Invite students either to imagine the character turning round in front of them, or ask them to move to stand behind their imagined character. Ask them to notice in particular detail the back of the character’s head, in whatever guise that may be, and, as they are looking closely, point out to them there is is zip there at the top of the head. Ask them to reach forward take the zip and pull it down, opening up the character from head to toe. Then explain that they will be zipping themselves into the character. Again, it can be useful here to follow the approach of guided meditations and talk the students through the process of placing their feet in the character’s feet like shoes, pulling the character up over their legs, describing the process as the students act it out until, once they have reached the head, they reach down their back and pull the zip up to complete the transformation. Ask them to look down at their hands, now, seeing their new hands in this character, turning them over and really examining them. Speaking in the second person, invite the students to slowly begin to experiment with how it feels to move in this body. For example, if this exercise focuses on animals or insects you might as if they are lithe and energetic or stiff and sluggish; hesitant or confident; predator or prey? How are these things reflected in their movements? What things preoccupy them? What influences their behaviour? For example, are they looking for somewhere to shelter, to hide away, are they asserting their territory, or is the most important thing for them staying as part of the pack or looking for food? How do they interact with the others in the room?
A variation of this technique can be used when assigning characters to students such as the properties of certain elements, roles within a crowd or even DeBono’s thinking hats for creative thinking approach. At the end of the zipping task you may ask students to interact with each other in the room moving around while staying in role and in this case it might be appropriate for students to talk with each other.
As a further extension, you may ask students to think of their behaviour on a scale. If they are being the character to the most exaggerated extent (as a 10 on the scale) how would they move and act? How about if it was one and they were displaying a minimised form of behaviour? For this kind of task it is useful to start in the middle, around a five, to allow the students somewhere to develop in both directions. This extension can be useful for encouraging students to think about different levels and forms of behaviour in different contexts and to facilitate a playful approach to the task if students are showing signs of self consciousness or uncertainty.