TBI BLOGS: Two Teachers Are Using Drama to Empower 1000 Students from Low-Income Communities

Teach For India is a nationwide movement that aims to eliminate inequity in education in India.

Dramebaaz, started by Soumya and Prasanth, aims to use theatre to empower 1000 students with the essential life skills required to become confident and be creative agents of social change. 

His students are playing boisterously, but neatly arrange themselves on their wooden benches as he walks into the classroom. They greet their teacher with smiles and announce that they’ve written a short play, which they will be presenting to him. They’ve decided to examine the impact of economic inequality through a brief, modern-day take on The Prince and the Pauper. The left side of the room is essaying the role of the privileged elite and the right side plays a part much closer to home—underprivileged and overlooked masses.

The play ends, the children bow and the room fills with the sound of applause. Exit: actors. Enter: students. Class begins.

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A dream? Not quite. It was, in fact, Prasanth Nori’s third and fourth standard classroom at M.A. Ideal School in Kishanbagh, Hyderabad.

“When I first met my class, I discovered my students were considered pre-emerging, meaning they were unable to recognize or read the alphabet,” he says.

His students were often violent, using unproductive and destructive ways to express their feelings. As a Teach For India Fellow, Prasanth was encouraged to bring his diverse skill sets to the job. He leveraged his background as a college thespian to build interest in the subject, speed up learning and encourage reflection about the students’ world.

“I started to use plays as a way to get them to fall in love with English,” he recalls.

That’s when he reached out to friend and co-Fellow Soumya Kavi, and it wasn’t long before Dramebaaz was born. Soumya was teaching third and fourth standards at Government Primary School in Kulsumpura at the time. The two Fellows had seen similar issues of diffidence and lack of enthusiasm in their classrooms, and both brought drama into the classroom to encourage dialogue.

Soumya says, “We asked the children to discuss issues and write their own plays so that they become solution-oriented when they grow up. Many of us think children don’t understand their surroundings, but they are remarkably astute.”

In December 2015, the group pulled off their inaugural show featuring 15 ten-minute original plays – written and performed by 150 third to fifth standard students from 15 schools in Hyderabad.

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Most of the plays explore surprisingly hard-hitting, complex topics like the hypocrisy of society and intolerance. One of the plays, Pathar, tackles the tenuous relationships between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in Kishanbagh – where memories of the Sikh-Muslim riots remain fresh. It follows three groups—each from a different faith—as they discover a rock. They each propose a plan to turn it into the foundations of their respective houses of worship—a temple, dargah or gurudwara. Upon discovering each other’s’ plans, they clash violently. Finally, the stone itself rises up to remind everyone that it’s merely an inanimate object that’s not designed to divide. The kids re-enacted their reality but re-wrote the ending.

It was initially difficult to get the students into character because they had never been asked to play a role. However, there was one character they played with precision—the drunk patriarch.

“They knew exactly how he would stagger through the house, how he would throw things and abuse people—verbally and physically—along the way. We were stunned!” Soumya reflects back.

“When we began, there was a lot of scepticism and criticism from headmasters and other school teachers who felt this was a waste of time for a class of academically-challenged students,” she remembers. But once the parents saw their children come out of their shells and headmasters saw the students work together better, they were convinced.

Soumya mentions that getting positive feedback from such stakeholders is the greatest reward.

End of play Pathar

Both Soumya and Prasanth also leveraged their connection to the local theatre community and brought mentors like national award winning actor Mr. Rathna Shekhar Reddy into the fold, who has committed to reprise his role as coach going forward.

On April 13th, 2016, the Dramebaaz team organized Spotlight at LaMakaan. The show featured six plays, one of which was coordinated by a school outside of the Teach For India network.

“I didn’t see this coming but the teachers grew more confident. They were so used to blackboard teaching. When we helped them discover drama as a tool, they began working closely with their students and became so engaged!” says Soumya.

Dramebaaz’s vision is to “use theatre to empower 1000 students with the essential life skills required to become confident and creative agents of social change.”

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This year, the group also attended InspirED–a pre-incubator conference organized by Teach For India in association with CSF & Villgro.

“The conference really helped us develop a plan, vision and strategy for Dramebaaz, and connect with Umeed and Just for Kicks (other organizations founded by Teach For India Alumni),” says Soumya. They’ve also filed to be registered as a non-governmental organization so they can impact children outside of Teach For India schools as well. For the next five to ten years, they will be expanding into new schools and markets—they’ve already set up teams in Mumbai and Bangalore comprising Teach For India Programme Managers and Fellows.

Prasanth is currently set to join Meghshala as an Implementation and Partner Manager, and Soumya recently moved to Mumbai to join a CSR consulting firm. But this isn’t a curtain call, the pair are leading the Dramebaaz movement and hope to devote themselves to the organization full-time, within two years. For now, they’re dreaming of new ways to bring more kids on stage and to teach them how to say it with drama.

Written By Sneha Kalaivanan – Associate, Communications – Teach For India

To learn more about Teach For India, please visit www.teachforindia.org.

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