OP-ED: Teaching Peace: Reflections from Shrek the Musical

By Laura Finley
Laura Finley and daughter
Laura Finley and daughter

I have long believed that good teaching is a lot like acting. This summer, I have had the chance to reflect more deeply about those connections, having had the wonderful opportunity to participate in my local children’s theater’s (Fort Lauderdale Children’s Theater) production of "Shrek the Musical", alongside my 10-year-old daughter. Here I share some of my observations about how community-based theater in general and Shrek the Musical, specifically, are wonderful reminders of what peace education should look like. 

First, the collaborative environment of community-based theater provides a beautiful model for the classroom. Rather than power over others, power is shared equally between all participants. All are valued because the production is only as good as everyone doing their part to the best of their ability. And, instead of just the leaders helping people who need it, fellow participants also take ownership for providing assistance. I have seen children helping adult cast members learn choreography while teens help one another rehearse lines. In an ideal classroom, more should operate on this peer-to-peer model so that less has to go through or receive the approval of the teacher.

Second, being involved in something different than our normal area of expertise can help students see educators’ vulnerability. Too often, we present ourselves as sages in the classroom, and students typically expect us to be that. But real learning only happens when we let down our guards a bit, when we embrace the emotions that occur at the margins of our comfort levels. Participating in classroom discussions about hotly contested issues related to war, peace, violence and nonviolence can be challenging for many students. Perhaps this is made easier when educators also share their vulnerabilities, their emotional responses, and their willingness to try on new things or ideas.

Third, like a good performance, education should be creative. While we have a script for the show, some of the best scenes are when actors improvise in funny dialogue with one another. Similarly, while educators should have a general plan, they should also be willing to go off-script and allow interesting things to emerge.  Just as theater uses dialogue, music, lighting, costumes and many other tools to create a powerful and engaging experience, peace educators should be mindful of using multiple teaching methods that can resonate with persons of varying learning styles.

Fourth, and specific to "Shrek the Musical", there are the important messages of acceptance, inclusion, and daring efforts to challenge violence that are key concepts for peace educators. Shrek and the other characters learn to let their “freak flags” fly and to work together to courageously topple the abusive regime of Lord Farquaad.  To create peace will also require all types of people, with all of their wackiness and weirdness, all equally committed to building a better world.  

This summer, I am waving my freak flag. When the fall semester begins, I shall do it again.

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Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology in Miami,  and is syndicated by PeaceVoice.

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