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The Art and Science of Educational Inquiry: Analysis of Performance-Based Focus Groups With Novice Bilingual Teachers

by Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor, Jennifer Wooten, Mariana Souto-Manning & Jaime L. Dice - 2009

Background/Context: For over two decades, the boundaries between the social sciences and the humanities have become blurred, and numerous articles and books have been written about the infusion of the arts in qualitative research as a means to collect and analyze data and to represent findings. Yet these arts-based research processes, although present in the social sciences, are still largely invisible in a research climate that privileges (e.g., through publication, funding, and recognition) work claiming to be exclusively scientific.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: To fully develop the potential of the arts for a transformative educational inquiry, the synthesis of scientific and artistic methods must be fully explicated through clear examples that address theoretical and empirical concerns. This article focuses on explicit arts-based approaches that the authors employed in a 3-year teacher education study of professional conflicts experienced by novice bilingual teachers. Authors describe how they used the arts and to what end, addressing questions of artistic processes, expertise, and research validity.

Research Design: The research design included theatrical and literary techniques alongside more traditional qualitative methods of inquiry (e.g., participant observation, audio- and video-recorded focus group interactions, interviews, and surveys). Authors initiated performative focus groups based on the work of Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal in which participants share and act scenes from power-laden experiences of conflict, rehearsing strategies for personal and social revolution. This embodied data enabled the research team to focus empirical and pedagogical attention on both participants’ physical and verbal “scripts” or trans/scripts: compressed renderings of original transcripts that utilize techniques from poetry and the dramatic arts to highlight the data’s emotional “hot points” and heightened language from the original discourse.

Conclusions/Recommendations: This study illuminated the range of experiences and emotions involved in novice bilingual teachers’ professional lives, signaling the value and validity of research that is both artistic and scientific. Such hybridity may at first appear to make for unexpected and potentially haphazard methodological mergers. The authors do not claim to have resolved these epistemological tensions, but to have exploited both traditional and artistic research methods to broaden the notion of what counts as “research” in teacher education and to conduct research that is engaging to researchers and participants alike.

In the 25 years since Clifford Geertz (1983) declared the boundaries between the social sciences and the humanities blurred,1  numerous articles and books have been written about the infusion of the arts in qualitative research, including recent studies on the use of fiction (Barone, 2001; Kilbourn, 1999), dance (Blumenfeld-Jones, 1995), the visual arts (Irwin & de Cosson, 2004), poetry (Cahnmann, 2003), and other art forms as a means to collect data, analyze data, and represent findings as arts-based educational research (ABER; Barone & Eisner, 1997). A common misconception, however, is that ABER is only useful to those who are trained, professional artists or to educational researchers who have the expertise to produce research-informed short stories, novels, performances, paintings, sculpture, poems, and other pieces of finished, stand-alone art. Although artistic products may provide compelling and creative ways to present research findings to a wide variety of audiences, artistic products as representation are far from the only value in utilizing the arts as a form of inquiry. In this article, we assert that many artistic techniques are inherently part of any scientific process, especially so in qualitative inquiry approaches to data collection, data analysis, and data representation. However, arts-based research processes, although present in the social sciences, are still largely invisible in a research climate that privileges “scientifically based” work (Shavelson & Towne, 2002). To fully develop the creative potential of the arts for a transformative educational inquiry, the synthesis of scientific and artistic methods must be fully explicated through clear examples that address theoretical and empirical concerns. To forefront this discussion, we explore the following questions: What are some of the ways that the arts might be thought of as offering useful tools for all researchers to employ, regardless of artistic training, alongside other research methodologies in the empirical process? What level of competency and/or expertise is required, and what questions should be asked by a researcher interested in adding the tools of the arts to the “toolbox” of methodological possibility?

Because there are still too few examples of how to merge techniques from the arts and social sciences (and explicit justification for doing so), this article shares the ways that we used theatrical and literary techniques alongside more traditional qualitative methods of inquiry (e.g., participant observation, audio- and video-recorded focus group interactions, interviews, and surveys) in a study of bilingual teacher development. We aspired to erase “traditional lines between the realms of social science and the creative arts” (Barone, 2002, p. 255) to foster both a lively professional development experience for study participants and an empirical process that would allow us to “make new, insightful sense of data during and beyond the research project” (Cahnmann-Taylor, 2008, p. 9).

We review a brief history of blurred genres in educational inquiry and share an example of our own teacher education study that has merged qualitative methods with techniques from the literary and performing arts. We identify how this merger informed each phase of our work, including performance-based approaches to data collection, trans/scripting data for analysis, and arts-based decisions in representation.


In the last few decades, social science researchers and theorists have begun to explicitly recognize the ways in which all social science inquiry that realizes its transformative potential is influenced by both scientific and artistic ways of knowing, including the literary, performing, and visual arts. For example, Heath’s (1983) classic ethnography of children learning to use language in two different communities is a primary example of blurred genre work that implicitly drew on narrative structures and metaphor in a literary approach to ethnography. Clifford and Marcus’s (1986) book Writing Culture collected the first group of essays to explicitly address the poetic and political nature of cultural representation, drawing attention to the literary and rhetorical dimensions of ethnography, a frequently used methodology in educational inquiry.

Music theory and technique have also influenced some of the most noteworthy discourse studies in education: analyzing speech for its rhythm, meter, pitch, and tone. For example, Erickson and Shultz’s (1982) study of counselor and student interactions used musical notation in analysis to discover that distorted rhythms in communication were heavily associated with cultural and racial differences. Erickson, with experience in music composition and theory, used his creativity to enhance his ability to hear and make sense of discordance and harmony in everyday talk. Similarly, Foster’s (1989) study analyzed the musical qualities of an African American teacher’s classroom discourse to shed light on the qualities of her success in an urban community college classroom. In particular, Foster focused on the teacher’s use of church-influenced discourse patterns such as vowel elongation, cadence manipulation, and repetition. Edelsky (1981) addressed the visual and aural aspects of transcription, identifying areas of concern regarding how to best represent the authenticity and dimensionality of an observed interaction for conversational analysis (see Cahnmann & Siegesmund, 2008, for additional examples of blurred genre and arts-based research).


The blurred-genre approach represents one way that educational researchers have grappled with what Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln (1998) refer to as the twin crises of representation and legitimacy in qualitative inquiry. One the one hand, we can no longer assume that the researcher can “directly capture lived experience” (p. 3). On the other hand, we don’t represent truth or reality, but rather create it in our texts. Over the past two decades, postmodern turns in the social sciences call into question the binary between what constitutes “science” as distinct from what constitutes “art.” We draw the reader’s attention to a continuum of inquiry that exists between these two imaginary poles. In the researcher’s imagination, there is what Kuhn (1962/1996) described as “normal science”: that which perpetuates theories and empiricism that are accepted as status quo foundations for scholarly practice. Science, in this status quo sense, is often understood as existing on an opposite pole from “normal art,” akin to binaries of fact-fiction, objectivity-subjectivity, truth-invention, and so on. Like “normal science,” artists too can become bogged down in accepted practices—those that do not demand “the attention of current discovery” and fail to surprise the artist with new ways of seeing and being in the world that are “as the etymology of the word ‘surprise’ literally states, beyond grasp” (Hirshfield, 2007, p. 28).

The division between what is considered art as opposed to science has a long-standing history, one that has limited the possibilities for inquiry. As Richardson (1997) noted,

from the seventeenth century onward, Western science has rejected ‘rhetoric’ (in the

name of ‘plain’ transparent signification), fiction (in the name of fact), and subjectivity (in the name of objectivity)’ (Clifford, 1986, p. 5) . . . . Literature was denied truth value because it ‘invented’ reality rather than observing it. (p. 15)

Such a binary ostensibly denies scientists’ use of literary devices in representation (Richardson specifically noted the predominance of metaphor in “scientific” research) and artists’ use of observation to collect, analyze, and represent “data.” We posit that science and art in educational research is not the either/or proposition claimed by those issuing formal admonitions against calling arts-based work “research” (Shavelson & Towne, 2002) and denying funding in the name of No Child Left Behind. Clinging to this science/art binary leads many education researchers to avoid mentioning or even using techniques from the arts, dissuaded from doing so either to retain “scientific validity” in the eyes of peer review or to acknowledge feelings of inadequacy in one’s training from an artistic standpoint.

We are interested in the space between what has traditionally been defined as art and science and consequently carry out research practices in education that are informed by tools and techniques from these seemingly opposite fields. We believe that syntheses between the arts and sciences hold the greatest potential for surprise, moving away from what is normal, accepted, and done, and toward what is risky, unexpected, and potentially transformative. For example, where would science be had Einstein not broken with Newtonian conventions of his time? Where would poetry be without great innovators such as Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman? We can never know these answers because art and science developing within sociohistorical contexts requires ongoing processes of anomaly, novelty, and revolution.

One could say that such a revolution has already occurred in the social sciences, but rarely do we find rich examples of artful science and scientific art explicated in terms of methodology and results. Although aiming to maintain “epistemological humility” (Barone, 2008, p. 11), we share now how we have blurred our methodologies in each phase of our research with novice bilingual teachers. Our work strives to engage in what Barone (2008) calls “conspiratorial conversations” regarding the qualities of teacher education for social justice and critical multicultural reflexivity (p. 39). Through the discussion of our process, we hope to add to the conversation already started by qualitative researchers such as Eisner (1991), Behar (1996), Richardson (1997), Barone (2001), Cahnmann (2003), and others who advocate arts-based methods that expand methodological tools to include those from both the sciences and the arts to make new, insightful sense of data during and beyond the research project.


In charge of formatively evaluating a grant program intended to increase the numbers of bilingual, mostly Spanish-English, teachers in Georgia, our professional development and program evaluation team sought meaningful, engaging practices to support novice teachers, especially those for whom English was not a first language and/or for teachers working as advocates for minority populations. We met with bilingual teachers regularly around a table in traditional conversation-based focus groups to talk about (and document) challenges and frustrations en route to becoming fully certified bilingual teachers in the South, where there has been little foundation for bilingual education (Cahnmann, Rymes, & Souto-Manning, 2005). Based on previous work using critical pedagogy (Freire, 1970), critical performance (Boal, 1979), and arts-based approaches to thinking about research methodology (Cahnmann & Siegesmund, 2008), we took our first risks as qualitative researchers: We moved focus group tables and chairs aside to put words into action. Rather than talking about struggles or performing them for teachers, we decided to blur the verbal and performative by getting up from our chairs and reenacting these teachers’ stories collaboratively. Specifically, we initiated performative focus groups based on the work of Paulo Freire (1970) and Freire’s colleague and friend, Brazilian activist/playwright Augusto Boal (1979, 1995), in which participants share and act scenes from power-laden experiences of conflict, rehearsing strategies for personal and social “revolution” (Boal, 1979).

Though we will address this point in more detail later in the article, we must here note the issue of artistic expertise and competency, one of the “tensions” (Eisner, 2008) regarding arts-based inquiry. Though no member of our research team is formally trained as an actor, one researcher had theater experience in college and community groups, and others had attended Theater of the Oppressed (Boal, 1979) workshops with Boal himself or other practitioners. We read books and articles on performance pedagogy, attended several conferences where Boal’s work was illustrated, and rehearsed activities among our research team to achieve competency before changing our traditional focus group forum to one that was more dynamic, embodied, and engaged.


Just as we had done in traditional focus groups, we asked participating novice bilingual teachers (total number of participants = 45) to start each session by sharing their struggles and concerns (sessions took place four to six times a year with anywhere from 3 to 23 participants). We asked participants to narrate recurring stories of conflict, positioning themselves as “protagonists” and describing interactions with “antagonist” others. Once stories were shared, the group collectively selected one story that represented a generative theme for the group (e.g., interpersonal conflicts related to race, class, or citizenship status and/or language proficiency). These generative themes of conflict represented diverse situations and included struggles between teachers and parents, colleagues, administrators, students, and college professors (see Figure 1). Generative themes that proved most relevant and/or most urgent to the collective group of novice bilingual teachers were codified and performed.

Figure 1. Teacher struggles toward performances of engagement

click to enlarge

The specific details of the generative case (e.g.. a racist or unethical colleague, a belligerent parent, an epistemological bully for a professor) are used to create a two- to three-scene drama, but the selected story no longer belongs to the initiating storyteller but to the collective, whom Boal refers to as “spect-actors.” Boal (1979) coined the term spect-actor to break the divide between spectator and actor. Although the initial storyteller might first play the role of the protagonist, he or she is frequently replaced by other spect-actors in the group who identify with the protagonist and who perform alternative courses of action to change the outcome of the conflict. Thus, rather than simply giving verbal advice to the storyteller, as typically occurs in the problem-solution “banking model” (Freire, 1970) format of most teacher education contexts (e.g., “Why don’t you try talking to your principal about this?”), spect-actors are encouraged to share the story by living it themselves, getting out of their seats, stepping into the protagonist’s role, and performing (e.g., becoming the teacher who schedules an appointment with the principal and role-playing themselves in the imagined dialogue). After each enactment, the facilitator or “difficult-ator” of the session, whom Boal (1979) refers to as “The Joker,” asks for a “reality check” to collectively determine the viability of the proposed strategy.

Believing that “where there is power, there is resistance” (Foucault, 1978, p. 95), we engaged spect-actors in rehearsals of these collective narratives to perform power as a “multiplicity of force relations” that are moving, unstable, and omnipresent (pp. 92–93). Spect-actors often accepted or rejected strategies based on whether they “felt right” (e.g., “I couldn’t say/do that, I’d lose my job!”), which would then lead to further enactment, strategizing, and reality checks in a recursive model of this performance-based focus group format (see Figure 2).

This rearticulation of power makes it so that one is not powerful or powerless, but rather always involved in relations of power that are discursive and productive. Lib Spry (1994) described shifting the language of “oppression” in her theater work with largely White middle-class Canadians to the language of “liberation,” preferring to ask participants who has power-over them rather than who oppresses them.

By introducing this term “power-over” (Starhawk, 1987, p. 9) into my TO workshops rather than using the vocabulary of oppression, I have found that people are more prepared to look at the power structures in which they live and the role they play in it. Understanding these structures is a first step towards change. (pp. 174–175)

Figure 2. Performative focus group model based on Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed (T.O.)     

click to enlarge


One case example from this type of performative focus group illustrates how participants performed problems and options for resolution. Marisol (all names are pseudonyms), an English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) teacher of Cuban origin, performed a recurring problem that she had with a colleague who often shopped online during instructional time and appeared not to care about the ESOL students in the colleague’s mainstream second-grade class. Her oppressive situation resonated with other bilingual teachers’ experiences with colleagues who were perceived as similarly insensitive, disrespectful, or racist toward English language learners. For this reason Marisol’s story was chosen for its generative theme, or issue for collective engagement: how to be the most effective advocates for ESOL students amid colleagues whose attitudes and actions were perceived to undermine advocacy/best practice. The codification included breaking the story into scenes, one scene between Marisol and her students, and two scenes between Marisol and her colleague, in which the result was no change in the protagonist-teacher’s sense of dejection.

Marisol was the first to perform as “The protagonist ESOL teacher,” and then described feeling frustrated and angry and wanting “to choke” her dismissive colleague [Line 5], aware that this was not a “real” option for resolving conflict. A peer bilingual teacher in the group, Jorge, wanted to suggest what Marisol might do to change her colleague’s attitudes and/or behavior [Line 6]. In this performance-based focus group, telling someone “what to do” was insufficient. The arts-based researcher immediately directed Jorge to spect-act “as if” he were the ESOL teacher, performing his problem-posing strategy [Line 7]:

Scene: Show Don’t Tell


Antagonist Teacher ((looking away from her computer and speaking to Marisol, who returned the ESOL students to class)): Yes. Keep the ESOL kids, keep them all! ((Antagonist spreads her hands away from her to emphasize all of the children))


Marisol: Thank you. I will! ((hiding frustration))


Antagonist: Okay, great!


Arts-Based Researcher: Stop! ((to Marisol)) What are you feeling when she [the antagonist] says that?


Marisol: That I wanna choke her. ((laughter from group)) Because it’s not like she’s, like, “Oh yeah, someone is doing something good for them!” It’s “Thank God, I don’t have to deal with them, I don’t even have to look at ‘em.”


Researcher: Does anyone have an idea, a strategy for change? Okay, ((to Jorge)) you do? Replace Marisol. ((Jorge hesitates, raises his hand to speak his idea))


Researcher: You, you need to do it.


Jorge ((almost inaudibly in background)): Okay. ((Jorge rises to take over Marisol’s “role” as the ESOL teacher))


((Beginning with Scene One. Antagonist has resumed her role and is sitting in a chair in the center of the room. Jorge is standing a few feet away. Scene begins.))


Jorge: ((To the antagonist)) Hello, how are you?

Jorge was one of many participating teachers who performed various strategies for communicating through this conflict, including everything from the practical (e.g., documenting the antagonist’s behavior) to the ridiculous (e.g., destroying the antagonist teacher’s computer to prevent her from shopping online during instructional time and ignoring the ESOL students). Despite solutions that didn’t meet the reality check criteria for action, the more ridiculous strategies seemed to strengthen group identity and encourage more creative, out-of-the box performances.


In these focus groups, we found that the fusion of arts-based and qualitative approaches to data collection (theatrical techniques and the focus group as a method, respectively) were valuable in a variety of ways. First, we recognized stages of the performative focus groups as a form of recursive qualitative research. Sharing of teacher struggles through codification (e.g., dividing up a “story” into two to three performative scenes), spect-acting (rehearsing the same scenes with different actors playing different potential interventions), and reality checks (ascertaining the feasibility of proposed interventions in “real” life) were part of a recursive process of data collection, analysis, representation, and collective credibility-testing. This arts-based conception of our focus groups allowed us to engage in an embodied and reciprocal empirical process that was meaningful and engaging to participants and researchers alike.

Additionally, the focus group data captured much richer, more nuanced detail because of the collective dynamic established through performance, blurring verbal narrative and performance genres. Although Marisol’s story could have been easily explained and understood in words, a wholly verbal explanation would have lacked the visceral punch of her reenactment with the antagonist. Fellow spect-actors related to Marisol, perhaps not for the specifics of her case but because of the visible emotions of frustration that performing the life of the “idealistic new teacher” amid cynical colleagues brought forth. This sympathetic turn elicited other spect-actors’ personal narratives and performances.2 In several circumstances, a spect-actor spontaneously offered a verbal suggestion for the protagonist, but when asked to embody the strategy in performance, the  spect-actor declared that his or her suggestion didn’t work because it didn’t “feel right.” This emphasis on feeling and the body became not only the site of enactment and credibility but also a suggestion for change. In Marisol’s case, one spect-actor stood uncomfortably close behind the seated mainstream teacher and peered over her shoulder at the computer screen. In another conflict, spect-actors proposed to a diminutive bilingual teacher struggling with a larger, threatening colleague that she stand up straight and raise her hands upward, running fingers through her hair in an attempt to make herself feel and look taller.

Scene: Be a Lion!

Arts-Based Researcher #1: I’ve noticed every time you perform talking to your colleague you’ve been doing this ((hunching shoulders forward and downward)).

Sonia [Protagonist Teacher]: Yeah, I know! I’ve been intimidated from the first day.

Doris: Why don’t you try putting your hand to, your hands up—make yourself higher. Your hands can help you go higher than she is.

Sonia: Oh, really? I never heard of that—this is good, let’s see if I can try that.

Arts-Based Researcher #2: That’s what we say with mountain lions, too—if you see one on your path, don’t run or crouch but rise up and make yourself bigger. Be the lion! Let’s try it again.

Sonia: ((having second thoughts at acting it out on-the-spot)) I don’t think I can do it.

Doris: You don’t even have to put your hand up there, just feel like there’s hair in your face and you move your hands to brush it away.

Sonia: ((motions her hands towards her face)) Oh, okay.

((Group laughter)).

Regardless of whether suggested strategies were deemed “real,” we’ve found that the process of reenactment itself promotes solidarity-building and is preparatory and agentive. Throughout transcripts, we see frequent bursts of laughter (such as the one in the previous case) expressed during group rehearsals. We have found that laughter serves as a form of dynamization, arousing the group to “create new actions, new alternatives which are not substitutes for real action, but rehearsals, pre-actions . . . [for] a reality we are trying to change” (Boal, 1995, p. 72). Boal distinguished this kind of cathartic release of tension from what he referred to as “Aristotelian catharsis,” which disempowers, tranquilizes, and purifies the desire for change. In contrast, the group-generated laughter represented cathartic releases of tension through performance, having the potential to release spect-actors from detrimental blocks to change both in the performance and in real life.

Thus, embodied data enabled our research team to focus empirical and pedagogical attention to both participants’ physical and verbal “scripts” or “trans/scripts” (discussed next), adding to the value and credibility of our work. During reality check moments, participants decided whether alternative performances had value in their own specific contexts. Credibility was ascertained through multiple iterations of performance-based workshops in which the universality and particularity of specific teacher conflicts were ascertained.

Being open to data collection procedures that were both artistic and scientific allowed us to engage new teachers in dynamic, performative conversations that were meaningful to both our research interests and participating teachers’ ongoing concerns. We were struck by the utility of performance-based focus groups. Participants in anonymous evaluations commented on their engagement and pleasure in this new focus group form. In Likert scale surveys, 68% of attendees classified the focus groups as very useful for professional development, and 32% deemed them useful, with no participant rating the experience below a 4 on a 1–5 scale. Many praised the performance work in contrast to seat- and text-based work more customary in teacher education environments. Following is a representative example from anonymous written evaluations: “Problems and situations [enacted] were directly relevant to real classroom happenings and they were very useful to cope with real problems if they arise later. This is something that the classes don’t teach in the coursework, but every teacher faces these conflicts [italics added].”

We found an arts-based approach to data collection to be immediately useful to participants who collectively rehearsed embodied options for overcoming struggle rather than simply hearing “solutions” from us as researchers and teacher educators. The act of physically rehearsing different strategies allows spect-actors to demechanize the body’s ways of being, exploring ways to act “as if” one had the power to change situations perceived as relentlessly disempowering. This performance-based approach to teacher education research lends itself to critical problem-posing as opposed to problem-solving because acting out the variety of alternatives to context-specific issues allows teachers, like skillful actors, to improvise rather than be stuck in one proscribed “role” or following one proscribed “script.” Teacher-generated performances seemed complementary, and, at times, more pertinent than multicultural foundations texts (e.g., Nieto, 2005) more commonly found in professional development courses because performances grounded multicultural theory in the texts of participants’ lives.


Initially, we took a discourse-analytic approach to transcripts of our seated focus group sessions, combined with analysis of qualitative interviews and evaluation surveys (Cahnmann et al., 2005). We used qualitative software programs (e.g., Transana and atlas.TI) to transcribe and analyze verbal and nonverbal interactions, identify emergent themes, and capture still images and video clips to share with participants during follow-up interviews. Initial discourse analysis of more traditional, seated focus groups underscored the need to change the way in which we were eliciting information from participants because these first focus groups failed to challenge beliefs in traditional texts and institutional roles as legitimizing knowledge (e.g., dictionaries and test scores to define who is or is not “Latino,” “bilingual,” or “qualified to teach”). Further, through the discursive analysis of initial focus group data, we were led to investigate teachers’ experiences as texts, including a framework that would be dependent on both the verbal and nonverbal performance and that would present interactional components.

Our hybrid methodology continued our use of qualitative analytic tools and included methods that were arts based. We began inductively coding transcriptions and interview data and looking for themes in the variety and quality of strategies that teachers performed to resolve conflict. Our coding analysis helped document patterns of intervention but failed to yield the emotional feeling of the focus groups and was not useful for us in sharing data back with our group of bilingual teachers.

To capture the emotional qualities in the project and to understand our data more fully, we also responded “artfully,” crafting what we refer to as trans/scripts: compressed renderings of original transcripts that utilize techniques from poetry and the dramatic arts to highlight emotional “hot points” and heightened language from the original discourse in our data. Although this combination of approaches may at first appear epistemologically confused, we believe that these choices enabled complementary understandings. Artful trans/scripts allowed us to revisit the data, capturing the lived feeling of the collective performance. Coding the performance data helped us generalize across multiple cases and understand patterns. Throughout this article, we artfully render trans/scripts in ways that we feel are faithful to what was originally spoken but that use literary license (e.g., removing excessive or redundant spoken language) to convey (we hope) the emotional qualities of the original experience.

Next is an example trans/script that details the language and body movement of Marisol’s initial “drama” of struggle when working with a colleague who appeared to resent newcomer ESOL populations in her classrooms.

Trans/script: Marisol’s Case, “With colleagues like this, who needs enemies?”

   Scene One: What are you doing in class?

((Marisol Jiménez is with her second-grade ESOL students, ready to take them back to their homeroom teacher. She engages Angel in discussion.))

Ms. Jiménez:

((To the class)) Children, let’s get ready to go back to class. Tell me, Angel, what are you learning in Mrs. Smith’s classroom?



Ms. Jiménez:

What do you mean nada? Nothing? You must be learning



Ms. Jiménez, we don’t learn in that class. Mrs. Smith just sits there all day at her computer ((mimics typing on a keyboard)).

Scene Two: Not even hello.

((Ms. Jiménez takes her students back to class. She stands at the door to Mrs. Smith’s classroom and waits to engage her. Mrs. Smith doesn’t look up from her computer. Ms. Jiménez feels dejected and leaves the room without engaging her colleague.))

Scene Three: Take them! Take them ALL!

((Ms. Jiménez returns the next day to Mrs. Smith’s classroom and tries to get her attention. After several seconds, Mrs. Smith finally looks up from her monitor.))

Ms. Jiménez:

((To Mrs. Smith)) Good morning.

Mrs. Smith:

Oh, is it a good morning? A good morning is the crossword and a refillable cup of coffee! ((laughs and turns back to her screen))

Ms. Jiménez:

Mrs. Smith, my students have made a lot of progress in reading and I’d like to celebrate this week with a pizza party. I was wondering if it’d be alright to keep them through lunch this Friday?

Mrs. Smith:

Keep them? You want them on Friday, keep them, keep them ALL! All day if you want, no problem with me.

Ms. Jiménez:

Thank you. ((leaves the room dejected, angry, and feeling isolated))

In discourse or conversation analysis, transcripts are often marked by precise symbols to approximate as closely as possible the original stress patterns, intonation, overlapped speech, and pause length upon which analysis is drawn. In contrast, the above three trans/script-based scenes are a compression of several pages of original transcript, and for purposes of clarity and recursive utility in teacher education, we sacrificed discourse analytic symbols for dramatic ones (e.g., stage directions, compressed language, and so on). Our arts-based approach to analysis illuminates dramatic elements of conflict that resurface in bilingual teachers’ lives.

Because manipulation of actual transcript data often occurs implicitly in much qualitative and discursive analysis, here we deconstruct the term trans/script to explicitly acknowledge working with discourse as a “rough draft,” producing compressed ethnodramatic renderings (Saldaña, 2005) that echo what Alfred Hitchcock is known to have said of making movies—to present real life with the boring parts taken out. Translation, transformation, transference, and so on—trans is a Latin prefix meaning to go across, through, on the other side, and beyond. All trans/scription goes beyond what was originally said to render spoken and embodied communication in written form. Arts-based approaches to analysis encourage the researcher to make the trans part of trans/scription apparent, utilizing tools from both the arts and sciences to render the original impact and feeling on the page and to guide the researcher to focus points in the text.

Through analysis and trans/scription of our improvisations, we were able to rescript open-ended scenes. Trans/scripts become both product and process, used and rescripted with groups of teachers in different contexts for addressing tensions and strategies that critical, multicultural educators employ in the midst of conflict and social change. In addition to trans/scripts, we have used open-ended vignettes based on generative themes—encouraging participating teachers to trans/script their own scenes based on the real-life connections. Next is one such vignette that has appealed to groups of educators in a wide range of grade levels and subject areas:

Open-Ended Vignette: “‘You are nobody’: Working with a student that doesn’t respect your authority”

I am disheartened after working with a student that continuously misbehaves and disrupts my elementary school class. Despite several administrative interventions, the student still is giving me problems. When I try to reprimand him, he says “You are nobody. My mom can come in here and say anything she wants.” I don’t feel like I have the skills to handle him, and I am exhausted by the power struggles in my classroom.

A group of 23 teachers worked in smaller groups of 3 or 4 spect-actors and created unique versions of this commonly experienced tension regarding student participation and behavior. Each group’s performance became a new transcript for generating new possibilities for action. As researchers, our responsibility is to produce trans/scripts from transcripts (e.g., refined renderings of recorded interactions as vignettes or scripts) so that they can be used in a recursive process to promote new performances, new transcripts, and new trans/scripts for future use. The following trans/script was created from a transcript of Roberta’s performance.

Trans/script #1: Ms. Roberta Salas’s case: “You are nobody”

   Scene One: What do you mean you didn’t do it?

((Roberta Salas is with her fourth-grade students, checking homework assignments.))

Ms. Salas:

[To the class] Children, take out your homework. ((In front of the first student’s desk)) Very good, Iliana, you’re making progress. ((Continues praising others)) Very good. Thank you, very good. Yes, excellent, María. ((Stops in front of Dana’s desk)). Dana, where’s your work?


((shrugs her shoulders)) I didn’t do it.

Ms. Salas:

What do you mean you didn’t do it? Why not?


I didn’t feel like it, that’s why. ((turns toward her neighbor to talk))

Scene Two: To the principal’s office!

Ms. Salas:

Dana, we’ve been going through this all year long. It’s not acceptable for you not to do your homework and not to respect this classroom. We’re going to the principal right now.


Fine, what do I care?



Scene Three: Not the Desired Outcome.

Ms. Salas:

Dana, I just spoke with the principal, and we called your mother. We’ve decided to give you a suspension for three days.


YES!!! ((pumps her arm with enthusiasm))

As a group, we rehearsed these three scenes, encouraging spect-actors to intervene and change an aspect of the protagonist teacher’s behavior that might also influence Dana’s response and participation. Documenting in-flight decision-making and the quality and variety of interventions helped the research team analyze strategies that teachers can draw on during moments of struggle, helping us to see the common and the unusual. Since initial coding of teacher strategies, we have found interventions to include “calling the boss” (e.g., calling on an administrator for support); creating networks with other colleagues; keeping careful documentation (e.g., dated journal notes, evidence); avoiding confrontation and enduring the struggle to its inevitable end (e.g., a different semester, a change in workplace); and open confrontation with an antagonist.

In addition to rehearsing options for behavior during moments of conflict, the group also rehearsed what Boal (1995) referred to as the “Rainbow of Desire”—that is, the many different hues that one individual contains in any challenging interactional moment. In this case, spect-actors modeled the many different emotions and feelings a teacher has during a conflict with a student. Spect-actors were encouraged one by one to join an ensemble of human sculptures portraying the many hues that Ms. Roberta Salas has when interacting with students like Dana. Thus, our analysis included the quality and variety of portraits that teachers created to understand their antagonists and how these nuanced portraits influenced the types of interventions perceived as available to them.

Trans/script: Rainbow of Desire

Arts-Based Researcher: We’re going to do what Boal calls Rainbow of Desire. The idea is that we need to understand the complexity of our characters. There are multiple behaviors, emotions, and histories that inform the present moment. Please come up one volunteer at a time. What is that teacher, Ms. Salas, feeling? Sculpt a silent image that would express it.

((Rona comes onto the stage and performs strangling Dana.))

Arts-Based Researcher: Freeze. That’s one. ((Laughter from some in the group)) Someone else?

Roberta: Yeah. ((Poses with her hands in the air like she’s had enough)) I’m frustrated ((Points to herself)), completely frustrated.

Arts-Based Researcher: Good, another!

Lisette: ((Sits in the seat next to Dana, leans over so that her right ear is near Dana’s chest)) I’m trying to listen to what’s in her heart.

Many Voices: Yes! Yes!

Linda: ((Lies down on the floor at the edge of the audience)) So can I stay over here ‘cause I’m home?

Arts-Based Researcher: Sure! ((Nodding to Linda))

Linda: I’m sleeping and I’m dreaming. I’m waking up, and I’m trying to figure out how to solve the problem in my sleep. ((As she speaks, she rises to a sitting position with left hand to chin—in a pondering gesture))

Angela: That happens to me too!

Many voices: ((General agreement))


Rona: I want to say something. I’m not going to choke the child if they do this to me. And they do do this to me sometimes. I mean what you do and what you feel are two different things.

For a long time, critical pedagogy has relied on language to create possibilities and has fallen short of embodied social action (Pineau, 2002). As Boal designed it, Theater of the Oppressed (including Forum Theater, Rainbow of Desire, and other T.O. techniques) opens up a space for critical performative pedagogy and embraces a language of possibility as participants engage performatively in contexts in which the qualities of the “protagonist” and “antagonist” are multifaceted and contextually situated. Just as Rona stated, what we do and what we feel are often very different. Although there are several approaches to teacher education that espouse “reflective teaching,” these are often very individual processes whereby a novice teacher reflects in isolation through a journal or in paired collaborations with a mentor teacher or university supervisor. Seldom are arts-based opportunities available for new teachers, especially those who are working on behalf of marginalized communities, to reenact their experiences in a collective, rehearsing and validating the emotional hues that inform embodied practice. Rarely are there opportunities in teacher education contexts for teachers to express the range of emotions they experience during the school day in a way that feels safe, honest, and validated. Even rarer are opportunities for researchers to engage artistically with teachers to document the range of experiences and emotions involved in their professional lives.


If arts-based research culminates in little more than a delightful poetic passage or a vivid narrative that does little educational work, it is not serving its function. In other words, I am trying to remind us here that in the end research is an instrument, whether arts-based or not, that is supposed to contribute to the quality of education students receive and that arts-based research must ultimately be appraised on the extent to which that aim is realized. (Eisner, 2008, p. 23)

Our project has merged practices and theories from postmodernism, critical pedagogy, and critical performance; in so doing, we believe that arts-based performance research does respond to Eisner’s stated concern and contributes to the quality of teacher education and, ultimately, to the quality of education that students receive. Through interactive, co-constructed design, we have demonstrated how using techniques from the literary and performing arts has helped us create meaningful, engaging contexts for collecting and analyzing research with novice bilingual teachers. The process of arriving at this syncretism, however, was not trouble free. In conclusion, we address some of the struggles and concerns that have arisen during our arts-based research process, notable among them our own experience in the arts and the recursive nature of this work.


We began taking risks and using the dramatic and performing arts in our research process with varying degrees of skill and experience as actors, directors, playwrights, and educational researchers. Although all members of our team hold graduate degrees in language and education, none of us has an MFA degree in theater arts, and none of us claims to be producing Broadway-, Off Broadway-, or even Off-Off-(Get-Off!) Broadway-style productions or hope to take our trans/scripts to the literal stage. However, the more we experiment with theatrical techniques, the more we build our competence in both the arts and social science methodologies, working toward expertise. Researchers from this project have attended the annual Pedagogy and Theater of the Oppressed workshops with Boal offered in different locations throughout the country. We have invited guest speakers to build our knowledge of Boalian theater games and craft, and we hold our own “rehearsals” to develop our dramatic as well as our data-gathering and analysis skills. Much like practicing poets, playwrights, and fiction writers, we also participate in writing workshops to reflect on how we represent our empirical work and with what effect. Such contact and practice is necessary, for, as Geertz (1983) reminded us, researchers drawing on the arts are “drawn into the rather tangled coils of its aesthetic” (p. 27). Although we believe that the arts are a method open to all researchers, we also believe that the arts, like scientific methods, require time, commitment, and the pursuit of training.


Another challenge, or opportunity, that we encountered was a reappraisal of the research process. Rather than the linear mode of inquiry so often detailed in qualitative handbooks and studies, our work with performative focus groups and trans/scripts was dizzily recursive. Initially, we approached this process in a linear fashion. However, when we began trans/scripting our transcripts for analysis, additional data collection, and representation with our group of bilingual spect-actors, we began to question the discrete categorizations of collection, analysis, and representation. As mentioned previously, trans/scripting is both process and product. As we look at the video-recorded data and written transcript, we make authorial decisions to create the trans/script or vignette that highlights key themes or “hot points” in the data. Deciding where the hot points are and how to fan them for maximum evocation is the process of analysis. The completed trans/script, however, is not merely an artistic representation of data analysis or findings; rather, it becomes data to be analyzed by spect-acting participants in later focus groups. Specifically, group members analyze trans/scripts and/or vignettes by relating them to their own experiences and selecting details of those incidents to dramatize and then represent their analysis to the group. Then the group checks the representational reality, and additional scripts are enacted. In other words, no part of the performative process is static or discrete. As researchers, we are always uncertain as to where the T.O. performative model (Figure 2) and the areas of qualitative inquiry will intersect and/or loop back.

Figure 2. Performative focus group model based on Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed (T.O.)     

click to enlarge

The uncertainty of not knowing what will come next and being unable to easily categorize the research process is a challenge, yet working with the unpredictable is invigorating both as researchers and teacher-educators. As teacher-educators, we did not have absolute answers to teachers’ real, day-to-day concerns: for example, how to work with an uncooperative, unstable, or unsafe colleague, and how to manage students who are disengaged, disrespectful, or even violent in the classroom. Through performance-based focus groups, we learned that not having the answers can be a strength and allow participants’ and researchers’ collective wisdom to come forth and unforeseen challenges to be known.


Attributed to legislation such as No Child Left Behind, as well as county- and school-mandated testing and curriculum, teachers and teacher-educators feel constricted in both the content and form that education research takes. Arts-based approaches to research in teacher education are a form of experiment that pushes beyond the limits of what is known, acceptable, feasible, and done, asking participants to explore options rather than solutions and to rehearse the possible rather than the perceived inevitable.

Though the subjects and actors may change, situations of struggle recur in teachers’ lives. New approaches to critical teacher education research are needed that raise awareness to the moving and omnipresent “multiplicity of force relations” (Foucault, 1976/1978, pp. 92–93) that operate in teachers’ lives. Analysis of project trans/scripts provides evidence of the dynamic potential for blurring boundaries between the arts and social sciences in qualitative teacher education research.

Epistemological tensions between artistic and scientific ways of knowing the world may at first appear to make for unexpected and potentially haphazard methodological mergers. We do not claim to have resolved these tensions, but to have exploited both traditional and artistic research methods to understand what it means to diversify our teaching force, including bilingual and bicultural teachers and students in K–12 public schools.

As more researchers become skillful in merging artistic and scientific approaches to empiricism and explicitly share their processes with larger audiences, we hope that current epistemological tensions will give way to new and unexpected mergers that shed light on recurring educational concerns in the pursuit of excellence and equity. We hope that our use of blurred methodologies for data collection, analysis, and representation have documented and communicated this work in ways that reveal its potential and possibility.

Through increased documentation and articulation of these hybrid methodologies, we may see more tables and chairs pushed to the periphery of the teacher education focus group conversation, with more opportunities for engaged, embodied, and critical learning.


The authors would like to thank the U.S. Department of Education for support of the Teachers for English Language Learners (TELL) grant through the Transition to Teaching program. We also thank Dr. Betsy Rymes, Esperanza Mejia, Betsy Wang, Meghan Kicklighter, Constanza Beron, Cori Jakubiak, Carmen Cerda, and Paula Mellom for their support. Much gratitude to Terry Osborn for reviewing an early version of this manuscript.


1 In Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (1983), Geertz declared that a certain melding between the social sciences and the humanities has been omnipresent in intellectual history. According to Geertz (1983), texts cannot be easily sorted into factual or literary categories after the interpretive turn because they do not fit solely into one category or another. However, the sheer volume of 20th-century texts that would become uneasily categorized as factual or literary suggests that “something is happening to the way we think about what we think about” (p. 20). This interpretive turn, in which discursive resources so readily available to those in the humanities are used explicitly and with new purpose in the service of the social sciences, becomes visible as “society is less and less represented as an elaborate machine or a quasi-organism and more as a serious game, a sidewalk drama, or a behavioral text” (p. 23).

2 Boal (1995) is adamant that replacing the protagonist while spect-acting is not predicated on empathy or being penetrated by the emotions of another, but rather on sympathy—that is, projecting one’s own emotions on the scene and placing one’s self in a situation that resonates with the spect-actor. Spect-actors are not “walking in the shoes” of the protagonist, but rather walking the same road as the protagonist.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 11, 2009, p. 2535-2559
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15439, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 9:00:52 PM

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About the Author
  • Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor
    University of Georgia
    E-mail Author
    MELISA CAHNMANN-TAYLOR, associate professor in language and literacy education at the University of Georgia, studies bilingualism, multicultural education, and arts-based inquiry. In January 2007, she completed an MFA in poetry (New England College). Her coedited volume, Arts-Based Inquiry in Education: Foundations for Practice (Routledge), has just been published.
  • Jennifer Wooten
    University of Georgia
    E-mail Author
    JENNIFER WOOTEN is a doctoral student in foreign language education at the University of Georgia. Her research interests include cultural identity construction, second-language creative writing, and arts-based inquiry.
  • Mariana Souto-Manning
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    MARIANA SOUTO-MANNING, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. From a critical perspective, she examines the sociocultural and historical foundations of schooling, language development, literacy practices, cultures, and discourses. She studies how children, families, and teachers from diverse backgrounds shape and are shaped by discursive practices, employing a methodology that combines discourse analysis with ethnographic investigation. Her work can be found in journals such as Early Child Development and Care, Early Childhood Education Journal, Journal of Early Childhood Research, Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, Journal of Research in Childhood Education, and Teachers College Record.
  • Jaime Dice
    University of Georgia
    E-mail Author
    JAIME L. DICE is a doctoral candidate in child and family development at the University of Georgia. Her research interests include the development of social cognition in early childhood, multicultural education, and temperamental influences on development.
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