Embodied Brainstorming

This workshop, funded by a Fearless Teaching Seed Grant from the University of Maryland’s Teaching and Learning Transformation Center (TLTC). The activity was undertaken at the Clarice Performing Arts Center as part of the KNES 400: Foundations in Public Health Fall 2018. This was led by course instructor Dr. Shannon Jette, two wonderful facilitators Patrick Crowley and Tricia Homer as well as the teaching assistants Anna Posbergh and me. The facilitators used methods from Theatre of the Oppressed we moved our Kinesiology seniors to the performing arts center to teach them the“images of transition” activity. Students worked in groups to showcase a health disparity, such as: racial bias in policing, financial barriers to healthcare, and the school to prison pipeline. After performing the “problem” their peers would re-position their bodies, moving them toward “utopic” solutions.

Through movement we were able to cultivate a “brave space” where students could speak to one another in (embodied) empathetic ways about inequity in relation to physical activity and public health. Student feedback was enthusiastic, as students stated that this activity – while at first uncomfortable – helped them rethink how important individual agency and movement is to understand and combat inequity. The method and outcomes were presented at Public Health Research Day at UMD and are explored further in a forthcoming publication for Thresholds in Education.


To prevent students from using personal appearance to dictate roles in the activity blue and green handkerchiefs were used to represent different vectors of identity including class, race, ability, citizenship, and incarceration to name a few.

“Brave Space”

Instead of being told they were “safe” students were invited by facilitators Tricia Homer and Patrick Crowley to embrace uncertainty, and play with the discomfort the activity presented.

Faculty Participation

Part of student buy-in was certainly due to Dr. Shannon Jette’s full participation in all activities. Unafraid to put her whole body into each the activities Dr. Jette encouraged her students to do the same.

Public Health Research Day (2019)

“Bodystorming”: Using embodied pedagogy to build empathy and facilitate difficult topics

Background: For this project we sought to use bodily intelligence to interrupt the typical focus on linguistic engagement in a public health undergraduate classroom. Embodied learning is the concept that refers to this bodily intelligence and, more specifically, is the active process through which shifts in perspectives, behaviors, and/or actions are experienced “in, through, with, and because of the body” (Munro, 2018, p. 6). We used this technique because we found that verbal discussions of discrimination in general, and racism in particular, illicit student discomfort and limit meaningful student engagement.

Goal: The purpose of this project was to explore how embodied pedagogy techniques functioned as an alternative mode to explore sensitive topics, as well as how these techniques might help students better relate and build empathy across difference

Objectives: The objectives of the project are to explore: – how the embodied activity impacted student learning; – how the embodied activity impacted levels of emotional and cognitive empathy; – how the embodied activity impacted student views of the possibility of social change; – student perceptions of the embodied activity

Approach: The embodied pedagogy workshop activity was delivered to UMD public health undergraduate students (N =129) in Fall 2018 as part of a 400-level course. More specifically, we implemented and assessed an embodied learning activity called ‘image of transition’ which is a branch of Boal’s (1979) system called ‘theatre of oppressed.’ Boal’s radical set of theatre techniques seek to put the challenges of people’s social lives at the heart of the theatrical process. ‘Image of transition’ is facilitated by trained theatre professionals, but empowers audience-participants to create, rehearse, perform, and analyze aesthetic enactments of social problems. Data collection entailed a pre-and post-survey conducted the day of the workshop as well as field notes. The survey consisted of Likert Scale questions designed to assess how the workshop impacted: student learning; perceptions of the possibility of social change; and levels of empathy. An open ended question was used to assess student perceptions of the embodied learning activity.

Results/Conclusions: Our results focus on ‘lessons learned.’ We will share two key findings regarding what worked: (1) embodying class concepts through movement opened up multiple interpretations for students, and this thickness evoked robust dialogue that a strictly linguistic approach might not have elicited; and (2) the affective and physical experiences of the participants embodying ideas provided further avenues for analysis and discussion. The shortcomings of our workshop were evidenced by a failure of the group to imagine utopian public health outcomes, and tenuous linkages between systemic inequities and interpersonal manifestations of these inequities.

Importance to public health: This intervention offers a means for students to engage in more critical conversations through using movement to express themselves.

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