This week I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing local expat and Taipei resident Prashantha Lachanna, or Prish, as she is known to her friends. Prish started a company in 2009 called BANG Events that has produced a life skills play aimed at junior high school students across Taiwan. It focuses on issues that junior high students face, especially the core issues of cyber-bullying, difficult family situations, academic cheating, and integrity in friendships and relationships.
Because this blogger so often sees and hears about the effects of bullying and other negative schooling experiences in his own students, I thought Prish and her play might be a useful resource for the many of my readers who work in junior highs and high schools throughout Taiwan.
Before developing the script, Prish spent six months doing research. She spoke to child protection officers, psychologists, teachers, students, parents, and friends. She also explored academic research on educational tracking and psychological well-being of Taiwanese youth from elementary through to senior high. The research showed obvious peaks of depression in transitional phases with a number of contributing factors involved, such as familial pressure or a lack of familial guidance, teacher-student relationships, social networks bred between students and the competitive educational system of Taiwan.
Prish told me that “when I started this project I was really disturbed by stories my students told me about situations they or friends of theirs faced in their daily lives. They talked about other students who, in the middle of class, cut themselves, students who repeatedly banged their heads against the wall, students dealing with anorexia.” She said that the most important issue that came up was social aggression, or bullying, as we ordinary mortals call it. Whereas bullying used to be confined to playgrounds, at present day, students have access to all kinds of electronic devices that allow them to take bullying into cyber space – place that offers little protection or empathy and that places its victims under 24 hour torture. Suicides in the US have been reported. The White House issued a speech and so has President Ma after the recent violent incident of bullying in Hsinchu.
Another core issue in the play, integrity in friendships and relations, or dating safety has to be explored as she feels that young girls are often coerced into dangerous situations by sexual predators. In the play, the main character, Xiao Zhu meets Tsai Ge, a much older man who is obvious bad news, at a local MTV in Ximen. Her best friends XZ and Mike do what they can to protect her but in the end, it is up to XZ to make the right choice. Prish says: “All junior high students must see this and talk about this because there are so many issues involved in making a decision to do something this dangerous, from poor self esteem to a lack of understanding about setting boundaries to a need to be accepted. Young girls who face these situations are then criticized and judged. This just adds to the chaos. Young girls need to be heard, educated and respected. If you hand education to a child, you immediately empower him/her.”
The show consists of two parts, a 30 minute life skills play and a 30 minute facilitation session immediately afterwards (it thus fits neatly into the one hour period schedules all local schools have). The life skills play can cater to either international or local students, she said. It is currently performed in English, with a little bit of Chinese in it, but a Chinese version has been developed and is currently being learned by her team.
The show is an “empowering intervention”. It is filled with archetypal images and situations. “It has to be familiar,” Prish explained, “it has to have happened in their lives, to make the connection so the messages can be gently slipped in.” She added “we don’t resolve all conflicts presented in the show, on purpose, because we want to inspire dialogue in the 30 minute facilitation session after the show.” Thus the show creates a space to look at a conflict that wasn’t resolved so that audience participants can ask why. We then ask them what they would do, and whether it would be the only thing that they could do, and how else a given conflict could potentially be resolved. According to Prish, the purpose of this process is to develop the idea of the students being active participants in their own lives, to develop an identity of self, and to develop a sense of empathy. The actors, who are both local and expat, are all trained facilitators.
“What can we hope to achieve in an hour? We hope to shift a thought that can change a single action, at least. And that one action could be something that could benefit everyone,” she says. The show isn’t only designed to solve problems but rather, to create dialogue. Of course, the facilitators will answer fact-based questions in a straightforward manner so that misconceptions can be minimized.
After the show each guidance teacher at each school gets three follow up lesson plans from BANG, based on the core issues of the play, in Chinese. Every parent gets a USB stick that has a resource package in Chinese with advice on how to open communication with their child in a positive and compassionate way, and links to organizations that provide family help in Taipei city with contact details. A parent-child contract is also included. It comes from a cyberbullying organization in the USA, www.cyberbullying.org. This is signed and hung above the family computer. The contract plays the role of buffer between parents and child. With both sides being held accountable for safe internet usage, it makes people more actively aware of their roles. Students get their own resource, kind of “What to do if…?” guide.
To support the show, Prish says that her company has created a system of support through collaborations with other organizations. “We’ve formed relationships with networks of organizations that work with kids and families. If at the end of the facilitation, a child needs help, by discreetly mentioning something to our facilitators, we know how to get help immediately. We are working with child and adolescent protection offices across the city, including Grace Counseling, the organization that works with marriage, divorce and psychological issues such as bulimia, anorexia and learning disorders, and The Community Services center in Tianmu. The Community Services Center had one of their best psychologists, Perry Malcolm, review the show, and he gave it a powerful endorsement, Prish said.
BANG is also working with two very exciting people. One of them is the UN young ambassador, Darren Yeh. Darren travels around Taiwan speaking to students in tertiary institutions and in the workforce about developing leadership skills in their lives. As a supplementary aid to the show, Darren will also be available to give a one hour speech in Chinese about developing leadership skills. Darren is sponsored by BANG and is free of charge to the school. Darren is affiliated with Dharma Drum, the well-known Buddhist organization. As BANG develops its relationship with Darren, more courses will be offered for students, including an exclusive weekend leadership retreat for Grade 12 students.
The other exciting person is the “gentleman of hip-hop”, the performance artist, Leo Shia, or LEO37 as he is known on stage. Leo earned a degree from Toronto’s Ryerson University's prestigious Radio and Television Arts Program while also finding himself on stage and in studio with some of the city's most acclaimed jazz, folk, pop and hip-hop artists. LEO37 will partner with BANG to carry out hip/ hop, rap and beat box workshops with the students during the summer and winter. Local students love hip-hop, and music as intervention is a powerful device which empowers young people.
The cost to the show is calculated per student. BANG can comfortably perform for audiences of 20 – 200. To date they have performed 4 shows.
BANG is planning now for the September tour but are still available to visit schools this semester. The tour runs through the school year, Sept 2011 to June 2012. Although self-funded, Prish is currently looking for sources of funding that will help her bring the show to students across Taiwan, especially in rural areas. Contact prish: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.bang-events.com for more information. You can also follow BANG on www.facebook.com/bangevents
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