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The Knotted Line

Evan Bissell, Author

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Defining Power, Developing Language

Download: Knotted Line Curriculum Guide

Foundational Understandings:

  • Power is everywhere and comes from everywhere. It can’t be simplified to a specific agency, structure, person or peoples—although all of these uphold or challenge power in different ways. 
  • Power is constantly shifting and being negotiated.
  • Power can lift people up or keep them down. 

Essential Questions: 

  • What is power?
  • Are there different kinds of power?
  • How does power operate in your life?


Participants will...
...strengthen/develop their ability to identify different kinds of power and how it works in the world around them.
...become familiar with and begin to apply specific concepts, methods and tools for understanding and engaging with power.
...develop a shared language with which to articulate experiences, ideas, and issues in their own lives and connect them to larger society. 

Facilitator Preparation

Common Core Standards

    Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.
    Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.


Length of Time:  Two 55-minute sessions
Recommended Age Range: 14-23
Ideal Number of Participants: 15-30

Materials Needed

Session 1

1. Print Power Word list and Power assignment for each participant.
2. Write up power definition (see Wrap Up activity below).

Part 1: Personal Connection & Reflection, Developing the Reason to Learn

Columbian Hypnosis

10 minutes
The facilitator describes the ice-breaker activity: Everyone is going to find a partner. One partner is the leader, the other is the follower.  Don’t worry—you’re going to switch! So let’s set ourselves up for this. In the next 30 seconds, find a partner and then in the next 30 seconds after that, decide together who will be the leader first. Then stand facing each other. 

At this point, the facilitator gives participants one minute and helps participants find partners if they need it.
Once pairs are formed, the facilitator instructs everyone to stand facing their partner, then continues giving instructions:

Each leader should hold your hand spread open, palm facing your partner, 5-6 inches from the follower’s face. All the leaders: try it now. 
Followers: when your leader starts moving their hand around, your job is try to keep your face exactly the same distance from their hand, whether it moves forwards or backwards, up or down, or twists one way or another.
I am going to demonstrate now, so watch carefully before doing it. 
The facilitator asks someone from the pair nearest to them to act as their partner for the demo. The facilitator instructs them to be the leader and hold their hand, spread open, 5-6 inches from the facilitator’s face and to move it slowly. The facilitator demonstrates following the hand with their face for a few moments then stops.
The facilitator announces to the group that they’re going to count to 5 and then leaders should begin.
After 1 minute, the facilitator calls FREEZE and then instructs pairs to switch who is the leader and the follower. The facilitator counts to 5 again and then gives the pairs another minute to do the activity.

This activity comes from Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed workshops. For a list of other games see here or Games for Actors and Non-Actors.

Power Graffiti Board

10 minutes
The facilitator puts up a large piece of paper with the word POWER written at the top. 
Participants are asked to throw out all the words that come to mind when they see/hear the word power.
If participants need more prompting to think of responses, the facilitator asks these questions to get their ideas flowing:
What does “power” mean?
What is it?
What does it make you think of?
Who has power?

The facilitator or a volunteer captures all of the words being thrown out and writes them up on the large piece of paper.

Once the flow of ideas slows down, the facilitator directs the conversation to reflect on the previous activity by asking the group these questions:
How did we see power in the hypnosis game?
When did the leader have power? The follower?
Was there a struggle over power?
 If I didn't tell you to switch between leader and follower, do you think you would ever have switched on your own? Or do you think the leader would have remained the leader the whole time?
How could the follower have tried to become the leader?

Part 2: Develop the Concept, Move from the Personal to the Theoretical

Game of Thrones

15 minutes
The facilitator places an empty chair in the center of the space and then places four more empty chairs nearby. 
The facilitator asks two volunteers to work together to position the chairs to show that the first chair has POWER OVER the rest of the chairs. 

Facilitator Note: Participants may be hesitant or have questions—encourage them not to overthink, and to go with their first instinct. Facilitator should remind everyone there is not one “right” way of doing this. If there are no stand-alone chairs available, this activity can be adapted to be done with any objects of the same type—binders, books, bodies, pencils...

After the group observes how the chairs have been placed, two more volunteers are asked to come up and rearrange the chairs so that the four chairs have POWER UNDER the first chair—meaning that the first chair has POWER OVER them but they are building power together to push back from under the first chair’s power.

Once the group has a moment to observe how the volunteers chose to position the chairs, the facilitator asks for two more volunteers.

This pair of volunteers is asked to place the four chairs in relation to the first chair to show that all five have POWER WITH each other. 

Then the facilitator asks people to reflect on the exercise, starting with these questions: 
* Were any of the forms of power harder to figure out how to represent than others?
* Which of the forms of power that we explored in this exercise have you experienced in one way or another?

Wrap Up

20 minutes
Written up on a piece of flipchart paper or on the Power assignment that is distributed, the facilitator asks participants to follow along as one volunteer reads out loud this definition of power: 
Power is the ability to make action happen.
...Power can be negative or positive. 
...Power appears in every level of human life: public, personal and internal. 
...Power can be visible or hidden/invisible. 
...Power is not just between people—there can be power in institutions, knowledge, customs or beliefs. 

Facilitator then asks the group: 
Is this how we usually understand what power is? 
Can anyone think of an example of one of these aspects of power in the real world?
Do you think power is important to think about when studying the history of the U.S.?
Why do you think it’s important to understand how power works and to name it the way we’ve tried to today?

Facilitator concludes the session by handing out the Power Word list and the assignment, explaining what’s going to happen next and going over the assignment:
Now that we’ve begun exploring what power is and how it works in our world, we’re going to start developing a shared language to talk about it together in our next session. Let’s read through the assignment…

Read through this list of “Power Words.”
These are words that describe different things having to do with how power works in our lives.

Your assignment is to ask at least one person in your family or a friend outside of this class the questions below.

1) Which of these words are you familiar with?

Circle or put a star next to the words the person talks about on the list. 

2) Are any of these words describing something that you experience or think is important in your own life? If so, which ones? Why?

Take notes on the responses.

Session 2

1. Prepare Power Word flipchart papers (see Defining Power activity below) for each small group.
2. Print Power Words Images packet.

Part 3: Active Experimentation with New Knowledge and Concepts


5 minutes
The steps for the opening activity are written up on the board. The facilitator begins by welcoming everyone and going over the steps they’re about to go through.

Defining Power Words

25 minutes
Participants divide into small groups.
Each group receives a large piece of paper and markers.
The facilitator has prepared the large paper to look like this:

Step 1
Participants share the responses they gathered through the Power assignment from the previous session.
As a group, decide on one Power Word to focus on. Groups should choose different words. Facilitator can write them up as they are claimed.
The group chooses a notetaker, and this person writes the chosen Power Word on the top of the flipchart paper in the designated area.

Step 2
Participants write their own definition of the Power Word on the paper. If they are having trouble they can refer to the list or look things up on phones/computers, but the definition should be in their own language.

Step 3
Participants brainstorm concrete examples of the Power Word they’re focusing on, filling out the two sections (local/current and another place/past).

Step 4
Groups share their work with each other:
* Each group trades papers with another group.
* Each group reads through the other group’s definition and examples. 
* Each group concludes by adding one more example, idea, or question related to the Power Word to the other group’s paper in the designated area. 

Step 5
Each group receives the Power Words Images packet.
* Groups look through the images provided and choose one that connects to the Power Word they are working with (the one they got from the other group). 
* The group pastes the image that they chose in the designated section on their Power Word paper. 
Step 6
Every group tapes their Power Word flipchart paper up on the wall next to each other to form a “gallery” of the papers.
Participants walk through the “gallery” to check out the definitions and images that other groups offered. 
Once participants are finished looking, they are asked to find one other person to form a pair with for the next activity. 

Part 4: Integration of Concepts & Experience, Learners Representing New Knowledge in their Own Voice

Seeing Power in the World

15 minutes
Facilitator explains the transition:
Now that we have started to develop some shared language to talk about the issues related to power in the world around us, in pairs we are going to get specific and personal, thinking about power problems in our own communities...

Participants form pairs and receive the Power In the World worksheet to fill out together: 

Say the Word

10 minutes
The facilitator asks pairs to share back with the group by responding to these questions:
1) What is the issue you talked about?
2) In general, did you find the Power Words helpful in thinking or talking about the issue? Why or why not?

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