History that speaks, breathes, and moves

Surely something of historical significance has happened in or near your town. Maybe many things. Here, in New England, almost every village has its bronze plaques and concrete monuments silently proclaiming its historic past.

For a 12- or 13-year-old, history, to be educational in any meaningful sense, must speak, breathe, and move. Middle schoolers (generally ages 10-15) are neither pensive nor philosophical. Teaching history, be it local, state, regional, national, or world to 8th-graders, demands the repackaging of musty facts and the rejuvenation of faded ghosts of time.

Role playing taps the flow of creative juices, site visitations stir the imagination, and video taping adds sparkle and vitality. Based on these premises, we, the middle school English, drama, and history teachers at Providence Country Day School created a unit that not only excited but ignited the 8th grade.

In August 1676, King Philip (Metacomet), Indian leader of the war that bears his name, was killed by a colonial platoon not far from our campus. Our plan (i.e., goal for the unit) was to re-enact his final moments before the school's television camera.

Authenticity was achieved by studying historical documents and diaries. A feel for the epoch, motivations, and attitudes of real-life persons and reasons for strife were developed through discussions with the lectured by Narragansett Indian Council representatives who visited the school. Their experiences with recent land-claims settlements brought greater meaning and understanding to the nature of the dichotomy between the Indian and the colonial view of property -- one of the key issues involved in King Philip's War over 300 years earlier. Questions -- answers -- dialogue; who were the "bad guys"? Who were the "good"? Were both sides possibly to blame"

Following this three-week period of intensive research, study, and debate, one week was set aside for the preparation of our "filmed" re-enactment. A two-hour block of time each day for four days was devoted to the planning, writing, and rehearsing of the script. The history teacher provided guidance toward historical accuracy while the English/drama teacher offered assistance in the creation of character, development of plot, and direction in acting technique.

Within this framework the students were responsible for the actual writing of the script and acting out of roles. They set about their task with ardor.

On Monday, introductory remarks were made by each teacher and discussions were held to determine exactly how the assignment should proceed. All students were encouraged to contribute ideas (although not much encouragement was needed).

Teachers' decisions broke any impasses that developed. Groups were established by teachers, based on the roles each student would play. Each group , colonials, soldiers, turncoats, and King Philip's warriors wrote to breathe life into the spirit of the characters that they would briefly inhabit. Each sought to justify his role from a study of the problems of the period (1650-1676 ).

On Tuesday, students continued writing the scripts, which included setting, dialogue, and camera angles. Together the groups produced a dramatization of what the last hours of King Philip's life might have been. Research indicated that there were several small groups -- some colonial, some Indian -- active in the Mount hope area of Bristol, R.I., a town only 20-minutes drive from the school. Our location for "filming" was established.

Wednesday's meeting was devoted to polishing the script and studying lines. Costumes were created that were reflective of the time. Indian and white-man clothing was authenticated from books, journals, and old prints.

Thursday was the "dry run day" during which rehearsals took place. Blocking was determined, lines were memorized, and specific action and dialogue were clarified.

The flexibility of other members of the faculty allowed us to use the entire morning (approximately four hours) on Friday for "shooting on location." The weather was perfect. Each group gathered at pre-appointed places. Scripts were unnecessary, for lines had been learned. Creative energy crackled like electricity. And now the real lure -- gimmick, if you will -- TV camera and tape! Oh, what a magnificient invention! The bane of educators used by them to bait the great unwashed! Fight fire with fire!

Young people are hams -- they love to assume the mask of some other personality. Narcissus-like, they love to see themselves, not in a pool of water, but in a blaze of cathode rays. The TV represents a temptation that few can resist.

As educators, we can scorn its tendency toward stagnation and lament what it has taken from us, or we can revel in its unlimited possibilities.

For us, the combination of camera and tape zoomed these 8th-graders to an acting peak, a creative frenzy. They produced a masterful (though amateur), sensitive, and action-packed epic. Twenty-five students and three adults captured the spirit of that August day in 1676, and made the woods around Mount Hope reel again.

We have watched it time and time again in reverent silence. When King Philip falls -- near the exact spot -- we fall too. There is no jubilation. The students and teachers know that something unfortunate has occurred. Perhaps those "great" colonials were less than aware. Players in the tragedy, the students have been witnesses to injustice. The catharsis is complete.

You might justifiably question the selection of a "killing" as the event to be portrayed with camera. We felt the initial appeal of violent action might carry this group to the real lesson -- the evils of cultural misunderstanding, social insensitivity, human greed, and corruption. In this instance and with these students, it was most successful.

Choose any region in the United States and you will find it rich in history. Choose any adolescent, and you will find him well acquainted with and fascinated by television. Why not combine the colorful events of the past with the technology of the present to create excitement in middle school history and English classes?

If middle school teachers can agree that active, participatory learning is the most effective approach to teaching the adolescent, then dramatizing, re-enacting, and filming historical events, relevant to the students' particular locale, can be the stuff of which teachers' dream are made.

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