The '20s come roaring into history class with an artful touch
It's back to prohibition time, and the happening place is the local jazz cafe. Fringed dresses and strings of pearls are flying as high-schoolers dance the Charleston to a live band, sip nonalcoholic bubbly from stemmed glasses, and imagine themselves in the company of the Great Gatsby.Skip to next paragraph
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When was history class ever so much fun?
In Sedona, Ariz., this has been a year of history immersion using all five senses. Local artists and humanities teachers have been collaborating to bring historical periods to life through lessons that incorporate everything from food to stained-glass projects. The field trip to the jazz cafe is the finale for a unit on the Roaring '20s. Next stop: Vietnam and the tumultuous '60s.
Engaging young minds in history has long been a challenge for teachers. While some students are easily engrossed in the past through classroom lectures and reading assignments, others especially adolescents find the whole subject an irrelevant bore.
Libby Caldwell, an artist and mother in Sedona, decided to use the arts to design memorable lessons for high-schoolers. Sedona is a small community known as an artists' enclave, and some artists were already making presentations in local classrooms. Ms. Caldwell's concept went a step further, giving students the chance to get out of their seats to experience an era.
"I was sure that if you immerse someone in a period, so they are creating something while listening to something while eating, the process becomes more natural for them and they learn something they never forget," Caldwell says. "The idea is that they would have too much going on to ignore the 1920s."
Students still learned the history of the period and read the curriculum's standard book, "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In addition, they had a series of classroom lessons led by the artists. During one class, they focused on the era's Art Deco style and made small stained-glass panels of their own. Another day they learned how to dance the Charleston. A third lesson was devoted to learning the fashion of the period, complete with diagrams about how to replicate the hairstyles and dress.
During these lessons, jazz music played in the background and the students snacked on foods invented during the '20s, such as Kool-Aid and Reese's peanut butter cups.
Then the students went to work putting together period costumes to wear on the field trip. The school made clothes available from its drama department, and even though costumes were optional, some students dug through closets and hunted for garb at the local Goodwill. Taking inspiration from the movie version of "The Great Gatsby," some girls made period headbands by gluing on feathers and jewels.
"Dressing up and getting to do some role-playing really brought the idea that the time period existed alive, rather than just reading about it in a book," says Jennifer Sherrill, a junior at Sedona Red Rock High School.
The teachers noticed that the activities made the traditional lessons more effective. "In their discussion of 'The Great Gatsby,' it helped them to visualize the descriptions of the epic parties that Gatsby threw and the whole period, and it seemed they understood Gatsby more and responded to it," says Greg Anderson, one of the seven humanities teachers at Red Rock High who participated in the immersion program.
Not every student was excited about the activities nor every teacher, at first. Many adolescents consider it quite uncool to take part in school activities, especially when they involve arts- and-crafts projects and playing dress-up. Even as the girls were busy after school making their headbands, some of them clucked that it was "stupid."