The '20s come roaring into history class with an artful touch

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Maybe they'll remember it

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."

"But once they made them, they were very possessive of them," says Katherine Lash, who is both a humanities teacher and a parent at the school. Her daughter drove 45 minutes to Flagstaff to locate a feather boa to complete her own costume.

The day before the field trip, students kept asking one another if they were going to dress up; nobody wanted to be the only one. But when the day came, teachers were pleased to see how many participated and said they enjoyed it.

Where to find the time

As for the teachers, some had had their own reluctance when the program was first proposed. Classes have so much to cover that time away from the pre-planned lessons can throw a teacher off schedule.

"My feeling is: 'Yes, this is a few hours of class time, but this is a real chance for them to internalize,' " Ms. Lash says. "I think we lose the forest for the trees sometimes because we get so concerned about covering the material. But if it doesn't sink in, what good is covering the material?"

To minimize time taken from the traditional lessons and to maximize the program's impact, the artists and teachers worked together on designing activities that would fit into the existing lessons. "Dovetailing it with the curriculum is the key to getting the teachers involved," says Vince Fazio, director of an art school at the Sedona Arts Center, which helped organize the program.

Teachers ended up praising the group for planning and following up with them rather than just coming in to conduct the activities.

Funding the program was another challenge. Caldwell lobbied the city government for money for 18 months, to no avail. Mr. Fazio wrote grant proposals and ended up pulling together three years' worth of funding from several sources, including the Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Arizona Community Foundation. The organizers also drew on volunteers from the community.

"We have a wealth of artists and retirees who have these backgrounds and experience," Mr. Anderson says. "But I think this program could take place anywhere, because any town has a wealth of experience."

Jennifer, the Red Rock 11th-grader, says that if schools in other cities can find the budget for it, they should all do a similar program at least once a semester, "because even kids who don't usually make an effort in school made an effort, and that's an amazing thing, when students ... get motivated."

At the end of this month, students will be back in action during a unit on the 1960s and the Vietnam War. They will study the historical facts and read Tim O'Brien's novel, "The Things They Carried." But students will also be learning about Pop Art from posters and slides, and working with Vietnam veterans on making a float on a '60s Jeep truck. The float will depict the hippie movement, the moon landing, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the civil rights movement.

And of course, all this work will have a soundtrack: music from Woodstock and clips from the '60s – John Kennedy at the Berlin Wall, Malcolm X on black power, the Beatles coming to America, Johnson escalating the Vietnam War and signing the Civil Rights Act, Martin Luther King's "I have a Dream" speech, and Neil Armstrong's moon walk.

For a world-history unit next fall, students will be immersed in the classical culture of Japan. They'll make kimonos and raku tea cups, construct a Japanese garden, and learn a tea ceremony.

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