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5 rewarding reasons to teach (and not) with drama

Using drama, reader’s theater, and role playing has always been a go-to strategy for social studies teachers.

These tools can have a powerful impact on learning but they need to be used wisely and carefully. If we don’t intentionally think about how and why we incorporate these tools into our instruction, things can go quickly askew. The people at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History can help with that.

In a recent post titled How (Not) To Teach With Drama, Naomi Coquillon shares a few guidelines and recommendations for classroom educators on using theater in history teaching. Together Naomi’s suggestions together with the companion post, Teaching with Drama, for full effect.

Get the full details at the O Say Can You See page but get a few spoilers before heading out:

Embody for empathy
The goal should be “embodying for empathy” – that is, trying to better understand historical figures from their perspective, to empathize with them. Not to experience what that time period “really would have been like.”

Be the protagonist, not the antagonist
Put the emphasis on the historical protagonist, not the antagonist, and never set students against one another.

Choose your topic wisely
Placing oneself in a pivotal historical moment, one where individuals had to make drastic choices, can be incredibly powerful. Use that power wisely, and know that some topics are too sensitive to be taught with theater.

Use visualization instead of simulation
But challenging topics in history should not be avoided. In fact, finding ways to address challenging topics in history is one of the goals of the museum’s theater program. However, there are ways to do this sensitively, including using visualization, rather than simulation. Ask student to imagine themselves in certain places and moments in time, while simply walking around the room. For example, I might offer an open-ended description: “You are on the deck of a ship. You feel the ship rocking, and a new land comes into sight . . .”

Give students choice
Because teaching with theater can be an emotional experience, there needs to be space for students to opt out.

Don’t trivialize, and have a goal in mind
History is the story of real people who made real choices and faced real hardships. Theater can be used to help students appreciate those realities, and to better understand that the choices we make every day have the potential to shape our present and future. However, to harness that lesson, educators should be careful not to trivialize challenging moments.

Ask around
Talk with your peers before introducing a theater activity in your classes – to get feedback and think hard about whether this is the best way to teach the topic at hand. Historical theater can be a transformative experience for students but it can also be heart-wrenching and traumatic if used inappropriately.

When you’ve finished with Naomi’s article, get even more ideas on using drama and theater at Smithsonian’s History Explorer.


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