The Student-Created Play as
a Learning Tool

Anne Slauson

The concept is a simple one: a television news reporter interviews persons from the past. The audience gets a sense of what it would be like to be alive in a different time and place. Perhaps many readers are too young to remember the popular television program ìYou Were There,î hosted by Walter Cronkite, but historical persons had become real to me as I watched them weekly being interviewed by Cronkite. When I had my own fifth grade class of students, a large body of work to cover (The Civil War era), and very little time in which to teach it, I remembered that program and decided to write a play with my students using that form of drama.

As an assignment, I gave each student the name of a person who lived, or might have lived, during the 1860s. Some were famous such as Ulysses S. Grant; others were everyday people: mill workers, slaves, and other townspeople. The students researched their character, and working in twos or small groups, wrote dialog that would fit a question-and-answer format and would involve everybody. Once they got started, the students became very adept at asking questions and selecting the kind of information that told their characterís story. My job was that of facilitator, helping students get started and filling in any gaps in historical knowledge. The result was basically a student production, one they felt responsible for, especially since it was presented in front of four other fifth grade classes in the school.

I believe this activity illustrates what can be accomplished when learning is made into an active process rather than a passive one. We know that children learn better when they are involved, rather than sitting through the ìI talk, you listenî format still used primarily in the classroom. In writing a dialog, ìteacher talkî is replaced by active participation with othersóthe director, the reporter, and other characters. Students created a product that provided them with a sense of ownership. The whole process was exciting, as they realized how all the parts fit into the whole. They had fun interpreting history, so whether or not Abraham Lincoln ever responded to a question by saying, ìShucks, no,î is of little import; the student who wrote that line understood the personality of the tall, witty man, born in a log cabin in Illinois who came to be president of his country. Similarly, when we get to the womenís views and Susan B. Anthony says, ìItís about time!î the play becomes a contemporary understanding of a womanís role in that era. This is interpretation, but it is an important step toward understanding.

The students’ obvious excitement and feeling of accomplishment as they presented their play, as well as the discussion and evaluation that followed, convinced me that they had taken much more away from their experience than mere memorization of factual material. The following play was written by one class in Knoxville, Tennessee. It shows how history came alive for this group of youngsters. You can change the characters, the setting, or the events you wish to discuss. Topics are limitless, as is the challenge it will provide your students. Such learning can only come from active student involvement in a project from beginning to end.

 

Anne Slauson teaches social studies in the fifth grade at Cedar Bluff Intermediate School in Knoxville, Tennessee

Look Back Theater Presents:
A “Television Play” about the Civil War

 

Written and Directed by a Fifth Grade Class, Cedar Bluff Intermediate School, Knoxville, Tennessee

 

Cast of Characters

Reporter

President Abraham Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln

Senator Clay

Senator Mason

Senator Benton

Senator Webster

Senator Foote

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Dred Scott

Frederick Douglass

Harriet Tubman

Slave Woman

Quaker Woman

John Brown

General Robert E. Lee

General Ulysses S. Grant

Susan B. Anthony

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Southern Woman

Mill girl

Clara Barton

 

Setting

A typical television news set. The reporter is dressed in contemporary clothing, and he or she is holding a microphone. The characters are dressed in costumes appropriate to the era and to their specific character. All characters should wear nametags.

 

Reporter

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to Look Back Theater. Tonight we will be visiting with several persons living back in 1863, during the time of our nationís Civil War, or the War Between the States, as some called it. We are in the middle of that terrible war. President Lincoln has delivered his Gettysburg Address, which many people in the audience thought was too short to be important. Now people are already saying itís the greatest speech ever delivered. Letís talk with the president and get his opinion of the speech. Mr. Lincoln, do you think people understood the meaning of your historic speech?

Lincoln

Shucks, no. Most of them couldnít even hear it. We didnít have fancy gadgets like these (points to microphone.) But I just wanted to tell the people that itís the men who are dying for this cause who are the real heroesóthe farmers, factory workers, miners, and former slaves as well as our professional soldiers. No one thought this tragedy would go on for so long.

Reporter

Mr. Lincoln, why is this war being fought?

Lincoln

I want to keep the Union together. We have had disagreements before. In fact, New England States have considered secession, but we must settle our differences and remain one country. Soon I will issue my Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves in the Confederate States. We cannot remain half slave and half free. Well, I have to get back to my office.

Reporter

Thank you, Mr. President.

Mrs. Lincoln

Iím so glad youíre finally through with Mr. Lincoln. Heís very tired, and there are always so many people who want to see him. This war is a great burden upon him, and heís still saddened by the death of our eleven-year-old old son, Willie. I wish this war would be over!

Reporter

Mrs. Lincoln. Itís an honor to have you here. Tell me, isnít it true that you come from Kentucky and that your family owned slaves? And donít some of your relatives now fight for the Confederacy?

Mrs. Lincoln

I see, Sir, that you are a part of the Washington gossip mongers who like to ridicule the president and the first lady. Those facts are true, but I support my husband and believe heíll bring us out of these troubles. Some people say I spend too much money on clothes and fixing up this terrible mess of a White House, but I think itís my duty to look my best and entertain in a fitting manner. I also see that Mr. Lincoln takes a daily drive to get some fresh air. I also like to have him get out once in awhile for some entertainment, such as taking in a play now and then.  

Reporter

Yes, er, ah, well, thank you Mrs. Lincoln. Now we will go back a bit earlier in time to meet with a group of senators to see what things were being done in the hope of avoiding war. Senator Mason and Webster, and those with you. Can you tell our viewers about the Missouri Compromise?

Senator Clay

I delivered this speech. What would make this nation split in two? Would this settle any of our disagreement? No. Gentlemen, I know no North, no South, no East, no West. I owe loyalty only to Kentucky and to the United States. My countrymen, each side must give up something. Compromise before the Union is destroyed!

Senator Mason

I read Mr. Calhounís speech which said; ìSlaves are property. Congress has no right to take away a manís property.î The only way to avoid splitting the nation is for the North to give inóto give the slave states equal rights in California. If not, the South shall leave the Union.

Senator Benton

My blood boiled! Senator Webster, tell him what you said.

Senator Webster

I said, ìI wish to speak today, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American. I speak today for the preservation of the Union. Hear me for my cause. I hear with pain these words about splitting the nation. Where is the line to be drawn? What is to stay American? What am I to be? An American no longer? No! Let us enjoy liberty AND Union!î

Senator Benton

I then called these Southerners ìtraitorsî and Senator Foote actually aimed his pistol at me.

Senator Foote

I called you a ìmuddy road.î

Senator Benton

I told you to Fire!

Senator Foote

I said Iíd rather you live to see my vote.

Senator Benton

We passed all of Clayís bills. California came in as the 16th state, without slavery. Hah!

Reporter

(Stepping in as if to prevent a fist fight.) Thank you, Gentlemen. That compromise kept us out of war for eleven years, but it could not prevent war. Let us return now and talk to several people who stirred things up regarding the slavery issue. Here are Harriet Beecher Stowe, Dred Scott, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Mrs. Stowe, your book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin has caused quite a commotion.

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Yes, I had no idea it would become this widely read and performed in the theater. I guess people sympathize with the plight of some slaves who had a fierce master like that horrible character Simon Legree. You know I met the president, and he said to me, ìSo this is the little lady who made this big war.î Well, I hope itís over soon.

Reporter

Mr. Scott, what was your contribution to this controversy?

Dred Scott

Well, I tried to get my freedom, and I took my case all the way to the Supreme Court. You see, my master and I left the south for a few years and lived in free territory. By rights, I should have been given my freedom. But then the court said that since I was not a citizen, and no Negro could ever be a citizen, we could not make a case for freedom. And since I was property, and not a man like white men, Congress could make no law about a manís property. So that decision made a lot of Northerners angry. Recently, though, my master gave me my freedom ó but my case sure stirred up the abolitionists.

Frederick Douglass

I too am fighting for the abolition of slavery. I was a slave for 21 years. After my escape, I helped to organize the Underground Railroad to help other slaves escape to the North. There we would find them houses, food, and work.

Reporter

Miss Tubman, what are you doing for the cause of freedom? And what is this thing called an Underground Railroad? Is it a train that ran under the ground like our modern subways?

Harriet Tubman

Heavens, no. It isnít a train at all. Itís just a lot of safe places for slaves to hide while they are escaping to the North and freedom.

Slave

We think sheís wonderful. We call her Moses, because she leads her people out of bondage to the freedom land.

Reporter

How does it work?

Harriet Tubman

The safe houses are called ìdepots,î and the guides, like me, were the ìconductors.î The people who helped us were called the ìstation masters.î It was just a code, you see?

Reporter

Who are the people that helped you and how did they do it?

Quaker

Iíll tell you. Iím a Quaker, and we donít believe that any man has mastery over another. We are risking our homes, our businesses, and our lives to help runaway slaves.

Reporter

Where do you hide them?

Quaker

In many places: a secret room, a hayloft in a barn, a root cellar under the house; all sorts of places. We also give them other things they needed ó rest, food, words of encouragement, and maps to show the rest of the way.

Reporter

Oh, oh. whoís this? It looks like a ghost. I do believe Iím seeing things. Who are you and what do you want? (A bearded figure enters dressed in a white sheet and speaks in a spooky voice as if in the distance.)

John Brown

I am the ghost of John Brown. The song says, ìJohn Brownís body is a-moulderiní in the grave, but my soul goes marching on.î People thought I was crazy because I attacked a United States arsenal in Harperís Ferry, Virginia, to get weapons. I wanted the slaves to join us in a revolt, and start a war to end this terrible wrong. Sure, my plot failed. My group was captured, and I was executed. But my cause will win out in the end. My soul goes marching on. (Exits as this is spoken.)

Reporter

Whew, that was a surprise. Well, before our visit ends we have to talk to the two great generals of this war - General Robert E. Lee of the Confederacy, and General Ulysses S. Grant of the Union. Sirs, thank you for being with us. Tell us what is happening now, in 1863?

General Lee

Well, our Confederate cause has suffered a terrible defeat at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. We were trying to surround Washington D. C. to capture the President and make him accept the Confederacy as a separate nation. Now we are running low on food, supplies, and men to replace those soldiers who have died in battle. We have to accept younger men, even boys, as soldiers. It makes me sad. But we still believe that we are fighting for our rights, and for our homeland. My men have great spirit. They are true fighters and will follow me to the end.

General Grant

I agree that the boys in gray have fought fiercely, and they have had the leadership of some great generals too. But we will win in the end. We have more troops, more food, more factories putting out guns and supplies. We have also cut off the southwestern states by winning at Vicksburg, Mississippi. Weíll keep at them until we win, even though so many men are killed in battle.

Reporter

Some citizens have complained about the enormous casualties the North has suffered under General Grantís command, but the president supported him by saying, ìhe fights.î Well, here are some ladies. I think weíre about to get the womenís point of view from Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Susan B. Anthony

Itís about time! Iím against slavery in the South, but Iím also against the ìslaveryî that white women in the North suffer from. I think the issue should be ìall people are created equal,î not just all men. It would be a tragedy if black men get the right to vote, but not black women, and white women too. Iíll fight for the rest of my life to see that women get their rights. Iíll even go to jail if I have to.

 

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

I worked for the cause of freedom and womenís rights, even though I have seven children to raise. With Lucretia Mott, I helped organize the Womenís Rights Movement in Seneca Falls, New York, where I live.

Reporter

Yes, but arenít we talking about slavery now?

Southern Woman

I donít see what all the fuss is about. We have a lovely big plantation and grow cotton, and sugar cane, and we need slaves to do all the work that has to be done. But my husband doesnít mistreat his slaves. We give them food, clothes and a house to sleep in, and they can live with us until they die, unless, of course, we sell them. And we have church services for them every Sunday, and my husband teaches them how to be obedient to their masters. Besides, I think some people in the North have it just as bad as they say our slaves do.

Slave Woman

If life is so easy on your plantation, why are your slaves escaping? At the farm where I was a slave, we slept on a dirt floor in a shack. My mother was sold away when I was five years old. My life in New York is hard, but it is better than living in slavery.

Mill Girl

I work in a mill weaving cloth, and itís hot, dirty, and the hours are long. But at least I have the freedom to leave when my fiancÈ gets enough money to take me away from this job. I only have one day a week off, Sunday, and I spend half of it in church. Yes, the rules are strict, but I can still go west when I want to, and my children will not get sold into slavery.

Reporter

What is your name, young lady, and what are you doing here tonight.

Clara Barton

I am Clara Barton and I was working in the patent office when I heard about the terrible suffering of wounded soldiers, and the need for medical supplies. I wrote an ad in a New England paper, and supplies poured in. So I have been nursing the sick and wounded. You know, as many men died from diseases as from wounds in this war. Some day Iíd like to start an American Red Cross, like they have in other countries.

Reporter

Thank you, ladies. In closing, Iíd like to speak for one more moment to the President. Sir, do you have any final words?

President Lincoln

Yes sir. What Clara Barton and many others are doing is remarkable. I shall say in a speech one day that what we need to do is bind up the nationís wounds, just as these women are binding up the soldiersí wounds. I just hope I live long enough to help our country be whole again, with malice toward none, and justice for all.

Reporter

Thank you, Mr. President, and all of our guests. Good night.

THE END