When History Comes to Life in the Classroom
Mehedawah, a Ponca Indian woman, walks slowly into the classroom, beating a soft rhythm on her drum. Even though she died more than 70 years ago, Mehedawah reappears for fourth-graders at an elementary school to tell of life along the Niobrara River in northeast Nebraska, how the U.S. Government forced her tribe to relocate to Oklahoma in the 1870’s, and how Chief Standing Bear won an important court case declaring that Indians were persons under the law.
Mehedawah’ s story is one of many that come to life as they are told by first-person characters from the Western -Heritage Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. Most of these costumed characters were people from Omaha and Nebraska history. An example is Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte, the first Native American woman medical doctor. However, other characters are compilations of pioneer diaries and letters, like the character Sarah McDermott Mayhew, a pioneer woman who homesteads with her family in Nebraska.
The costumed characters are portrayed by staff interpreters who spent months studying the intricate details of their subjects’ lives and historical world. Six characters are currently visiting schools on a regular basis. These living history characters provide an interactive, first-person perspective that quite literally enables students to have a dialogue with the past.
The six living history characters were selected in cooperation with area teachers to augment specific classroom studies. Once the characters were identified, the museum’s interpretative staff began researching the characters and creating their individual stories.
Individuals with theater backgrounds are not necessary to carry out the presentations successfully. Prior to initiating this theatrical program, only one member of the museum’s interpretative staff had actually received theater training. Instead, these interpreters came to the museum with backgrounds in teaching, and the museum provided the necessary theatrical training. Local storytelling and theater consultants were brought in to work with interpreters both in a group and individually.
These storytelling techniques were used to bring the characters to life:
- Organize and visualize. Draw three pictures to depict the beginning, middle, and end of the story. Instead of relying on a written script, visualize the pictures to help tell a story in sequence.
- Add details. Add specific details to enrich each story. For instance, when telling about the early life of the Native Americans, an interpreter could describe how they used the animals they hunted, what vegetables they planted in their gardens, and what fish they caught in the waters.
- Use gestures and body movements. Hand and facial gestures, as well as body movements, are an important part of any presentation, as long as they are natural and fit well into the story. When researching, try to get a feel for the personality of the character. As practice and development sessions progress, each character will begin to take on unique characteristics and personality traits.
Using Artifacts to Enhance the Story
Using historical artifacts helps set the stage and create an environment for the presentation. For example, the character Sarah McDermott Mayhew uses real butterchurns and washtubs to carry out chores while telling of her pioneer journeys. Mary Creighton, another character, taps on a telegraph key while explaining how her husband built the first telegraph line into Omaha.
Artifacts can also create interactive situations with the audience. Mionbathin, an Omaha Indian character, shows reproductions of tools and clothes made by the Omaha Indians in the 1860’s to his audience. People of all ages learn better and enjoy experiencing artifacts directly.
Teacher Resource Materials
Pre- and post-visit materials sent to the teachers greatly enrich learning. The following information can be included in a packet: a summary of the character and the story; a vocabulary list of important terms or phrases used in the presentation; activity worksheets to increase the students’ knowledge and involvement with vocabulary and subject matter; a map activity to familiarize students with sites or areas relevant to the story; a list of suggested follow-up activities that require critical thinking skills; pictures of important people in the story that will give the audience a more personal look at the character; and a bibliography.
Costuming the Characters
The concept of creating costumes for living history characters presented several challenges. Since each costume would become associated with a specific person being represented, it had to offer an accurate and interesting portrayal of the time without detracting from the story. The need for comfort and portability meant that the garments also had to be non-constrictive — thus hoop skirts, corsets, and multiple layers were eliminated.
During the design phase for each costume, the character’s age, social standing, personality, and ethnic background had to be considered. For instance, Mary Creighton speaks in the later years of her life, when she is a widow of substantial means. Her clothing needed to reflect all these things. By using illustrations from ladies’ periodicals of the time period, as well as examples from garments in the collections, the design for her costume was finalized.
Fabric selections were made with the input of the storytellers who would wear them. Personal tastes in color and texture were considered, so that they looked and felt good in their costumes. As with the designs, practicality was also a factor. The fabric would have to stand up to being carried, worn, and cleaned often without apparent deterioration.
While there are several sources of historic reproduction patterns for constructing garments, there is little choice within any specific time period. Therefore, it was necessary to use a combination of period and modem patterns to achieve the designs that best supported each character.
Finally, no costume is effective without accessories. Shoes, jewelry, and hair styles are elements that either enhance or destroy the effectiveness of the costume. Children notice the very smallest details, so it was necessary to research the appropriate accents for each character. Hair can not always be changed to fit the time period, so the suggestion of length was achieved with snoods and inexpensive hair pieces, and a hat was used to detract from short hair.
Has It Worked?
Marketing efforts were minimal yet strategically carried out. The initial advertisement to teachers was through brochures. “Word of mouth” recommendations brought additional requests. Because our program was unique to this area, news releases quickly produced front page articles, as well as numerous television and radio appearances. All of this helped us reach additional groups who were interested in the program.
We charge a minimal fee of $50 per performance to cover the cost of the interpreters and the reproduction of teacher packet materials. A grant from a local bank funded the initial development and paid for costuming and props.
More than 6,000 children and adults took part in over 150 presentations during just the first four months. Teacher evaluations poured in with enthusiastic comments and praise. Elementary school supervisors are currently working to make the program a regular part of the school curriculum.
The program has been widely received as an exciting and rare opportunity for children to see history brought to life right in their own classroom. It offers them a memorable learning experience, while it provides their teachers with another tool for accomplishing their teaching goals.
Deborah C. O’Donnell is the director of public programs for the Western Heritage Museum in Omaha. Nebraska. Ms. 0 ‘Donnell is currently one of the officers of EDCOM, the national museum education council of the American Association of Museums, and serves as the Education Committee Chairperson for the Nebraska Museum Association.
Judith McCormick Flint, Arleen Bailey, and Melinda Morath are interpreters for the Western Heritage Museum. Ms. Flint taught in the public schools for over 10 years. In addition to her teaching, she worked for Opera Omaha and several local theaters assisting with make-up and costuming. Ms. Bailey has taught school, developed educational programs for the Line Creek Archeological Museum, and supervised an after school program specifically designed to meet the needs of inner-city children in Kansas City. Ms. Morath holds a B.A. in Elementary Education with endorsements in English and Early Childhood Education. Before joining the Western Heritage Museum. Ms. Morath taught in the Houston Public School system.
O’Donnell, Deborah, Judith Flint, Arleen Bailey, and Melinda Morath. “When History Comes to life in the Classroom,” The Docent Educator 6.1 (Autumn 1996): 16-17.
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