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Jackie Baldwin jackie@story-lovers.com
Kate Dudding kate@katedudding.com

Innovative Projects

Historical Monologues in the Classroom: How to Make Kids Love History by Pippa White

Nebraska Public Schools, from 1995-2007

Keywords: elementary education, secondary education, history, language arts, research, diversity, social studies, communication


After developing several one-woman shows that used remarkable oral histories as "the script," and which were appropriate for young audiences, I realized that students are always fascinated by true stories, and that true personal stories provide the most exciting and captivating aspect of the study of history. Human beings are naturally drawn to dramatic personal accounts. We empathize with them, relate to them, and care about them. The student who finds historical events far removed from his own experience and therefore uninteresting, frequently finds himself intrigued, even against his wishes, by a riveting first person account of an historical event.

This is what I have found after years as a teaching artist in the classroom, and as a school peformer. I have a number of historically based one-woman shows. One deals with the people of the prairie (pioneers and homesteaders) called Far As The Eye Can See, another deals with immigration (Voices from Ellis Island), and a third deals with orphaned children (The Story of the Orphan Train). Though this last show runs a good 70 minutes, I have never lost a young audience. I portray the orphans, whose true stories I relate, from their days on the street or in the orphanage, to the train trip west, to their new lives, some good, some not so good, in new parts of the country. Teachers frequently tell me that their students return to the classroom and immediately get online or go to the library for more information about this topic.

When I do a school residency, I ask the students (from 4th grade right through high school) to research a first person account from an historical event, edit it for "the stage" (by this I mean to focus on those passages that are dramatic), memorize it (if there is time, familiarize themselves with their short script if there is not) and present it as a little piece of theatre, their personal piece of living history. The week is intense and demanding, but the students are usually very motivated, having seen one of my performances as a model, and having some character, famous or not, in history that they want to portray. There is always a wide range of ability, of course, and I spend a lot of time coaching the students in successful theatre and storytelling techniques, but I have never had a student who was not excited by this project, and often teachers tell me that their less academic students seem to do the best work. Although students are always sad to see me leave at the week's end, the teachers frequently ask them to keep their monologues because work on this project can continue, and the students are only too happy to accommodate. This exercise is challenging, rigorous, and even daunting, but it is ultimately fulfilling for all concerned.

The way into history is through story—true, personal, honest story.

Here is something from an evaluation of a recent residency: One of the most wonderful things Pippa can do is teach a student how to step away from themselves for a moment and into a character they have worked on, thus bringing something of themselves to the characterization. Students can feel and experience almost firsthand what their historical character might have experienced.

Another evaluation from an arts council chairperson: In visiting with the target teachers, they felt the project was wonderful and very valuable. When asked if they would repeat it, they said absolutely yes.

Contact: Pippa White
One's Company Productions

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Copyright 2007 by Jackie Baldwin and Kathryn Eike Dudding. All Rights Reserved.