The fifth-through-eighth graders at Orange City Christian School in Orange City, Iowa, worked with an artist in residence to write and produce plays based in the civil rights movement. The plays were performed in February, in conjunction with Black History Month. All seventh and eighth graders participated, as did fifth and sixth grade students who are part of the school’s enrichment program.
The project began with students researching the civil rights movement with social studies teacher Randy Hilbelink and enrichment coordinator Kim Philipsen. The school then dovetailed its in-house Artist in the Classroom program to work with the organization Orange City Arts, which had put together a program to go into schools to teach about playwriting and performance. The director of Orange City Arts and Orange City Youth Theater, Lindsay Bauer, came into my classroom for two weeks to lead classes in these areas, said language and literature teacher Karlyn Brunst, who facilitated the project for Orange City Christian.
In the first week, students did exercises focused on show, don't tell, and simple story structure. "Show, don't tell" helped the students recognize how plays show the character's thoughts and actions rather than narrating. Bauer also talked about story structure as a beginning, middle, and end: this is how the world was, this is the decision or action someone took, and this is how the world is now.
The students practiced these skills with one-minute stories from their own lives. They then wrote civil rights plays, either individually or in groups, which focused on the event of their choice. We had a variety of topics represented, including the Greensboro sit-ins, the freedom riders, Ruby Bridges, James Meredith, the March on Washington, the Montgomery march, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, said Brunst.
Once the plays were written, seven plays were chosen to be performed. Bauer worked with the students on some basics of performance and taught them some stage secrets, including how to tell the story of the violence and riots without actually needing to show the violence.
Each student participated in the plays. Some were actors and narrators. Others worked to organize microphones, props, and costumes or to put together a program and fliers to advertise the plays.
The plays were performed on February 5 for students and parents at an afternoon assembly. A short background paragraph was read before each play while the stage was reset and a picture of the actual event was projected. It was a great way to celebrate the work of the writers and all students involved while also educating the rest of the school on a very important time in US history,said Brunst.
Said Brunst, We ended with verses from Isaiah 58:6-8: Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn…’ These verses reflect part of the purpose of both the civil rights movement and our project. As students wrote their plays, Bauer had discussed the importance of presenting characters with sensitivity and respect. We hope that the students learned a bit of the hardships that so many went through in an effort to be treated as people, created in the image of God, and that by telling these stories, they were able to fulfill a small part of this challenge from Scripture.”