Dale Dworak, an alum of the Teaching Shakespeare Institute 2016, teaches history at a public high school in Chattanooga, Tennessee. After spending four intense weeks at the Folger, he rethought how he’d been teaching primary source documents and informational texts. We’re sharing with you one of his brilliant ideas for connecting students to the words and ideas of historical letters. And we think you should run down the hall right now and share this idea with your colleagues who teach history (and science…and psychology…and math…).
Now hear from Dale himself.
WHAT I DID:
Working with my Honors Government and Civics class I added a performance component to a reading/writing assignment that uses letters between John and Abigail Adams to show how different people and groups of people viewed the American Revolution as it happened. The three letters used were written before the Declaration of Independence and show a sharp difference in views.
Our school has some areas for considerable growth—for instance, our average ACT score is typically around 15. All kinds of readers, even high-flyers, have difficulties with these Adams letters due to the archaic writing style and unfamiliar vocabulary.
But this year, using performance, students comprehended these letters with a whole new depth.
For this lesson, I edited the letters into a short play by creating a back-and-forth dialogue between Abigail and John. As with Shakespeare, you can start with choral reading. Half the room can be Abigail, and half the room can be John. Then I asked for volunteers to read parts. Each Abigail and each John were read by a different student. I gave the students time to read through their lines before I had them read out loud. I asked them to try to determine the speaking tone of the writers.
After the initial reading, the class was asked about meaning and tone. Then the students performed the letters again. You can have them stick with the same parts, or you can ask two students to perform the play in front of the class. After this second performance I passed out the writing component, which consisted of the actual letters (themselves excerpts from much longer letters) and seven relatively simple questions and the students spent the rest of the class period composing their answers. Here are the questions that my students answered after they performed the play:
- These letters were written before what momentous event?
- What does Abigail wish her husband to do? Why?
- What does Abigail mean by the phrase “vassals of your sex”?
- What does she threaten to do if John does no grant her request?
- Who is the other “tribe” John refers to in his reply?
- What is the general tone of John’s reply? What do you think he means when he says Abigail is “saucy”?
- Was Abigail pleased with her husband’s answer? Why or why not?
WHAT I LEARNED:
Overall, these were the best answers I have received in the several years I have been using these letters. While some students still did not use complete sentences or direct quotations, for the most part the answers were thoughtful and convincing—and based on what they had read and heard.
However, the next time I teach this lesson I will have the students not just get on their feet where they are but rather stand in front of the class to read their parts. I will also give them more time to review their parts and ask about any unknown or confusing words. I may also assign student director/s who tell the actors how to deliver the lines and interact with each other. Citing textual evidence is key.
HOW MY STUDENTS REACTED:
These come from student exit tickets.
- “The play definitely helped me understand what their argument was about.”
- “It made the letters a little easier to understand.”
- “I thought the play part helped me understand and break down the meaning of the letters.”
- “The play did help because it was entertaining and when learning is entertaining it catches my attention.”