Misawa play helps kids learn about Civil War through Frederick Douglass' eyes
Stars and Stripes November 3, 2004
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — When fifth-graders at Sollars Elementary School here sit down for the spring writing assessment next year, they may start humming “Dixie” or “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
As part of the five-year School Improvement Plan, fifth-graders throughout Department of Defense Dependents Schools in the Pacific participate in an annual writing assessment.
At Sollars, students will be asked to explain the causes of the American Civil War and choose a side. It’s a heady topic, appropriate even for college-level history majors.
It’s also a challenge to teach 10-year-olds, says social studies teacher Michael Tate: The Civil War wasn’t just about slavery and civil rights but also pitted states’ rights against federal rights, Tate said. To demonstrate their knowledge, students in the assessment must use complex terms far removed from their everyday vernacular, such as “secede,” “abolitionist,” “chattel” and “fugitive slave act.”
Though fifth-grade minds are like sponges, “it’s a very difficult question for kids to answer at this age,” Tate said. “It’s hard for adults even.”
Enter Frederick Douglass.
Tate has prepared previous fifth-grade classes for the Civil War writing assessment, building those lesson plans around Doug- lass — one of the foremost leaders of the abolitionist movement, which fought to end slavery in the United States in the decades leading up to the Civil War.
But Tate wasn’t satisfied that his students truly were grasping the issues and the vocabulary. He wondered: How could he teach this important chapter in American history better?
So Tate this summer wrote a play: “The Life Story of Frederick Douglass,” starring two Sollars fifth-grade classes: his and that of Dawn Davis, who is helping with the 45-minute production.
Though the 46 budding actors and singers will perform for both their school on Nov. 8 and then parents and the community on Nov. 10, Tate stressed the show’s purpose is not to entertain. “It’s to inform,” he said, both the audience and the performers.
Hard at work memorizing lines, painting props and rehearsing songs for the past six weeks, the students are learning, through the eyes of Frederick Douglass, what led the nation to war in 1861.
Four students take turns as Douglass, portraying him alternately as a child, teenager, adult and elderly man. The play also features marching Confederate and Union soldiers, Abraham Lincoln in a construction-paper top hat and eight authentic American songs from the era, such as “Hush, Little Baby,” “Dixie,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Amazing Grace.”
Throughout the production, students flash large signs with those dreaded vocabulary words illustrating what’s happening on stage.
Tate’s hope is that history will come to life for the kids through acting, song and repetition.
“We’re literally acting out our writing prompt,” Tate said of the assessment.
The students say the lessons to be learned from the life of Douglass are sinking in.
“It’s visual and you can hear it, instead of just trying to picture it in your mind,” said Rebekah Harwell, 10. “I’m learning about my history and how it has helped me.”
Kelsey Mostert, also 10, said Tate gave the class a book about Douglass and the play is helping her understand the text more, “now that I can see and hear it.”
Ten-year-old Jared Staton already has a jump on his persuasive writing assessment task: “I think he fought, just because we’re all different, shouldn’t mean we should be treated differently,” he said of Douglass.
The show will be staged in Sollars’ multipurpose room. Curtain time is 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Nov. 8 for the school, and 6:30 p.m. Nov. 10 for parents and the community.