My curriculum unit, A Very American Journey, will focus on individual American women of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, studying the lives of some notable American women: Phillis Wheatley, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Sacagawea, and the lesser known western pioneers Ethel Waxham and Catherine Haun. I believe the study of these women’s lives will be meaningful to my students in a number of ways. I teach drama to sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students at Nathan Hale K-8 School. By studying and dramatizing the lives of these women, the students will have the opportunity to gain a more comprehensive view of the lives of these women, the times in which they lived, their hardships and their joys. They will gain insight into the social conditions, conventions, and barriers to advancement that confronted these woman and to some extent confront women even today. Many of the students continue to see racial and other barriers in their own futures.
I chose Wheatley, Truth, Tubman, and Sacagawea because I already have some knowledge of them, and I wanted to learn more about them. My students may have heard of the three African-American women, and perhaps Sacagawea. They will, through our dramatization, become more deeply involved with the study of their lives. Catherine Haun and Ethel Waxham are unknown to my students. I chose them for that reason, and also because they typify the white women who went West during the mid nineteenth century and early twentieth century.
This past year my students have completed units on Black Actors in American Cinema, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. In the last three years these students have produced productions of A Christmas Carol, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp. Their most recent production was in the spring of 1997. They performed the musical, The Trial of Goldilocks. These accomplishments have been extremely labor-intensive, requiring the dedication of many teachers, administrators, and parents. Certainly, we plan to produce a dramatization of An American Journey for presentation in the school auditorium.
—To teach drama and acting in ways that will enrich and enlarge my students’ lives in meaningful and lasting ways.
—To dramatize the lives of these six women, drawing upon diaries, letters, memoirs, journals, plays, biographies, and autobiographies.
—These dramatizations may be in the form of student playwrighting, improvised scenes, monologues, previously written plays, character analysis, sensory exercises, use of period costumes and properties, and character tableaux from prints of paintings and photographs relating to these women’s lives and times.
For each of the women selected I will distill biographical sketches from the resource material that will describe key events, turning points, and accomplishments in their lives. This background material will let the students see how individual classroom activities relate to the lives or achievements of the women.
Each class will select specific events or topics to explore in a dramatic context, e.g. improvised scenes or sensory exercises. This is how students will develop acting skills that will be needed for presentation before other students.
The class will select specific things to present before an audience. These will include monologues or scenes drawn from memoirs, letters, or plays. The class will edit and revise these individual elements so that they contribute to a coherent whole.
Most classroom activities focus on developing acting skills. Important activities include relaxation and concentration exercises, sensory exercises, improvisation, theatre games, pantomine, reading aloud from plays and other texts, acting scenes and monologues from plays, and writing monologues and dialogue for scenes.
The context for these activities will be the existing resource material on the lives of Phillis Wheatley, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Sacagawea, Catherine Haun, and Ethel Waxham.
The biographical information that I have selected from numerous sources will be a starting point for the students. It is expected that they will use our new library at Nathan Hale to discover more information about each subject. In the case of the poetry lesson, they will find other African-American poems and develop a program of poetry readings. Anthologies of Black American poets are numerous, and each student will be expected to find one for interpretation and presentation.