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All the World’s a Stage

We’ve just wrapped up another season of National History Day research at our school, and once again I was incredibly impressed with the quality of work.  This year, we had 120 Juniors and 51 Sophomores participating, and the final projects included research papers, exhibits, documentaries, websites, and performances.  You can read a short news article about the scope of the projects and discover who is moving on to counties here.

This year, we had a particularly strong crop of performances.  Eleven students chose to turn their research findings into a 10 minute monologue, an intense process which involves crafting a script, memorizing the monologue, and performing (complete with props and costumes) in front of an audience.  In my estimation, this format presents some unique challenges, and is also especially fun.  It is also near and dear to my heart…I performed in musicals and plays when I was in high school, and my 13 year old son just starred as “Ugly” in the Middle School musical, HONK!


Will Transformed into a swan


Will as “The Ugly Duckling”

So, clearly there’s the “risk” factor when you perform…there’s a vulnerability involved.  For my NHD kids, it is all about them, for 10 entire minutes.  In the other NHD formats, you work hard to craft a website, write a paper, or produce a documentary, but once you press “save” the product is rather static, and it can be viewed and judged without your presence in the room.  Exhibits have a more “public” element, but again, once you glue the documents and images on the board, there’s a sense of permanence.  You can stand to the side and watch as the audience enjoys and absorbs your work.

rachel and brigid

Rachel & Brigid with their exhibit on the Salem Witch Trials

Performances are organic…they change and develop over time.  Performers interact with the audience, looking for signs of attention and approval.  And heaven forbid you forget your lines or run over the time limit!  Beyond the specific challenges of this form, I appreciate the way my students truly dove into their characters.  We had a wide range of performers this year, from a young woman who “witnessed” the early years of the AIDS crisis (she interviewed health workers at local clinics), to a student who embodied the experiences of a nurse in the Vietnam war, to the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown, who survived the sinking of the Titanic to become an advocate for women’s rights.  We met a Polish immigrant who utilized the services of Hull House, a poet from the Beat Movement (we wanted to snap along), and a survivor of the Berlin Blockade and Airlift, speaking in a very authentic German accent.  In each case, I was transported to a new place and time, swept along by a strong narrative and character.  I know that the students were caught up in the experiences as well.  Not only did they have a strong command of their character’s biography and the larger historical context, but they had to embody the personality of their selected historical figures.  If all the world’s a stage, these students aren’t merely players…they are scholars of history, using performance to truly dig deep into a topic and “live” a historical moment.


Anya as a nurse who experienced the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, and Oriana is a survivor of the Berlin Airlift


Lynee as Dorothea Dix, sporting a dress made by her grandmother.


1 Comment

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Sara. It is a powerful reminder that all kinds of skills are important. Students need to be able to communicate clearly if they are not around to explain, but they also should be able to perform on some level in front of an audience, without the power point or Prezi in the background. You have definitely given me something to think about. Do you think there is value in all students doing something like this (even if scaled down) or does it need to be one of a menu of choices?

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