Acting Out! How To Use Primary Sources as Performance Pieces
written by: Sarah Degnan Moje
• edited by: Carly Stockwell
• updated: 10/14/2013
Channel your students creative energy into learning! This lesson has students act out a primary source document, a transcript of part of the Salem Witch Trials. Acting is an effective way for students to understand primary source documents. Includes two downloadable documents.
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Middle school and high school students have a flair for the dramatic. All teachers know this. How often do we hear them “re-enacting" scenes from their favorite movie television show, or even commercial. They are constant performers, preening for their friends and stabbing their “enemy of the week" with freezing glances.
Students are often seeking an outlet to channel all their emotions. Why do teachers rarely capitalize on this and use it to our advantage? Yes, we may have them push desks in a circle and read Romeo and Juliet aloud, correcting every third word as students massacre Shakespeare’s language. Older students may read some Isben in British Literature or some other playwright, but unless students are enrolled in a Drama class or program, they do not have any real outlet for their pent up performance energy.
However, teachers, especially in Literacy and Social Studies have the perfect opportunity to use their students desire to perform to their advantage. How? Give them the actual words of trials, transcripts or speeches and make them become the historical figures who spoke the famous words. Can you picture a room full of young Lincolns; all interpreting the Gettysburg Address in their own way? Or, a tiny Patrick Henry thundering away about Liberty? Give the students the words to “own", to make theirs, and suddenly, history and the primary sources themselves become real to the students. They understand what is being said and they come away from the lesson with a real sense of comprehension and analysis.
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The Salem Witch Trials
Salem, 1692- The Salem Witch Trials. Instead of a “talk and chalk" lesson, why not re-enact using a Primary Source? Pair students up and give them the trial transcript. Give them a week to work with their partners and memorize the dialogue. Then, devote a class to the Trial of Sarah Good. Have each pairing ACT out the trial- and presto! Your students just listened to, and saw, a primary source document performed before their eyes. Then, let them answer the questions. They’ve just had hands on experience with a primary source and you’ll be surprised at how well they can now analyze and interpret what is being said, the tone, the mood, and the effect of this event on the people living in fear at the time. The handout and questions for this lesson can be found below to download.
So, are you teaching a famous speech? An important trial? What could be better than to let your students re-enact the event, using the primary source? Use them as a teaching tool; have the students INTERACT with the text. It will aid their understanding and make your classroom come alive!
Salem Witch Trial Engraving in the Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Reading Primary Sources in Social Studies
There is sometimes a disconnect in High School students between English and History classes. Students need to be reading primary source documents but have not yet learned the skills to do so. Bridge that gap in your Social Studies class by having students interact with primary source texts.