News Column

Live performance brings history alive for students in Washington County

June 5, 2014

By Janice Crompton, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



June 05--History teachers know their job is an uphill climb at times -- trying to make history interesting enough to engage students and keep them interested.

But a teacher at one Washington County school believes she has found the key: live performance history.

Eighth-graders in Erin Moore's history class at Washington Junior High School got to act in a live performance that depicted events and everyday life during an important part of American history.

It's a new concept being developed by Pittsburgh-based Bricolage Production Co. with "a mission is to immerse artists and audiences in adventurous theatrical experiences that foster connections and alter perceptions."

And, boy, has it done that, Ms. Moore said.

"My vision for education is very different," she said. "I just feel like we need to get away from trying to drag 30 kids through education programs. You can provide a really enriching basis for what they are learning, and I think it's more practical when you compare it to real life. After all, how many jobs do you sit around and take tests all day? They are learning above all to participate in life activities."

Called "Midnight Radio Jr." and inspired by Civil War history, which the students were studying, the production included a mock radio broadcast similar to those from the 1930s and '40s.

Each of the five social studies classes in the eighth grade, totaling 98 students, performed a skit for their seventh- and eighth-grade classmates last month. They also developed commercials based on products and inventions from the Industrial Revolution, such as the sewing machine and telegraph.

One of the skits focused on Mary Todd Lincoln and her brief institutionalization in an asylum in 1875 after she attempted to jump out of a window to escape a non-existent fire.

A reporter interviews Mary Todd Lincoln but the audience doesn't know it's Mary Todd Lincoln until the very end, said Jeffrey Carpenter, artistic director at Bricolage. "She starts telling the story about losing three children and her husband. It was just this really sad story that led her to a nervous breakdown. It really was her grief that put her in there."

The students began writing scripts and rehearsing in February under the tutelage of teaching artists brought in by Bricolage, including a songwriter, a playwright and a foley, or sound effects, artist.

Ms. Moore said students were mesmerized by musician Jason Coll, who helped them write songs for the production.

"They just couldn't believe someone could do this," she said.

Last month's performance wasn't Bricolage's first foray into the school. Last year, the company piloted the "Midnight Radio Jr." production at the school after Bricolage was awarded a $75,000 grant from the Benedum Foundation to try out the program, which was developed to connect curriculum and artistic performance.

It was inspired by the company's flagship "Midnight Radio" production, which is geared more for adults, with mature, more progressive themes.

"We wanted to do something for kids," Mr. Carpenter said. "It was so successful and the kids went nuts over it."

This year, in the second season of the pilot program, Bricolage received $200,000 over two years from the Benedum Foundation to expand the program.

Students in language arts classes joined the social studies students this year in writing the program, while gifted students built the sound props and seniors at Washington High School documented the process with a five-minute film.

The company plans to expand the program by offering a four-day summer academy in July for teachers to learn details of the program and hopefully bring it to some rural schools.

"The last thing we are interested in is to go somewhere and force our thing on teachers who are already overworked. We really need the buy-in from teachers and the administration," said Mr. Carpenter, who added that leaders in the Washington School District immediately latched onto the idea and "were so hungry for something like this."

Ms. Moore said the program was more than just a history lesson for her students.

"Some of these kids have nowhere to go and nothing to look forward to," she said. "When they can get involved in something like this, it kinda gives them another outlet. It's something to look forward to."

Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159.

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(c)2014 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PA)


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