Historical Diversity in the classroom
Theater teaches different perspectives on history, particularly of minority groups historically underrepresented in the classroom, and these perspectives can be of particular value to history-hungry students.
“Students who have never seen a black actor on stage or a Mexican actor appear, without lots of animation and special effects, are very skeptical of the information that is presented to them in that way,” Carley Topornicky, a theater professor at Niagara University and NYC’s Hispanic Cultural Center, said. “That makes the teaching challenging, even when it has wonderful materials and emphasis. It takes things that can be approached without being too made up to get students to see things in a different way.”
“For me, theater teaches so many different avenues to teach history,” said Dr. Betty Sloan, a History Department lecturer at The College of New Jersey. “Historical references can be more or less difficult to locate, and there are also certain things in certain periods that may be very difficult to grasp.”
History lessons can be effective only if students are fully involved and excited about what they are learning, said David Matulich, a history teacher at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. He noted that theater provides the opportunity to enhance students’ engagement in the learning process by providing a stage for dialogue between history students and those outside the classroom.
“We’re using a great framework and a great program that will probably involve someone in the classroom every single day of the week,” Matulich said. “So the students are learning an important lesson about the Constitution and the role of the Church and religion in the nation, and then it gets tacked onto what happened on stage.”
“In this day and age, history is critical to understanding our country and people in general,” he said. “History is not like history in a schoolroom. It’s something that’s incredibly informative, and it really provides the explanation for how we ended up where we are today.”
He described St. Anselm as one of the most historically accurate schools in the country, and noted that history teachers must present reliable information to help make their students more aware of the deeper levels of truth in history.
“Because of that, I teach history with facts,” he said. “It’s really important to make sure that the facts are correct and, as I will often do in history class, ask the students to do a query so they can get that before they go on to a discussion.”
It is also important to recognize the possible negative effects of history teaching, even in a history class that is almost always portrayed as balanced.
“I’ve had students go in with very neutral perceptions of history, and they come out of the classroom with very hostile views of history. I’ve had students with very liberal viewpoints come out of the classroom. And the teachers have had to be very careful. And then, if we have religious students in the classroom, they start questioning history, too, and then the classroom becomes very biased because they are confused,” Matulich said.
At the same time, he emphasized that teachers can help students better understand a story by adjusting the way information is presented.
“We don’t just teach that we have to teach, but that students should think of history as an endeavor,” he said. “We tell the students this – because historically, a lot of this is done from the outside in. Students need to be told in a balanced and relevant way about a subject and then to be tasked with considering what they have just learned.
For more information on this story, see this article: “Interviews Reveal The Role of History in Engaging Students in Theater.”
Photo: Main image. Note the screen image of a Mexican actor. Screenshot from the 19th C. bc. play “Despierta America.”