Learning from Living History

As my third season working for TimeLine’s Living History Education Program comes to a close, the school year for the Chicago Public School students we work with has also finished up. Our last student matinee and post-show discussion has come and gone, the final written response has been turned in, and the last student scene has been performed. Yet, this is by no means the end of Living History: The education program is growing beautifully, and it is exciting to think about next season − and the seasons to come.

I’ve learned a lot from these students, though I have had conversations with only a few of them.

In the recently ended school year, our program had the honor of working with 452 students at four different Chicago Public Schools. I’ve been thrilled to be a part of this important work. I’ve learned a lot from these students, though I have had conversations with only a few of them. One of my duties at TimeLine has been to assess the work the students have done with teaching artists in their classrooms. I have done this partially by studying the words students put down on paper. At the end of each TimeLine residency, students write survey responses to reflect on the work they have done, as well as to assist us in improving our program. Pouring over these written words has inspired me, made me laugh, and caused me to pause to think.

These students get what we are doing at TimeLine. During a typical residency, one of our outstanding teaching artists will visit a classroom and help break open the current TimeLine production for the students. Additionally, we often have participants in the current production (such as the dramaturg, playwright, or director) provide students with an understanding of the historical and social context of the play. Students work in groups, acting out scenes from the play. Finally, the students attend the production and have a post-show discussion with the cast. On the last day of the residency, some of the production’s actors pay a visit to the classroom and work on scenes with the students. This whole experience helps students really understand the time and place of the play. This understanding is emotional and active, rather than purely intellectual.

In the words of Maria Ramos, one of our Schurz High School students: “When I first heard about Enron and saw that it was going to be about business, showing how it collapse, I thought it was going to be boring. But, when the actors came in and started doing activities with me and my classmates, I began to have fun. The activity of acting out a scene made me understand better the play … And I realize that some of my classmates know how to act. Enron showed me that people are capable of doing stuff to maintain their job or company on a steady pace, so it wouldn’t fall. But, when it collapse they will do anything to maintain their appearance good.”

Living History Education Program Director Juliet Hart (far left) with cast members of “The Pitmen Painters” during a post-show discussion with students.

This on-your-feet approach also causes students to reflect on the humanness of history. One of our students from Von Steuben High School noted on a survey response after The Pitmen Painters residency: “The play allowed me to get inside of the heads of the ‘regular’ people of the time. I understood how they felt and I think that’s a really important idea when you are looking at history. It’s about all those individuals that make up small pieces of history, their emotions, and actions. Once you can understand the feeling behind their actions it allows you to relate since emotions are universal.”

This year, 82% of our students were able to see and articulate connections between the play they studied in class and their own lives. During our Enron residency, we asked students to come up with three company values and consider why values are important to a company in light of what they learned about the financial collapse of Enron. Schurz High School student Mirsad Muminovic came up with these solid values:

Respect: In order to be a company every employee needs to feel valued. When employees are appreciated, your company runs much faster and has more worth.

Cooperation: No one person can do something alone. No one person can succeed in life if they don’t work with others. If you work together then your company grows faster and you have more work morale.

Equality: If everyone is equal in a company then there is no need for double crossing to get ahead. Equality helps create peacefulness in a company, so there is no fighting.

That’s a company I’d want to be a part of.

Students also often explore the relationship between their daily lives and the play. After our most recent residency for My Kind of Town at Von Steuben High School, a student wrote: “Living in Chicago, it’s good to know a little history about it. Also the way the parts of the city divides — that’s all real life.”

Another student stated: “The rehearsal for this play really caught my attention because I had no clue that these torturings happened in Chicago. In my opinion most history lessons should be taught in such a manner because it is a wonderful experience to not only learn your history but act it out as well.”

Students seemed especially engaged during this residency, most likely because it hit close to home and they were able to meet and talk with the playwright, John Conroy.

Our students see themselves and each other grow in a short period of time through their performances. In turn, their confidence in themselves and their classmates grows. One of our Alcott High School The Pitmen Painters students writes: “I think I grew with my performance because towards the end I started to get into my character. I felt where he was coming from. I kinda made it sound like it was coming from me. In the beginning, I didn’t feel it. I made it sound like someone just gave me a sheet of paper.”

I truly believe that the Living History program’s work in the classroom not only aids in teaching students about the world, but also helps them see their place in it.

This year has been my final one as TimeLine’s Living History Education Program Assistant, as other responsibilities in my life have grown. I have bittersweet feelings about it. During these past few years, I have appreciated learning about history, as well as our current world, through our students’ ideas and discoveries.  I have grown through contemplating the work on TimeLine’s stage and in the classroom. I’m grateful for that. Although it’s time for me to leave my work behind with the Living History program, all that I’ve gained is bound to stay with me throughout my life. I am looking forward to staying in touch and seeing what the future holds for this remarkable program.

If you are interested in learning more about our Living History Education Program, please contact Living History Education Director Juliet Hart at juliet@timelinetheatre.com.

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  1. Norm Cutler

    Bravo Juliet