Make History Come Alive with Stories

guest written by Wim Coleman of Chiron Books.

In my previous post, I wrote about introducing storytelling techniques (especially dramatic ones) as an aid to teaching literature. In my fourth and final post as a guest here, I’ll to share some ideas for using storytelling in the classroom to teach history.

I’ve got a powerful personal memory along these lines from my senior year in high school. (It was in 1971-2, so you can do the math and figure out how old I am!) I had a brilliant and innovative American History teacher, whose assignments were, to put it mildly, dramatic. For example, he had one class break up into two groups and act out the American Civil War, using the entire high school campus as a stage.

But to me, his most memorable assignment was a less flamboyant one. My group was assigned to write and perform a play portraying the ideological conflict between the African-American Civil Rights leaders Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois. A former slave, Washington advocated a “go slow” strategy to achieving racial equality; a historian and sociologist, Du Bois’s advocated a much more aggressive approach. The play was framed as a debate between the two.

Our group divided up tasks, ranging from research to typing. The actual writing and directing fell to me. It was a formative experience. I’ve been around theater since before I can remember, but it was the first time I’d really written a play. I’ve gone on to write more plays than I can count, many of them published and/or performed, and some of them award-winners. So really, this assignment was the beginning of a quasi-career. Also, exploring the polarity of thought between Washington and Du Bois helped form my own political worldview, especially concerning approaches to social activism.

Over the decades, I’ve kept a yellowed, mimeographed copy of this play, which lies in front of me right now. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s not bad for a high school student, and it brings back memories of one of the most stimulating intellectual experiences of my youth. It’s no small testament to the strength of classroom storytelling that an assignment like this can still resonate in one’s mind after 40 years!

Now we’ll get down to specifics. Let’s say that you’re teaching a unit on the American Civil War. Students quickly (and understandably) get bored learning by rote the names of generals and the dates of battles. Besides, such inert facts don’t give any sense of the issues, philosophies, agonies, and passions involved in that cataclysmic conflict. Dramatic storytelling can be a key to deeper understanding. I’ll toss out just four possible basic situations:

  • War breaks out in April 1861. Soon afterward in Philadelphia, a congregation of Quakers (The Religious Society of Friends) struggles with matters of conscience. On one hand, Quakers have long devoted themselves to the abolition of slavery and have actively participated in the Underground Railroad; on the other hand, Quakers have always been pacifistic. What should Quakers do now that the country is waging a war to end slavery—adhere to pacifism and resist conscription, or compromise their beliefs and join and support the Union Army? Write and perform a scene in which members of the congregation debate these choices.
  • While the war was raging, the publisher and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison condemned the U.S. Constitution as “a Covenant with Death, an Agreement with Hell” because it allowed the continuance of slavery. Meanwhile, the former slave and journalist Frederick Douglass contended that the Constitution offered the surest means for abolishing slavery. Write and perform a scene in which Garrison and Douglass meet in a public place. Garrison is there to burn a copy of the Constitution; Douglass is there to pass out copies of it hot off his own printing press. They debate their positions to the crowd while engaged in these activities.
  • In Union-occupied South Carolina, an African-American family hears news of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. The family now finds itself free. Write and perform a scene in which grandparents, parents, and children discuss dreams, dilemmas, possibilities, and choices. Have them consider both the Emancipation’s promises and limitations. While they are now “freedmen” encouraged to join the fight against slavery, the Emancipation does not yet end slavery altogether.

This is just a sampling of scenarios. Needless to say, the possibilities for the Civil War are practically unlimited. Also needless to say, it is easy to dream up endless assignments for any episode, period, or era in all of human history. Here I’ve suggested scenes that range from the intimately personal (the slave family) to the political and philosophical (Garrison and Douglass). I think it’s good to seek out such a range for greater resonance.

But I should caution that the instructions above aren’t really sufficient. They’re just a starting-point. Without a lot of clarity, this assignment won’t fully deliver the goods. My high school teacher, for example, was extremely specific about setting, story, and themes. He also took care that my group was prepared with a great deal of background information, making research part of the assignment.

I like ending this series of posts with one about history. It hints at how storytelling in the classroom encourages critical thinking, a vital but elusive goal in whatever subject you might be teaching. And it hints at the power of having students step into someone else’s shoes, relating even experiences of long ago and far away to one’s own contemporary, everyday life. Storytelling makes teaching and learning up-close, personal, and real.


About the author: Wim Coleman is a playwright whose works have won national awards and have been presented in New York and Los Angeles, and he is an award-winning poet. He has also been a teacher, and has degrees in Theater, Literature, and Education. He usually writes in collaboration with his wife, Pat Perrin. Together, they have well over 100 publications. They publish independently for young people through ChironBooks. Wim and Pat lived in various parts of the United States before spending thirteen years in San Miguel de Allende, where they created and administered the San Miguel PEN Scholarship Program for at-risk students. They also adopted their daughter, Monse, there. All three of them now live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  You can learn more about Wim and his work at his website.

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