Learning History Through Theater

In just a few weeks, the Ruth Corkin Theatre will be filled with students, parents, and alumni as we are transported back to New York City in 1899. While we will most certainly tap our feet and clap our hands to the music and feel amazed by the intricate set design and incredible choreography, it is also important to note that this year’s U.S. Musical,Newsies, offers an important history lesson to the cast and crew and those who watch the show.

Much like Hamilton: An American Musical helped to tell a historical story through song and dance, Newsies provides an opportunity to learn more about a segment of American History. Through its retelling of the 1899 Newsboys Strike, Newsies focuses on how society treated low-income children during this time period. Through dialogue and lyrics, we are given a glimpse of what it was like to be a child before protective labor laws. While early 20th-century America would shift its view on child labor laws, the United States did not ratify a change until 1938 when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Newsies is just one example of the importance that the arts and humanities hold in education. Theater engages audiences through storytelling and song, draws people into the story, and creates a connection to the characters. Angela Modany describes the process in a February 2012 Smithsonian article as “embodying empathy.” By creating connections to characters, either as an actor or observer, you empathize with their experience, gaining a deeper understanding of the historical context. The concept of embodying empathy is not a foreign one to Brimmer classrooms. Whether it is through special programming like Model UN, the Chinese Temple Fair, Winterim, and community service days, or in-classroom mock trials, debates, skits, and Harkness discussions, the Humanities and Creative Arts departments create experiences for students to build connections with people, characters, or events.

This year we have discussed the meaning of empathy and its etymology in detail. To be empathic means to be “in suffering” or to feel the feelings of another. In Dr. Helen Riess’ book, The Empathy Effect, she shares that we naturally connect to those with whom we share common experiences or traits. The concept of embodying empathy works seamlessly with Riess’ research. When students share experiences, they are both learning important topics and developing a profound connection that creates stronger empathic responses.

I look forward to seeing you at one of the performances of Newsies in March, and if you would like to learn more about the 1899 News Boys Strike in New York City, here is a link to resources produced by the New York City Public Library.

The Power of Disagreement Revisited

Get-Someone-to-Stop-Ignoring-You-Step-9

Recently, many people have created preset rules for social gatherings in order to try and minimize conflict–with the number one rule being “No talking about politics.” Family members and friends dance around the major issues facing our communities and try to focus conversation on topics that will not create conflict.  

“Wow, Uncle Al, this apple pie is delicious! What type of apples did you use? Did you make the crust from scratch?”

“Mom, you really outdid yourself with this chicken soup. It tastes like you added something different…really? I never would have guessed you used the pearled onions”

“How was your trip to Charleston? Did you have nice weather? I cannot believe the weather we had here while you were away.”

While these niceties show gratitude and are polite, they are not exactly “soup questions.”

Last year I wrote a blog post, The Power of Disagreement, and I could not help but reflect on these ideas over the past few weeks, especially after reading a pair of articles in the NY Times, The Dying Art of Disagreement and How to Find Common GroundWhy do we need to avoid conversations where we may disagree? What does it mean to live in a free society that is absent of debate?

The concept of debate goes back to Ancient Greece, the first democratic society. The Greeks believed that engaging in conversations over controversial topics is what pushed society forward and led to a greater understanding of the world. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle — these philosophers’ debates became some of our great literary works. 

Fast forward to the founding of the United States of America. The Founding Fathers did not agree on how to shape the country and build a government. As a matter of fact, they got it wrong the first time around. Without the ability to come together, argue their ideas, and find compromise it is unlikely that the American experiment would have been as successful. We got a glimpse of this in 1861 when our country broke out in Civil War. 

So why are we talking about pie and weather instead of the great problems of our time? At Brimmer, we do not want our students shying away from the hard conversations. In history class, students are asked to take positions, research the opposition’s side, and develop meticulously crafted arguments that often leads to disagreement. Eleventh and twelfth grade English classes use the Harkness Method to create student lead class discussions where they argue for and against each other’s points of view. Science students discuss the validity of data and its meaning.

Our students are the future leaders of their communities and our country and they are learning the skills necessary to disagree. It has become far too common on college campuses for students to boo or walk out on speakers they disagree with. We do not want our students to tune out those with different ideas. Instead, we want them to use the skills they learn in class so they can enter into productive debate — actively listening to the people around them, striving to understand another person’s ideas, and being able to speak passionately and respectfully when they find themselves in disagreement. If they can resist the temptation to talk about pie, then our future will be brighter.