How (not) to teach with drama

By Naomi Coquillon
A woman in a historical outfit (high collared white shirt with elbow-length sleeves, long burgundy skirt, boater hat) and a bike speaks to two museum visitors

For nearly a decade, the museum has used theater as a means of enlivening the visitor experience and engaging the public in dialogue on challenging topics in history. Thousands of visitors have joined a mock civil rights training sessiondebated the use of violence with John Brown, or met Louise the Wheelwoman and discovered the social changes wrought through the use of the bicycle. Through our teacher professional development programs, we have taught educators nationwide about how to incorporate these programs into history classes and have seen some excellent, creative examples. However, we have also heard about some troubling uses of drama in the classroom, including a recent case in Virginia. Theater can be a powerful teaching tool, but one to be used wisely and carefully. Here we share a few guidelines and recommendations for classroom educators on using theater in history teaching:

A photo from the museum of the installed portion of the counter from the Greensboro diner. It includes the countertop, four chairs, and part of the back wall with a mirror on it.

Embody for empathy

When we talk with teachers about using improv games or participating in our Join the Student Sit-Ins video with students, we often call the goal "embodying for empathy"—that is, we are trying to better understand historical figures from their perspective, to empathize with them. We are not, however, going to experience what that time period "really would have been like." We cannot know that, and for many topics, such as segregation, we are grateful for that.

Be the protagonist, not the antagonist

If you are conducting a simulation, like the Join the Student Sit-Ins program, put the emphasis on the historical protagonist, not the antagonist, and never set students against one another. In our sit-in program, we do have some visitors stand in as the crowd, but they serve only as background for protesters. They do not move and do not speak; the focus of the program is on the experience of the protesters themselves.

Choose your topic wisely

Placing oneself in a pivotal historical moment, one where individuals had to make drastic choices, can be incredibly powerful. Use that power wisely, and know that some topics are too sensitive to be taught with theater. I often hear about teachers using some sort of theatrical element to teach about slavery. This is one topic that I say is off limits for theater. It was a dehumanizing institution whose legacy continues to shape our world. It is too fraught. There are other ways to get at that moment in history, including powerful narratives (hear Olaudah Equiano's narrative, read by an actor) or personal testimonies from people born into slavery that were collected as part of the Federal Writers' Project, or interpretations including PBS's The Abolitionists or the recent feature film 12 Years a Slave, based on the narrative of Solomon Northup.

Use visualization instead of simulation

While I recommend that educators select topics wisely, that in no way means that challenging topics in history should be avoided. In fact, finding ways to address challenging topics in history is one of the goals of the museum's theater program. However, there are ways to do this sensitively, including using visualization, rather than simulation. In one activity we do with teachers, called the Walk Around, we have them imagine themselves in certain places and moments in time, while simply walking around the room. For example, I might offer an open-ended description: "You are on the deck of a ship. You feel the ship rocking, and a new land comes into sight . . ." And teachers might find themselves on their way to Jamestown or Ellis Island. Or I might offer a more specific place and time: "It is March 7, 1965. You are approaching the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Why are you there? What are you thinking? What are you feeling, as you step up onto that bridge?" The goal is to visualize the experience, not to reenact it. The result is similar to a simulation in that, when given time to reflect and ponder the scenario given to them, they begin to consider it from a new perspective. This can be as moving, if not more so, than simulation, and avoids some of the pitfalls of simulations and recreations discussed here.

Photo of the actor playing Louise, standing next to her bicycle. Setting is outdoors with tree and bush in background.

Give students choice

Because teaching with theater can be an emotional experience, there needs to be space for students to opt out. Take volunteers and give them options for participation. Let them know that they can leave the activity at any time. Yes, some students may just sit down because they don't want to participate. That is worth the emotional cost of forcing another student into a situation with which he or she may be uncomfortable.

Don't trivialize, and have a goal in mind

History is the story of real people who made real choices and faced real hardships. Theater can be used to help students appreciate those realities, and to better understand that the choices we make every day have the potential to shape our present and future. However, to harness that lesson, educators should be careful not to trivialize challenging moments. One popular activity I often hear from teachers is about having students hide behind desks and shoot paper balls at one another to simulate trench warfare. While, again, embodying for empathy means that students will not (thankfully) know what it was like to face the brutality of World War I, this experience is not especially instructive in and of itself. Having students crouch in narrow lines can be useful for centering the mind and providing a physical experience, but then enhance the story through narrative. Read personal accounts as they sit in their makeshift trenches. Listen to oral histories. Help them reflect, and know what you hope to have them take away from the experience.

A photograph of a man wearing a historical costume speaking to a room of people seated at tables. Behind him on a projector screen is an image of the same man from a video.

I always encourage teachers to talk with their peers before introducing a theater activity in their classes, to get feedback and think hard about whether this is the best way to teach the topic at hand. Historical theater can be a transformative experience for students, but it can also be heart-wrenching and traumatic if used inappropriately. The power of taking on new perspectives is both the great opportunity and the great challenge of using drama in the classroom.

For more resources for teaching with theater, see Smithsonian's History Explorer.

Naomi Coquillon was previously manager of Youth and Teacher Programs at the National Museum of American History. She is currently an education program specialist at the Library of Congress.