Guardians of the Past: Using Drama to Assess Learning in American History

By Howlett, Charles F. | Social Education, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Guardians of the Past: Using Drama to Assess Learning in American History


Howlett, Charles F., Social Education


Not long ago, I decided to minimize the stressful emphasis on assessments in learning in my 11th grade American History and Government classes and put the fun back into teaching. Tired of the repetitive aspects of teaching the required state standards related to the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court cases, I switched gears from simply noting the parts of the Constitution and the various branches of the federal government to emphasizing an understanding of case law and its effects on our society.

I invited attorneys and judges to speak to my classes about how the law works and how, as a society, we govern ourselves. (1) Putting into practice what the visitors had discussed, however, was the real challenge to the assessment process. I found the solution in the production of classroom plays. Writing and performing plays based on case law became the culminating reflection to this exercise.

Students welcomed the guest speakers to class. These were the "real" people making the law work by reading and writing briefs and motions, arguing in court, analyzing case law, and rendering decisions. Before each guest's arrival, I would suggest cases he or she could discuss with the students--usually Supreme Court cases found in the curriculum. My students listened attentively to the technical aspects of the law and how each case is analyzed and interpreted by the courts: the facts; prior procedural history; the issue; the holding; the judgment; and the reasoning. Although these aspects were difficult for my students to fully appreciate due to their technical nature, these speakers successfully conveyed that the U.S. Constitution, federal statutes, and state statutes are living and breathing mechanisms that determine the way we live. By listening as each guest broke down a noted case, my students gained a deeper understanding of how the law operates and gained a newfound respect for our legal system. My students now looked at the law not in a negative context--"getting busted"--but as a measure of protection of our individual rights.

Planning and Methodology

I designed this program as both a classroom and at-home research assignment, and set aside four weeks at the beginning of the school year. To begin, a guest attorney or judge explained the process of how the case he or she selected is briefed; the rest of the first week was devoted to students selecting a case, U.S. Supreme Court or other (my students may select an important case decided within the New York courts). Students tended to select the types of better-known cases that frequently appear on the Regents Exam. Students selected cases from the Federal and State Reporters as well as the U.S. Supreme Court Reporter. These are also available in law libraries, local bar associations, and the Bill of Rights Foundation. High school libraries generally have reference works on leading Supreme Court cases, which can be photocopied and made available for students. During this week, I also reserved time in the library in which I broke each class into five groups with five students apiece. Each group had a "leader" and a "recorder." Upon finishing their research--at home, in the library, and through Internet searches--each group selected a case.

The second week was devoted to each group writing a legal brief explaining why they thought the case they selected was significant. To assist students, I drew heavily upon Deborah E. Bouchoux's Legal Research and Writing for Paralegals. This work is not overly technical, and the section on how to brief a case is clear and easy to follow. (2) I also required that students write at least five historical questions from the time period of the case--scope and sequence is encouraged. Such questions were specifically aimed at (1) chronology of the period; (2) major ideas of the period; (3) social, economic, and political factors of the period; (4) the leading figures of the period and their impact; and (5) lessons that can be drawn from the events of that period, and how these events should be interpreted.

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Guardians of the Past: Using Drama to Assess Learning in American History
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