Academic journal article Social Education

Radio Days in the Classroom

Academic journal article Social Education

Radio Days in the Classroom

Article excerpt

WHAT SOCIAL STUDIES PROJECT challenges students with interdisciplinary learning, engages their various abilities and learning styles, offers them the opportunity for collaborative work-and encourages them to speak in strange voices? The answer is an eighth grade radio drama project. For most of the month of March 2004, the entire eighth grade at Edgemont Junior/Senior High School in Scarsdale, New York, was transported back to the early days of radio. They learned about the history of radio and how it changed our society, studied some of the most famous examples of radio drama, built their own crystal radios, visited the Museum of Television and Radio in New York City, and finally wrote and recorded their own radio plays. (1) The project was aligned with standard 1 of the New York State curriculum, "students will use a variety of intellectual skills to demonstrate their understanding of major ideas, eras, themes, developments, and turning points in the history of the United States and New York." (2) Studying the early days of radio did it all.

A Collaborative Effort

My fellow social studies teacher Tim Hoss and I led the radio drama project. We reasoned that understanding the impact of radio on American society could help students (1) better understand our social studies unit on America in the twenties and thirties and (2) think about the important role that technology plays in our lives, then and now. Social studies topics (we call them "Essential Questions") from the unit that students and teachers strove to answer included:

* What were some of the economic, political, and social changes of the 1920s?

* In what ways did African American culture thrive during the 1920s in New York City?

* What new things did the radio provide to listeners in distant towns and farms?

* How did city life change in the United States during the 1920s?

* How did life in the rural countryside change during this period' * Why did some Americans resist the social changes of the 1920s?

The history of early radio touches upon all these essential questions, providing an entre for middle school students into a complex era.

We began by introducing our eighth graders to radio plays simultaneously in English and social studies classes. In English, students read old scripts to learn how the different elements of a radio play (speech, music, background noises, and special effects) blend to create a satisfying listening experience. They explored distinguishing characteristics of literary genres: mystery, science fiction, comedy and western genres, as well as the parallels between radio theatre and short stories. During the same week in social studies class, eighth graders listened to and analyzed Orson Welles' famous broadcast of War of the Worlds.(3) In discussing this event, students had to clarify the difference between fact and fiction: What is the difference between news and entertainment? And how do we know which one we are listening to?

A Big Fright

On Halloween eve 1938, Welles broadcast a dramatization of an H.G. Welles novel, War of the Worlds, about a Martian invasion. His introduction to the program stated that it was a play, but many members of the listening audience who tuned in late to the program mistook the broadcast for actual news. Panic spread throughout parts of the nation. Police and fire stations were overwhelmed with phone calls.

I played a few minutes of Welles's radio Performance (now available on CD), which was recorded as it was broadcast. (4) Only a few students were fooled into thinking it was anything more than a dramatization. Students did appreciate the story and the skillful delivery by the actors.

Reading about the early days of the home "wireless" revealed that social changes that followed the advent of the radio were in many ways as important as those resulting from the industrial revolution. …

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