Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Immigration + role playing = love

My first role playing experience was playing an Irish immigrant in high school, and ever since then I've been interested in immigration history as well as living history.

This spring I've had the opportunity to combine my loves of role playing and immigration with my love of teaching. I teach groups of kids about immigration while they learn to be role players. I am one of the museum teachers who lead Strawbery Banke's "Becoming Americans" program for school groups. Each member of the class receives facts about a person who immigrated to the United States and lived in the puddle dock neighborhood, they get some personal information and some historical info plus a costume piece to get them into character. Some kids play characters who were related, some African slaves, all range in time period from Revolutionary America through the early 20th Century.

When each kid has a general understanding of their character's history we leave the classroom and hit the grounds of the museum to walk in the footsteps of those who had come before.

Each student is asked leading questions and presents in the first person, then they give us a "tour" of their house. In some of the houses the participants meet one of the museum roleplayers, who will treat the kids as their relatives. It is both nerve wracking for the kids and thrilling.

At the end of the workshop I tell the kids that many years ago I portrayed Lizzy Sullivan, and that I want them to think back on the real people they portrayed as they study history.

The school I had for my first workshop back in May was fantastic. They were studying immigration at school so they understood a lot of the key concepts already. I only had one reluctant role player, and once I had explained that he did not have to participate if he did not want to he decided that it was not so bad after all.

Since then I have lead groups of 4th, 5th, even 2nd graders. I don't have to work hard to make it fun because I think it is so much fun. I even got a whole group of kids to chug-chug like a train as we made our way across the grounds. But I also make sure the kids are learning. Historical facts, all about timelines, and about the emotional struggles of immigrating.

Yesterday I got my first real comment on an evaluation form other than "The kids loved it!" The teacher had seen one leader in the morning then me in the afternoon. She liked the fact that the other leader talked about occupations with the kids and made sure they all knew what their historical person did as a job. I admit, I take a much looser approach to occupations, and talk about them on the museum grounds if I talk about them at all. This brings up a fundamental difference between my golals for my classes and those that concentrate on facts. The teacher wanted her students to have a longer list of facts about the people they were portraying, I was looking more for a personal connection to history in general, and an understanding that things change over time.

I guess that is one of the reasons I'll take my job in an informal learning environment over classroom teaching every time. I admire teachers, I adore museum work.

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