Going into a new setting with a new historical character I like to work out at least one scenario of why. Why is the historical person there? Why are they talking to all these strangers? Why should these people listen to the oddly dressed individual? I think in almost every case it is possible to come up with some circumstance where the historical person would talk with a group about themselves.
I was recently in a classroom as Mrs. Shaprio, her daughter goes to school and she wanted to tell all these girls and boys who might know her Mollie about her own childhood. That one was easy. When in colonial clothes at the museum I am usually Mary Stavers Frasier, the tavern keeper’s daughter. I show people around the tavern as if they were visitors from out of town who might need a meal or a bed, that one is also easy. My newest costumed venture for the museum is in those same clothes, but I am portraying the tavern keeper’s wife, and I am in a modern classroom not in the tavern. I struggled with this one for a while, then remembered the story that made the whole thing fall into place. Mr. Stavers went to jail in the early months of 1777 over the actions of a revolutionary mob and the reactions of his slave. A trial!
Trials reenacted in the classroom are a fairly well established teaching model, in fact the National Museum of American History (Smithsonian Institution) recently blogged about it here. Of course it helps if the students have some time to prepare, but even without specific preparation kids know about criminal trials, they are just as titillated by the crime stories as adults watching America’s Most Wanted. Controversy is always a good place to start, and it gives me a reason to over share and them a reason to ask questions. Win!
So that was how I started: My husband is in jail, he will go before the magistrates, but I will tell you what I saw (I was there) and the reasons why my husband needs to come home. I told them about the war for independence and why some of us do not believe going to war was a good idea. Why a drunken mob tried to pull down the sign at our tavern, and when the Stavers’ slave stopped the mob why Mr. Stavers was punished. I told them about all the different functions a tavern fulfils in our community, and gave them little sachets of dried mint to keep the bugs out of their luggage when they go traveling.
Last week the classroom visits were fantastic. The kids did not know a lot about the Revolutionary war, but they had been taught how to think so they made good connections and asked fantastic questions. I don’t hold high expectations of the next group of kids, but the museum has provided me with a lot of props and visual aides, and the juicy bits of the trial can usually keep their attention for at least a little while.