MY HERO Theater: Women’s Letters & Legacies
by Kimberly Kenna
, The MY HERO Project
Area: Art/Music, English/Language Arts, Social Science, Technology/Media Literacy, Other subject
Note: This lesson uses primary sources from the book, Women’s Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present, edited by Lisa Grunwald and Stephen Adler. It is a compilation of writings that highlight the lives and feelings of women throughout the last two centuries.* The original, unedited letters contained in the book provide rich insights into periods of history that would not be found in a traditional textbook. Further, and perhaps more importantly, the emotion of the letters captures the readers’ attention, drawing them in and providing a personal connection.
*If you would prefer to have your students read letters from both males and females, check out the companion book, Letters of the Century, compiled by the same editors. Also, some of the letters in both books may have themes considered too mature for middle schoolers. Middle school teachers might want to handpick the letters they use.
This is an in depth, hands-on project that can span many days or even a month, so teachers should tweak it according to their schedules.
There are so many examples of heroism in this book. By reading these letters written to and from both famous people (like Annie Oakley, Jacqueline Kennedy, Amelia Earhart) and women you’ve never heard of, one understands more deeply the culture of the time. The editors provide informative historical background for each letter. Students will learn that heroes come in many forms, and that they are inspired in many different ways. By writing and presenting a skit or vignette inspired by an historical letter, students make an emotional connection with the required subject matter. This allows them to use their critical thinking skills as they are challenged to apply the knowledge in a new way. It’s a satisfying and fun way to teach and learn.
The student will…
-demonstrate knowledge and understanding of heroes, both past and present, and how they reflect their culture and time
-use primary sources to get facts, and then will extrapolate in order to write an historical fiction play to reflect the facts
-use technology to do research
-read, take notes, organize them and incorporate them into scriptwriting
-brainstorm, write and edit a script
-work cooperatively in a group to organize, plan and perform a play
-understand how sound, movement, lighting, props and costumes portray what’s being expressed in the text
Internet access for students and teacher
Copy (ideally several copies) of the book, Women’s Letters, or copies of letters of the teacher’s choice
Pre-Activity: The teacher should become familiar with the format and stories of Women’s Letters. They are arranged sequentially by date. Some letters lend themselves more easily to this project than others. Many of the letters become appropriate for use in light of the editor’s explanatory remarks.
1. Introduce… the MY HERO website to the class by projecting the website home page onto the screen. Read the essay by Charles Harper entitled, "How Should We Choose Our Heroes" in the MY HERO Forum. After navigating the site as a group, allow students to spend some time investigating these representations of heroes on their own. As a group, discuss the “prerequisites” for being considered a hero, using information from the website and their own personal experience to back up claims.
2. Discuss…what does legacy mean? How does what people do in the past impact the present? Have students give examples of legacy, leading into a discussion of how legacy can be physically visible or intangible. To help you get started, you may want to consider these hero essays on the MY HERO website:
Pearl S. Buck
What are their legacies?
3. Explore…the book, Women’s Letters. Project stories on the screen if there are not enough copies of the book to allow for ample exploration. Pair up or make small groups of students and have them discuss how the letters illustrate heroism, and also how these letters are the writers’ legacies. Students must back up their opinions with specific details from the letters. Share thoughts as a whole group. Support debate! We may not all agree on who is truly heroic or why.
4. Challenge…students to research more about a hero from the MY HERO website or from Women’s Letters. Many of the women in the book appear on the website. Alternatively, students might want to interview and research a local community hero. At this point, teachers may want to form small groups, as ultimately at least two people will be needed to take on roles in the play (unless a student chooses to do a monologue or one-person play). Using their research notes, students will “become” that hero and write a letter to someone reflecting (not telling) her personality and motives. In other words, the reader should have to think a bit about the letter in order to make a statement or have an opinion about the person. For instance, on page 413 of Women’s Letters, in 1898, Annie Oakley, the skilled sharpshooter, offers her services and those of 50 women to President McKinley should America go to war with Spain. Her short letter exudes what Oakley is all about without blatantly expressing that she was brave, dedicated and tenacious.
One way to help students compose a credible letter is to have them read the letter on page 642 from an anonymous high school student to the NY Times. Discuss the tone of the letter, and then compare it to the tone of Janis Joplin’s letter on the next page. How do those tones help us get to know the writer? The letter the student writes should “come from the heart” and not simply be a statement of the hero’s actions. Obviously, lots of thought should go into choosing an appropriate recipient of the letter. If necessary, a prologue can be included (similar to the book’s editor’s comments that precede each letter) in order to set the scene.
5. Extend…by offering an optional challenge. Ask the students to respond to one of the letters in the book. This may require more research about the era in which the letter was written, as well as gathering info about the original recipient. Perhaps this response can be incorporated into their final script.
6. Finally…engage the students in the playwriting process (individually, in pairs or small groups). They need to brainstorm a storyline for a play or simple vignette based upon their hero’s letter and the knowledge they’ve gained from their research. Perhaps the plot of the play occurs as a result of the hero’s actions and/or thoughts that were described in the letter. The play should reflect the tone of the letter as well as the time period. The recipient and/or other characters may be included in the play. I have found that having students get in front of the class and act out the interactions between characters helps them generate the dialogue for their play.
7. Gather feedback…Students should ask peers to listen to their play and give feedback. After making revisions, the writing should be edited and given to the teacher for feedback. The final piece should be copied and handed out to all cast members for line memorization. Set a date for the performances and invite an audience to see “Women’s Letters & Legacies”.
8. Embellish…Other faculty members can be brought into the process to share their skills with the students. I often invited the technology, music, drama and art teachers to collaborate with me and work with my kids on projects like this. Adding music and props that are appropriate for the time will not only challenge the students, it will provide more in-depth study and understanding of that period of history. Students may also opt to make “playbills” or design a poster for their play…in the style of the era, of course!
9. Rehearse, then act!!!! Performance day is a celebration of new knowledge gained and shared with others. As each letter is read and each scene performed, students speak out about the power of one person. As Gandhi said, they become “the change they want to see happen,” a lesson they won’t forget. Filming the show provides a great debriefing resource. During the “wrap up” days after the performance, the class can view the film and critique it.
With a project like this that probably will include several elements to be scored, I find a rubric to be the most appropriate form of assessment. High school kids are more than ready to be a part of drawing up a rubric with the teacher in the beginning days of the project; in this way they are provided specific focal points for their work. I’ve found that asking students to assess themselves several times during the process also does wonders for keeping them on track. This can be done with a short checklist and the teacher’s comments provide support and, hopefully, enthusiasm for the student’s efforts! Perhaps students could keep a portfolio of their work which would include all their writings as well as self-reflections, sketches of costumes and props, etc.