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Connecting with the Arts: A Teaching Practices Library, 6-8

Exploring Our Town

Seventh and eighth grade students explore Thornton Wilder's classic play Our Town from the perspectives of theatre, music, visual art, language arts, and social studies.

PROGRAM AT A GLANCE

School

Hilltown Cooperative Charter School


Location

Haydenville, MA


Grade

7, 8


Disciplines

Theatre
Music
Visual Art
Social Studies
Language Arts


Description

Students delve into Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town.


The Integrated Instruction

Daniel Klatz, Education Coordinator
Arts integration is part of how we conceive of learning in our school. So we think of the arts as different ways of expressing what kids are learning. The arts teachers and the classroom teachers meet together every week to plan the curriculum so that the kids have an experience where everything is tied together as part of a whole.

Jane Percival, 7th- and 8th-Grade Language Arts Teacher
In language arts, we’re looking at the play as a piece of literature, and as a vehicle for learning more about drama, character development, and plot development. In social studies, they’re learning about the era of the play, which helps them “get into the character’s box,” as Thornton Wilder would say.

Lisa Holderness, 7th- and 8th-Grade Social Studies Teacher
Researching the historical context of the play will really give the kids a better sense of the lives and the environment of their characters. It will let them feel more comfortable as they build masks of the characters in art class.

 

Joy Kinigstein, Visual Art Teacher
The students are creating molds of each other’s faces to make masks for a presentation involving Our Town. Mask-making is something that’s particularly interesting at this age because people’s images are changing in adolescence.

 

Milton Hanzel, Resident Musician
The students are listening to a piece by Aaron Copland that was written for the first movie production of Our Town. They are also working on hymns that are consistent with the period of the play. What we’re trying to do is offer the students a way to experience some of what those townspeople experienced.

Watching the Video

Students applying plaster for facial masksBefore You Watch
Respond to the following questions.

  • How do you go about selecting pieces of literature, art, dance, music, or theatre as elements of a unit of study? What makes a work a strong candidate?
  • Would you rather work with a historical play or a historical novel in your curriculum? What are benefits or drawbacks to each?
  • How might studying a play lend itself to an interdisciplinary unit of study? What purposes might integrating the study of a historical play into your curriculum serve?

 

Watch the Program

As you watch, note how the themes in Our Town surface in each discipline. Write down what you find interesting, surprising, or especially important about the teaching, learning, and collaboration you see in this unit. Consider these questions as you watch:

  • How does each art form deepen students’ understanding of the historical context of the play?
  • How does the unit help students relate to the time period and setting of the play? In what ways are students making connections between the play and their own lives?
  • How do the culture and resources of this particular school help support the type of instruction shown?
  • How did the collaboration between teachers make this unit possible?

 

Reflect on the Program

  • How did the key teacher connect with so many other arts and non-arts subject areas? Could you accomplish this? Why or why not?
  • What parts of the teaching stood out for you as especially strong?
  • Which parts are, for any reasons, not compatible with your own teaching approaches?

Connecting to Your Teaching

Reflect on Your Practice

  • Does your school’s culture support collaborative, integrated units? If so, how? If not, why not?
  • How do you make distant historical time periods real for students?
  • What obstacles, if any, make it hard for you and your colleagues to use drama in teaching across disciplines? How might these be overcome?
  • Could studying a play in-depth help your students understand and assimilate new information and material? What plays might be good candidates?

Adaptations / Extensions to Consider

Scale it back: Choose one scene from a play to enact; or choose a one-act play. Work within your classroom or in partnership with one other teacher.

Role Play: Have students role-play characters from books or history. Have students write original scripts to perform.

Take a field trip: Visit a local theatre company or work with a drama troupe that can come to your school.

Additional Resources

Selected Unit Materials

A Study of Our Town – Looking to the Past to Build a Future: A unit concept map including learning goals and objectives from seven major disciplines (PDF)

Integrated Unit Standards: A list of Massachusetts Frameworks addressed through the interdisciplinary study of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town(PDF)

Print Resources

Carey, Gary, & Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Our Town (Cliffs Notes). Lincoln, Neb.: Cliffs Notes, 1965 ISBN: 0822009676

de Koster, Katie. Readings on Thornton Wilder. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. ISBN: 1565108140

Siebold, Thomas. Readings on Our Town. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000. ISBN: 0737701897

Wilder, Thornton. Our Town, A Play in Three Acts. Includes an afterword by Tappan Wilder. New York: Perennial Classics (HarperCollins), 2003 (first published, 1938). ISBN: 0060512636

Video Resources

Lesser, Sol (Producer), Wood, Sam (Director), & Wilder, Thornton (Writer). (1940). Our Town [Motion Picture]. United States: Focus Films Entertainment (DVD release), 2002. ASIN: 6305838208

Jaffe, Saul (Executive Producer), & Schaefer, George (Director). (1977). Our Town [Television Broadcast]. United States: National Broadcasting Company. ASIN: 6300180328

Woodward, Joanne (Executive Producer), & Naughton, James (Director). (2003). Our Town [Television Broadcast]. United States: Public Broadcasting Service. ASIN: B00015YVR2

Barclay, Richard (Producer), & Deubel, Robert (Director). (1972). Norman Rockwell’s World: An American Dream [Motion Picture]. United States: Columbia Pictures. ASIN: 6302996023

Web Sites

Our Town
http://www.sceaonline.com/restheatre.asp
A discipline-based theatre unit of study from the Southeast Center for Education in the Arts, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

The Thornton Wilder Society
www.thorntonwildersociety.org
A detailed chronology of Thornton Wilder’s life as well as an Our Townstudy guide for teachers and students

Spark Notes
http://www.sparknotes.com
A wealth of resources such as information about the authors in their historical era, plot overviews, character analysis, themes, summaries, and study questions

ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre – Learning Resources
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/learningresources/index.html
A variety of materials including online teacher’s guides, interactive timelines, and recommended resources

About the School

Hilltown Cooperative Charter School, Haydenville, Mass.

Hilltown Cooperative Charter School, located in the western Massachusetts town of Haydenville, has been in operation since 1995. The school serves 138 students from several surrounding communities, in grades kindergarten through eight. The mission of the Hilltown Cooperative Charter School is to involve students, teachers, parents, administrators, and members of the surrounding community in sustaining a non-discriminatory, rural learning environment. The school is committed to nurturing the innate curiosity and creativity of children and believes that this stimulates exploration of the arts and sciences. At Hilltown, the belief is that an integrated curriculum leads to personal empowerment, critical thinking, joy of learning, and appreciation of the importance of diversity and cooperation.

The curricular philosophy at Hilltown is both arts-integrated and project-based. Hilltown Cooperative uses a curriculum that draws heavily on the expressive arts as well as on students’ own experiences to spur creative thinking. Students explore lessons and present their learning through writing, art, music, movement, construction, and drama.

At Hilltown, students are grouped developmentally in multi-age classrooms and have a schedule that allows for both parental involvement and further arts integration.

School information compiled from the Hilltown Cooperative Charter School Web site:
http://www.hilltowncharter.org

Q&A With Teachers

Jane Percival, Language Arts

In the program we see Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town being explored through the lenses of language arts, social studies, visual art, and music. What other ways did the Prisms class relate to Our Town?

In science they studied energy and looked at how energy was produced and used in 1901 in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. Students also used their experience reading Our Town when formulating appropriate interview questions to ask residents of a nearby long-term care center. Responses to these questions became short story “seeds” that germinated and grew into fully developed stories that we later bound into an anthology and presented to the residents of the center. The theme of Our Town to realize life fully while living it became a touchstone for journal reflections during the end-of-the-year field trip to Boston.

What had students read in the past that left them loving Thornton Wilder?

The eighth-graders had read Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth the previous year. They were totally captivated by the play because of its constant surprises both in content and staging. They appreciated the play’s humor, depth, and accessibility, so it stimulated rich discussions.

How may class sessions, over how long, did it take for the class to read Our Town?

We read and discussed the play over a period of about three weeks. The vocabulary of the play was introduced and studied prior to the reading and discussion period. Also, the historical context had been explored in social studies prior to the play’s being read in English Language Arts.

As a charter school, how do you relate to state curriculum frameworks and to standardized state tests? How do you think the integrated instruction that your team does affects the students’ performance on those tests?

As a public school and a charter school in Massachusetts, Hilltown Cooperative Charter School (HCCS) is required to follow the state curriculum frameworks. HCCS also takes the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test batteries on the prescribed schedule for all public schools in the state.

For a variety of reasons, much learning occurs during an arts integrated project. For example, students find the opportunity to immerse themselves in an area of study very motivating. They also witness their emerging interests guiding the development of the project – as do the state’s curriculum frameworks. As a result, the students’ performance on both state and in-house assessments consistently shows substantial growth.

Joy Kinigstein with student maskJoy Kinigstein, Visual Art

You mention that mask-making is particularly appropriate for adolescents. What insights do you think the students got out of the mask-making process?

For students ill at ease with their own self-image, mask-making provides them with the ability to alter that which is. Students can change their self-portraits, subtly or drastically, and they can literally hide behind them during a presentation. For shyer students it gave them the sense of a safe environment. For those with more theatrical leanings, masks forced them to go beyond acting with one’s face alone.

What was the process that students went through in transforming the masks into characters from Our Town?

In language arts, students had been assigned a specific character from Our Town. Some students were assigned the same character, but in different scenes and at different times of the character’s life. Because Our Town provided few clues about what characters looked like, students made decisions relying on their understanding of age, the period, consensus, and pure imagination.

In the art room, paired students made molds of each other’s faces by applying plaster gauze strips directly onto their partner’s face. The resultant masks were then used as molds into which liquid plaster was poured, creating a positive of each student’s face.

Students then applied clay to alter their plaster positives, transforming their self-images into the characters from Our Town according to the decisions they had made. Changes included exaggeration, accentuation, aging, and even change of gender. Students put papier-mâché over the clay-transformed positives and finally painted their masks as realistically as possible, with particular attention to skin tones.

What challenges did you face in the Our Town unit?

There were several. First there was the challenge of technical craftsmanship and cooperation – some meticulous students ended up with positives lacking in detail and having distorted features because of their partner’s poor craftsmanship.

Second, it was challenging for students to rely on their own understanding of age, status, gender, and death to create the physical characteristics of their masks. This proved especially difficult for students who needed to cooperate to create the same person at different stages of their life.

Some students became precious with their self-portraits and were reluctant to make changes to their own faces. These students required strong encouragement to take risks and distort, exaggerate, or alter their self-images.

Programs