News Plays

I invented this lesson to help my Fourth-Grade students express what they were learning about the Oregon Trail.  However, you could use this exercise to explore any historical period, or even to explore current events.  In addition to being a fun way to learn, it can be a useful tool for assessment, because it helps the teacher see which concepts seem most important or most interesting to the students.


Note:  Like many of my  lesson plans, particularly those for older students, this lesson contains a great deal of discussion and analysis with the students.  This is partly due to my firm conviction that this kind of critical analysis is good for kids, and partly due to personal style.  If you find that your students won't tolerate so much talk, and just want to "get on with it," I see no particular reason not to do so.  The discussion and analysis is interesting, and, I think, educational, but it's not as if the lesson won't work without it.



I begin with a discussion of Television News.  Why do networks run News?  Why do people watch it?  What can you tell about a community by watching the Local News?  We discuss the ways that news editors, even when telling the absolute, unvarnished truth, can shape the opinions and perceptions of their audiences.  We lament (well, most of us lament) the fact that so many people get all of their news from television.  (This can be a whole class discussion in itself if you let it--which I will, if there's time.)


Then we think about what ways people might have had to get news before television.  Of course there were newspapers, but we usually conclude that there were probably almost as many people "back then" as now who don't read newspapers.  I tell the students about the old "Newsreels" that used to accompany films before TV killed the Cinema.  In a sense, these were like Television News in that they were both visual and aural, and in that, like the stories we see on the TV News, the stories shown on newsreels were chosen out of a much bigger pool of "news" as the most interesting or important--so that, again, someone else's opinion as to what is important takes precedence over the audience's own judgment.


And what about before the Cinema?  Well, believe it or not, sometimes people would actually act out the news live.  In the early part of the century in cities like New York, current events were acted on stage in news theatres.  In Medieval times, traveling minstrels would enact the news in movement and music.  In many times and cultures, people made plays to tell the news.  We discuss the way truth can be shaped and bent by such a practice.  How is a person acting out the news--which is visual and aural--different from television coverage of the same event--which is also visual and aural?  We talk about the difference in perception between seeing an interview with the actual person involved and seeing an actor portray that person.  Even if every word of every utterance is repeated verbatim, an actor can always color a portrayal with his or her own opinion.  So sometimes watching a "News Play" can tell you as much about the performers as about the news.



Once we have talked about the idea of a "News Play," it only remains to make one.  I divide the class into small groups--4 or 5 seems to work best--and each group retires to a different corner of the room.  The groups are given time--use your judgment on how much time, but with 4th-Graders, ten or fifteen minutes is about their limit, unless someone gets inspired--to choose a news story and rehearse their performance of it.  The news story should be about whatever historical period or culture the class is studying.  (You could also have them do current events.)  Generally the groups choose a narrator or "anchor," but I don't tell them they must, and indeed I try to give them as few structural limits as possible.  Unless a group asks for help, or is clearly not able to work together effectively, I leave them alone and let them rehearse in private.


When everyone is more-or-less ready, the group comes together as audience and each group in turn performs their "News Play."  After each performance we discuss the success or failure of the group, and also talk about what we know about the performers' personal opinions or prejudices from the way the story was presented.


Lots of fun.  And it can be used again and again as students study different subjects.