“What does history mean to you?”

Books Bygone: What does history mean to you?
Marica Bernstein

“What does history mean to you? Is it alive, or is it dead and buried in the past? Is it a list of dry happenings with drier dates, or is it full of exciting or solemn moments and people doing the things you do, only in a finer, bigger way?”

These simple questions, asked of boys and girls in grades 5-8, begin Eleanore Hubbard’s Citizenship Plays: A Dramatic Reader for Upper Grades (1929). She continues, “If you had been present at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, do you suppose you would ever think of it as an uninteresting document of long words?” Of course not! But that was long ago. How can you be present, take part and experience what it might have been like to “sign that memorable document?” Hubbard answers that you can have the feelings of the signers by “playing that you are those men in this most solemn moment of their lives.”

“Do not simply read history, act it, feel it, live it!” Be those men and women who worked, suffered and triumphed to make our country! Toward that end, Hubbard offers over 30 short plays grouped into four parts:

  • Ideals of Our Country,
  • Growth of Our Country,
  • Activities of Our Government (in 1929, the longest section), and
  • Good Citizenship.

Each part has a brief forward promoting its over-arching lesson. The lesson of the Ideals section is this:

All through our history this right of self-government has been insisted upon. This is where our liberty lies: not in freedom from law, but in the freedom to make and therefore obey our own laws. That is the American ideal.

Three plays make the beginning of American history come alive, “The Mayflower Compact” (no need to memorize the Compact, just read it), “The Charter Oak,” (a tale I’d long forgotten), and “The Declaration of Independence” in which various signers enumerate the grievances—the colonists’ complaints against the Crown– in fifth grade terms.

And so it goes through the Louisiana Purchase, the homesteaders, Panama Canal… . Staging the plays is secondary. Throughout, the emphasis is on students’ engaging history, not attention to sets or costumes, though simple suggestions are given. The book is a text, so each play ends with a set of questions. Following “The Pony Express,” children are prompted, “It has been said that ‘the mightiest implement of democracy is the postal service,’” and are asked, “Do you believe that statement?” In “Lincoln, Deputy Surveyor” Abe’s industrious and diligent character are highlighted. “Can you point to anyone in your community who has risen because of his industry? Why is it a good qualification for a citizen?” The final play, about a family of immigrants, asks, “Should a born or naturalized citizen be more grateful to this country? Give reasons.”

My copy of Citizenship Plays is dog-eared and its pages marked up. Names are penciled next to casts of characters. Here and there a closing line has been added, “This concludes our program.” On the inside front cover is written, “Mrs. Harmon Ackerman Miss. 5th Grade.” Did Mrs. Harmon’s students—or others before—learn about the “makers of our country” by playing them? If so, did they then learn “to appreciate and to love better than you ever did before this great country” which has been left to us to “cherish and protect?”

You have to smile at that old-fashioned patriotism, don’t you? But books such as this were quite common in days bygone. I have several that present the core elements of American history as plays or stories every child should know—books that make American history come alive. Do kids still do patriotic plays in middle school?

Citizenship Plays: A Dramatic Reader for Upper Grades. Eleanore Hubbard. Benj. H. Sanborn & Co., Chicago. 1929.
Available free to read or download at openlibrary.org and for purchase at online booksellers.
First published in the my little weekly newspaper, January 2014.