Dramatization of the Bus Boycott for First and Second Grade
By Maggie Nolan Donovan
Among the many ways of responding to stories of resistance in my classroom, by far the most popular, year after year, is playacting. This choice seems natural to me because children love to act out stories, and resistance stories are inherently dramatic. Drama is a compelling way for child actors to walk around in the world of civil rights activists; to experience what they experienced; to feel, in a very real way, the emotions that such scenarios raise; and to internalize the activists’ interpretation of these experiences.
When we create plays in our classroom, we have no scripts, no costumes, some chairs as scenery, and we are our own audience. The plays are about 15 minutes long, and they always include the singing of Freedom Songs because that is historically accurate and because it turns the play into a musical. Typically, half the class—ten or eleven children—is in the play, and the other half is the audience. Then we switch: Actors become audience; audience members become actors. This alternating is important because it enables children to experience the story twice, as well as from two different points of view, actor and audience member.
We begin by considering the whole story and breaking it into scenes; each scene has a climactic moment. We talk about how people would feel in such circumstances. We choose parts, and since we act out the stories more than once, children usually get to play the part they want. We think of some key lines that actors might say. The rest of the dialogue is spontaneous. We create an open space in the classroom for the stage, and arrange furniture, mostly chairs, to represent scenery. We talk about the role of the audience; in these dramas, it is to watch and listen attentively, and after the play is over, to provide feedback to the actors. The first time around, the performance is usually a little tentative and silly, but before long, students are acting with power and conviction.
If ever a story was meant to be dramatized, it’s the story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The dramatic nature of this story is both its strength and its weakness. The strength is obvious; the weakness is that the drama may give the message that the whole story (and the whole Civil Rights Movement) comes down to one moment in which Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat. It is essential that children understand what came before and after this moment.
Tell students the story of the boycott. For example, tell students that before her arrest Rosa Parks was a seasoned activist who worked with the NAACP. After her arrest, many people, including Martin Luther King, E. D. Nixon, and Jo Ann Robinson, formed the Montgomery Improvement Association, which organized the boycott. The classroom play needs to tell the whole story.