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Chautauqua for Students Teaching Wonders

Chautauqua has a great adult educational history in our country. Chautauqua began in Lake Chautauqua, NY and allowed adults the opportunity to attend lectures on various subjects. In recent years, Chautauqua has experienced a re-birth through the efforts of programs such as the Great Plains and Great Basin Chautauqua programs. In its current incarnation, Chautauqua involves the costumed portrayal of a historically significant person. A Chautauqua presenter gives a brief presentation in costume, as the character, highlighting the achievement and life of the character. The performer then takes questions from the audience as the character. To finish the presentation, the audience asks questions of the performer about the research process, what he or she found interesting about the character.

I first became aware of Chautauqua by attending a performance of the Great Basic Chautauqua as part of the Uptown, Downtown, ARTown festival in Reno, NV, and while I was captivated and fascinated by the performance, I did not think about it's implications for classroom use until a colleague, Sheryl Radtke, attended a presentation about using Chautauqua in the classroom. After seeing the success she had with the project, I decided to adapt the project for my own classroom.

Chautauqua hits on all of the major language arts standards of reading, writing, research, speaking, and listening, which makes it a perfect assignment in the era of accountability and standardization.

Chautauqua in my classroom always took place during the last quarter of the year. As my school required a final of some sort, and I did not wish to have a ton of finals to grade at the end of the year, in that short period of time that the district gives between the end of school and the time when grades are due, I found Chautauqua presentations to be a perfect final, culminating project.

I allowed approximately 7-9 weeks for Chautauqua (*as a note, my school was on 75-minute block periods, so I only saw students 2, 3 times per week). Three-four of those weeks were spent in the library, giving students time to research their historical character. Another 2-3 weeks were spent allowing students time to compile their research, begin putting their presentations together, and practicing giving their presentations. The last two weeks were used for presentations. I generally had 5 students scheduled to present each day.

Project guidelines:

  1. Students must choose a figure of historical significance. I stress over and over to students that the character must be DEAD. DEAD. DEAD. (if the character were still alive, we could go and see them/hear them already; therefore, it would be pointless for us to go see them as part of a Chautauqua performance) Some teachers tie this in to their team's explorations, specifying a particular time period. Some teachers specify American figures. Musicians, politicians, and movie stars are always popular. Students will some times want to choose a controversial figure, such as Hitler. I ask students to check with their families before making a final decision, as I do not want them to choose a character their families would object to. Then I question them about their reasoning for wanting to portray that character. I have very rarely turned down a student's request and have in fact had some very good, sensitive, thoughtful presentations.
  2. Students must present in costume. No costume=no presentation. The costume need not be elaborate, but there must be a costume. Some times students have resourceful families who will create a costume. Thrift stores are good sources of costumes. Some teachers have collected over the years a cache of costume items...wigs, hats, dresses, shirts, coats...that are available to students for their use. I tell students to begin thinking about, planning for, and creating their costume right from the very beginning. In 7-9 weeks, most students are able to come up with something. Again, I stress that the costume need not be elaborate, but coming in their every-day street clothes does not count.
  3. Students may want to consider some kind of "prop" to use to hide their notes. As they are supposed to be the character, it would not be appropriate for them to be reading their presentation or reading from not cards. It would be appropriate, for John Lennon (the student) to have sheet music with him, for example, and it would be appropriate for John Lennon (the student) to refer to his sheet music (the student's notes).
  4. Students will turn in an outline of their presentation, as well as their research charts and a Reference Page.
  5. Presentations will be approximately 7-10 minutes in length. The first five minutes will consist presentation of the character's life, as the character. The next 1-2 minutes will consist of answering questions from the audience as the character. The final 1-2 minutes of the presentation consist of the student answering questions as him or herself about his or her thoughts about the character and their research process.

In order to have a successful presentation, students need to do a great deal of research about their character. For their research, students find encyclopedias, biographies, and Biography magazine to be very helpful sources of information. (If your library has a subscription to Biography magazine, I have created an index to the magazine, outlining which people are found in which magazines) Students also have found some programs on channels such as A&E, the History Channel, E!, and PBS to be helpful, but it becomes tricky trying to figure out when programs are on. Some districts have video libraries that may have a wide variety of videos available, and some school districts may have partnerships with local universities that have access to videos. Additionally, there are a great number of resources on-line to help students with their preparations. Plugging their character's name into a search engine will more than likely turn up a ton of sites which may (or may not) be helpful to the student.

Last Updated April 11, 2011

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