The students in Sean DeBettencourt’s sixth grade class at the Tisbury School stand in two lines, ready to receive their costumes.
Giggles and squeals abound as Phyllis Vecchia hands out vintage costumes — old top hats, dresses, and capes.
The kids, along with eighth graders at the school, are learning about women in history through plays, written by the program’s organizer, drama teacher Phyllis Vecchia. For the past 10 years, Vecchia has staged four short plays every semester, with a different historical woman as the focus for each one. Librarian Whitney Burke compared the sessions to an “intense special project.”
Vecchia began staging these plays as a way to fill a gap she saw in her own daughter’s education. “I found out she wasn’t learning much about women in history,” she said, “and was surprised because I thought by this time women would be more integrated into the curriculum.”
This week’s subject was well-known — Eleanor Roosevelt. With help from Burke, Vecchia researched and covered Roosevelt’s life from a young age to her appointment to the U.N.
Each student was given a script, a part, and a corresponding costume. Standing in a semicircle, scripts in hand, each student dutifully read through their parts. As the play progressed through Eleanor’s early life, Vecchia gave acting directions from stage left, like a true drama teacher.
“Remember, this part is very dramatic! Eleanor, you’re showing him something he’s never seen before! Franklin, this is very touching to you!”
With those directions, Ellasyn Longval, playing young Eleanor, and Ronan Mullin, playing a young Franklin Delano Roosevelt, perk up. Their gestures become more defined, voices more projected, and their smiles all that much larger.
“Good, good!” Vecchia said. “But remember, no overacting.”
Bringing in the element of theater helps mix it up for kids who would otherwise be sitting in classrooms all day. “I’ve had teachers tell me that kids who will never even speak up will totally transform in the classroom by being in character,” Vecchia said.
Sean DeBettencourt, the class’s teacher, agrees. “The theatrical performances end up increasing their long-term retention,” he said. “I heard kids as old as high school and beyond talk about this as one of their main memories from sixth or eighth grade. They remember the stuff we cover.”
Many students enjoy the plays, for different reasons. Some take it very seriously, doing their best to embody their character. For others, it’s a chance to let loose and have a little fun. “Either way, it’s a refreshing and new way to teach history,” DeBettencourt said. “Taking pictures of them having fun and dressing up doesn’t hurt the cause, either.”