Teaching Social Studies Through the Performing Arts

“Teaching Social Studies Through the Performing Arts,” is an article written by Binta M. Colley, which explores a unique graduate program opportunity involving combining the theater with the education of Social Studies.

Because of its nature, the concept of Social Studies is an ever-changing subject. The emphasis throughout the years has shifted from personal development and civic education, to discipline or subject-based, to inquiry-based, to textbook-driven and more. This constant changing and misrepresentation of Social Studies often causes the content in the primary grades to become trite, redundant, and unlikely to truly help student accomplish goals in regards to Social Studies. However, according to Brophy et al, “we believe that the problem lies not with the topics addressed within the expanding framework, but with the way that these topics have been taught” (Brophy).

In order to take this thought one step further, a pilot project was created for aspiring teachers in different graduate programs. This program was geared on giving teachers a better understanding of how the performing arts can be used to help in Social Studies education.

This project consisted of three components: studying the script of the play, attending an actual performance of the play in a professional theatre production, and participating in four workshops. The first workshop happened right before seeing the professional production at the Manhattan Theatre Club. During this first workshop, the participants were given an introduction to script elements and the use of monologues to convey emotion, place, and events.

Photo: Public Domain

The second workshop gave an opportunity for the participants to reflect on what they had saw in the performance, as well as possible ways this could be effective in the classroom. They were asked to focus on four specific questions:

  • What elements make a dramatic scene?
  • What did each character want?
  • What action did the characters take to get what they wanted?
  • What went on before and what will happen next?

After reflecting and answering the questions, they were prompted to discover that these questions were always those that could be asked of any historical event. Then, each of the participants were asked to write a monologue based on an actual newspaper article- the story of a murder in Milwaukee where a man was beaten to death by a group of adolescents and teenagers.They discussed different character perspectives and overall themes they wanted portrayed in their monologues as these characters (Colley).

During the third workshop, they continued to work on these monologues. Each participant did a reading of his/her own work, and then they worked as a team to create a skit based on what each of them had written, which featured, “…a brief montage to introduce the audience to the storyline, and then a one-act play to present the entire story. They discussed the point of view (POV) of each character, and determined the order in which each character would be presented” (Colley, 6). The education director from the theater group attended and also gave suggestions. The skit was rehearsed in the same manner that it would have been done for a stage production, and a final script was created.

For the fourth and final workshop of the project, the participants took a final look at the script, and then did an actual performance of it, which was recorded so they could all watch it themselves. Each of the student had explored the topic from many perspectives, and had received what Efland (2002) referred to as “a hypertext exposure. In other words, they understood drama as a complex process involving many interrelated pieces that fit together in a particular way.” This whole workshop was taped, first with the input from the teaching artist (the leader of the project), then on their own, in a final performance ran just as it would in a normal theatre setting.

After the project was over, the participant had time to reflect upon their experiences. At the beginning of the project, many teachers were hesitant about the true effect of integrating Theatre into Social Studies. One participant had originally stated, “ At first I was a bit taken back because when you think of drama, you think of having skills to act. And education is one thing, but drama is another.” By the end of the project, the same person regarded, “When she [the facilitator] took us through the steps about how to use a newspaper article to analyze characters and write a plot, it made more sense. I was really moved by the end product.” All of the future teachers involved shared that enlightenment of the positive effect that the performing arts can make on teaching Social Studies.

CC: Vogue
Photo from the new Broadway musical “Hamilton,” based on the biography of Alexander Hamilton.

Reflecting this back into my own interdisciplinarity, it is refreshing to see that work is being done in the field that I wish to pursue. The unique qualities of the performing arts can often aid in assisting many social situation, including education. In my career as a future professional, I truly hope to be doing similar studies, and educating more people about the benefits of integrating the arts into education. In addition, reading this article made it very easy for me to make connections from my performing background to education. Although the participants of the projects could see great effects after the project was over, I was able to think about their journey in regards to performance and education, and really ponder why the use of theatre, monologuing, and dramatization has such an impact on education. For example, by putting myself in the perspectives of the teachers performing their monologues, I could see how identifying with one character, and truly taking on the emotional, mental, and physical perspective of that character, could give the learner an overall understanding of not only the events that happened, but why they happened, what affected them, how the experience made them feel, etc. Combining the performing arts with the education of Social Studies provides a valuable opportunity for learning.



Brophy, J., Alleman, J. and O’Mahony, C. 2000. “Elementary school social studies: Yesterday, today, and tomorrow”. In In American education: Yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Ninety-ninth yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, Part II, Edited by: Good, T. 256–312. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Colley, Binta M. (2012) Teaching Social Studies Through the Performing Arts, The Educational Forum, 76:1, 4-12, DOI: 10.1080/00131725.2011.627986


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