Students Explore Roots of American Violence in New Collaborative Project

This spring students at the Secondary Academy, a UFT charter school in East New York, will explore the roots of American violence through an interdiciplinary program called (Out)Laws & Justice (OL&J). A collaboration between Steinhardt’s program in educational theatre, NYU Partnership Schools, the United Federation of Teachers Teacher Center, and the non-profit organization, OL&J, the program engages students in American history through English language arts and educational drama.

Through the lens of the Wild West, secondary school students will study the core values that drove 19th century westward expansion, as well as the legacy of those values in their own lives. The program uses educational drama to provide an in-depth inquiry into the vision, myths, and realities that shaped the life, thought, and politics of a new nation. Student explore the roots of American violence in the Wild West, as well as the ‘urban frontier,’ where they live today. The 22 week program helps students to sharpen their critical thinking, improve their literacy skills, and discover alternative responses to actual conflcts. At the end of the program the students write plays and perform them for their families and peers.

Joseph McDonald, a professor in Steinhardt’s Department of Teaching and Learning, notes that the power of the program comes from creative immersion in historical texts and artifacts that challenge assumptions.

“Who was Jesse James? Is he a ‘western’ outlaw or a confederate guerilla? As you explore questions like these through dramatic encounters, history comes to life,” McDonald says.

By providing professional development workshops for NYU students, professional teaching artists, and classroom teachers, participants learn how to integrate the OL&J curriculum into their classroom.

“It’s an ‘ah ha!’ moment when teachers see students learning through drama. They want to learn even more about using educational theatre techniques in their classrooms,” says Philip Taylor, associate professor and director of Steinhardt’s program in educational theatre. “This curriculum appeals to the sensibilities of urban youth because it gives them a means to examine their own values and behaviors.”

The cornerstone of the curriculum is the American legal doctrine known as “no duty to retreat.” This law allowed Americans to use deadly force to protect their homes and some historians have argued that the ‘no duty to retreat’ law formed a unique American frame of mind, which still contribute to the nation’s homicide rates. ‘Stand your ground’ laws are on the books in as many as sixteen states. OL&J students explore the contradictions of the deeply embedded cultural belief that the measure of “a true man” is that he never backs down from an argument, as well as school rules that prohibit fighting as a way of resolving conflict.

“Adolescents are neurologically wired to seek risk and novelty,” says Citron. “The choice to be a hero or an outlaw is a decision about identity that they confront: Should I be a hero or an outlaw; can I be both at the same time? The histories of those who inhabited the Old West capture their curiosity and draws them into a dramatic world that intermingles the research of primary documents with their own insights and imagination.”

(Out)Laws & Justice and Steinhardt’s program in educational theatre are working together to establish a three-year model program to demonstrate how teaching can be improved by integrating educational drama into secondary history and language arts curricula. The public school program was developed by OL&J founder and executive director, Lisa Citron, and visiting assistant professor David Montgomery in Steinhardt’s program in educational theatre.

The Carroll and Milton Petrie Foundation and the Dana Foundation provided support for professional development workshops for primary and secondary classroom teachers.

Photo above — quote and photo from a student production — provided by (Out)Laws & Justice.