American History Comes to Life at St. Agnes School

ARLINGTON — Steadying himself with a cane, Casey Scully eases into a chair and tells his "grandchildren" about the hardships of the 1930s. "Grandpa" is stooped over and a bit forgetful — he’s also in eighth grade. In a skit written by teacher Douglas Loy’s American history class at St. Agnes School in Arlington, Scully and other students shared what they learned about the Depression. History plays and projects are not unusual in eighth grade, but in Loy’s class weekly projects make American history come to life. You can see the excitement in students’ eyes. With strands of red, white and blue lights and a glowing, electric American flag overhead, Scully and fellow eighth-grader Lauren Regan provided a classroom tour through much of American history. Starting in one corner, Scully displayed handmade booklets of basic Civil War facts, including "The Civil War for Dummies." He pointed out "photos" — recalling 1860s daguerreotypes — drawn by students, noting "the Civil War was the first war to be photographed." Regan explained that the carpetbags hanging above were made by pairs of student Reconstruction era carpetbaggers and scalawags and contained maps of their journey, letters of fraud, land deeds, and information on how they had helped freed slaves. Moving along to a tabletop display, Scully described a model 1917 town, which was constructed by the class. Each building includes a list of nine facts relevant to 1917. Students read old newspapers or used their history text as reference and inspiration for projects. Another project features posters announcing fictional speeches by historic characters such as labor activist Mother Jones speaking at the Kennedy Center. Some items gleaned from students’ own family history are included on the shelves of the class’s 1920s museum. A bulletin board featuring a miniature Uncle Sam Wants You recruiting poster commemorates World War I. Recently, the class held a Roaring Twenties party. Students eagerly participated in costume and in character, portraying trumpeter Louis Armstrong, disgraced baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson and gangster Al Capone among others. Tables were set with beautiful tablecloths, flowers, candles and popcorn. Hors d’oeuvres were served to flappers and gentlemen in spangled party hats. The school community was invited to the party to learn something about the Jazz Age. During Scully’s grandfatherly portrayal, he pointed his cane at mementoes displayed in pockets of a garment bag. A newspaper, he explained, was used as a cover to keep one warm and known as a "Hoover blanket." A pocket of dirt recalled hard times on the family farm in the Dust Bowl. The skits are well-acted, but presented for more than amusement. Afterward, Loy, a veteran teacher of 15 years who is in his first year at St. Agnes, peppers the class with questions. They are well-prepared with answers. "During the Depression you were thankful for whatever you had," he reminds them. "Why was Hoover seen as a bad guy?" Loy asks. "He didn’t do much for the farmers," a student answers. "Why not?" Loy continues. "Because he was for the rich," another student adds. "A little bit more…" Loy urges. The teacher goes around the room. "Who was the next president?" "FDR" comes the answer. "What can you say about his first election? … What about his second election?" A second group presents its skit followed by more questions. "What illegal business might people have been involved in that Colleen was talking about that ‘made her Daddy so rich’?" "Alcohol," a student answers. "What about the conscription money they had?" Loy asks. "A little bit more," he urges a student. He explains that when separate counties started making their own conscription money, "it was pretty scary. It goes back to states’ rights." Loy asked students to think about conversations they have with their own families. "What was important to these people?" he asked them to consider. "One more question," Loy said. "Both of these plays had mixed generations. What does it say about our society’s take on senior citizens? How did the two families relate to the older generation?" "We take them for granted and they have things to tell us," a student answered. 

Copyright ?2002 Arlington Catholic Herald.  All rights reserved.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2002