Most students learn American history by reading dry textbooks. The fifth-graders at Marquez Charter School learn history by performing it.
Inside their school auditorium in Pacific Palisades, these 9- and 10-year-olds last week were rehearsing "Miracle in Philadelphia," a musical co-written by their teacher about the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
"Hear ye, hear ye," proclaimed Wyn Delano, playing the part of George Washington at the meeting of delegates. "The first question we face is: Do we try to repair the Articles of Confederation, or do we start discussing a new system of government?"
It's been 215 years since Washington started the nation down the path toward the government we now know. But Wyn and his classmates say that history springs to life when they reenact the raucous debates that produced the Constitution and sing Broadway-like numbers about those seminal meetings.
"The lines make you feel like you're really debating in the Philadelphia State House," Wyn explained. "We're learning about the biggest moment in our country's history. It shaped who we are today."
Similar connections occur when the fifth-graders perform two other musicals written by Marquez's fifth-grade teacher Jeff Lantos and his friend, composer Bill Augustine.
The public performances of "Miracle" in December, with students in costumes and wigs, will mark the seventh year that Lantos has staged the play. In March, the fifth-graders will put on "Hello Louisiana" about the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition into the nation's new frontier. In June, they'll do "Water and Power" about the Industrial Revolution and the struggle for workers' rights.
Lantos, who combines a love of history with a background in music and theater, wrote the book and lyrics for the plays; he took much of the dialogue in "Miracle" from the historical record or from published letters. He and Augustine, a jazz pianist, donated their works to Marquez, but earn small fees if other schools perform them.
Marquez's fifth-graders also learn history the traditional way four days a week--reading textbooks, taking tests, writing reports. On Wednesday mornings, however, they put their books aside and descend upon the school auditorium to take another turn playing out the muggy summer of 1787.
"It's stealth learning," Lantos said of his plays. "The rewards are great--the enthusiasm, the retention of the material."
For example, in one song about the virtues of the Constitution, the students sing:
It separates the powers,
'N unifies the states,
The feeble federal government,
Say goodbye to weakness,
Say goodbye to fear,
We'll defend our people,
Out on the frontier.
Acting out history has turned 9-year-old Jacob Witten, who portrays Patrick Henry, on to history for the first time.
"I used to dread social studies because it was so boring," he said. "But now I look forward to Wednesdays because we get play practice. It's history, only it's 20,000 times more interesting."
Ten-year-old Dylan Palladino put it this way: "It's like going back in time and seeing what happened in America."
Lantos and his co-director, fellow teacher Michelle Conn, have plenty of admirers, including a group of researchers from UCLA.
A UCLA study this year found that Lantos' students retain more information about American history than their peers from nearby schools.
The university researchers gave a history test to sixth-graders at Paul Revere Middle School who had come from Marquez and other feeder elementary schools.
The Marquez students got the highest scores. The researchers looked into various possible reasons and statistical flukes and concluded, with much praise, that Lantos' program was the primary cause for the students' achievement.
"It remains to be seen whether a larger-scale implementation would yield the same effects if Mr. Lantos were not the lead teacher. But clearly, a larger-scale implementation and evaluation is warranted," wrote the group from UCLA's psychology department.
Lantos' students can throw out historical facts the way other kids spout off baseball scores.
They can tell you, for example, that the Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation, which had granted independence to each state and did not give Congress the authority to collect taxes or solve many national problems.
They also can tell you how the large and small states argued over power and how delegates from Connecticut, led by Roger Sherman, put forward the compromise that resolved the impasse. It led to two legislative houses--one based on equal representation for each state ( the Senate) and the other based on proportional representation (the House of Representatives).
And they can tell you how the delegates from the Northern and Southern states fought over issues of slavery, finally deciding that slaves would count as three-fifths of a person in the total for a state's representation. The Southern delegates wanted to count each slave as a full person to boost their states' numbers.