Exploring Quaker Testimonies through the Arts

Students get a closeup view of history and let their lives speak onstage.

In 7th grade, Sidwell Friends students take a course unlike any other. Entitled “Quakerism and the Arts,” the class gives students the chance to incorporate library research, group discussion, playback theatre, and analysis of primary source materials into a collaborative project—all focusing on core Quaker tenets.

To complete the project, the class splits into groups. Each one concentrates on the role Quakers played in specific social movements from American history, from the Civil Rights movement to protests against the Vietnam War.

One group of students explored how the Quaker testimony of equality—the belief that “there is that of God in everyone”—affected the abolitionist movement in the 18th and 19th centuries. This group visited the School’s archives and interpreted artifacts from the Earl G. Harrison Quaker Rare Book Collection, which includes a 1777 manumission document from a Quaker who decided to release a man he’d enslaved from bondage. The group also deciphered a handwritten letter from 1847, in which a Friend wrote to his family about attending an anti-slavery convention that featured Frederick Douglass and Lucretia Mott.

“I thought it was cool that we went to the archives, and that we got to see documents from a really long time ago,” noted one 7th grader.

The same group met with Middle School Principal Rachel Kane, who challenged them to not think of slavery as simply a moment in our historical past. Many students were surprised to learn that slavery still exists today, and that more people are currently enslaved than were during the transatlantic slave trade. “Why aren’t we talking about it more?” wondered one student.

Other groups study topics such as Quaker humanitarian efforts during 20th century wartime, conscientious objection to military service during the Civil War, and Sidwell Friends’ own encounter with the civil rights movement, when the School began integration in 1956. No matter the topic, students’ projects always culminate in lessons taught by each group of students to the rest of the class, followed by playback theatre performances.

In this form of artistic expression, students play roles such as conductor, musician, teller, and actor as they share what they’ve learned with their peers. Unlike most dramatic productions, in which actors memorize a script authored by a single playwright, playback theatre calls on the audience to share personal stories that performers act out. In the “Quakerism and the Arts” class, students tell the stories of historical Quaker figures while other students act out their stories. Playback theatre helps students become active listeners, because they need to make sure they capture the facts and convey the emotions of each person’s story.

One group used a playback technique called “pairs” to depict Quaker civil rights leader Bayard Rustin’s conflicted feelings over his pride in having planned the historic March on Washington and his sadness at having been forced behind the scenes due to his sexual orientation. Another group used a “fluid sculpture” to represent the experience of being the first African American student at Sidwell Friends, when the School first integrated.

Enacting these moments from Quaker history allows students to truly embody the testimonies they are learning about. As one student put it, “It was more fun and interesting than just reading a textbook. It really helped us visualize life in the past.”

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