Stage Presents
A student guide to giving public programs

A note to teachers and administrators
Why do public programs?

Marcella Sherfy

Why give a program? | What do you want to accomplish? | Plan early and often | Take responsibility but get everyone involved
Getting the word out | Give your program life, lights, and action | Presents from your stage
Some event possibilities | Event to-do-list

Heritage Project students are invited to return gifts of scholarship to their communities. One way of doing that is by hosting a public program.

Knowledge is a gift—the world’s most enchanting, enduring, and useable. Long after the digital camera you got this Christmas grows obsolete, you’ll remember what you learned from the gentleman you interviewed for your heritage project. You’ll recollect the kind wisdom of the older woman who shared her family’s quilt history, and after the tape recorder had been turned off, shared her homemade cookies too. In some way, you will recall the insight and perspective that all your mentors took time to offer you—the gifts of their experience and memory.

The gifts that matter most to us are the ones we should share with others. From the beginning, the Montana Heritage Project founders understood that. Liz Claiborne, Art Ortenberg, and the staffs of the Library of Congress and the Montana Historical Society felt that Heritage Project students should complete their work by giving gifts of scholarship back to their communities.

Sharing what you have learned is the right thing to do for many reasons. First, we all draw upon what others know. It is how understanding grows in the world. Second, it is the best way to deepen our understanding of what we have researched. Organizing our information and observations so we can share it with others requires us to do the harder thinking we need to do if we are to “master” content and refine our understanding. Teaching is a powerful way of learning because we have to clarify our own thoughts in order to explain them to someone else. And finally, passing on our insights sets an example for others in the community. It strengthens the spirit of sharing which every community needs to stay alive.

Your class and your teacher will want to discuss what gifts of scholarship may be most fitting at the end of your project. You can create a book that you give away or sell. You can catalog a photograph collection or compile a newspaper index for your community library and historical society. You can write newspaper columns and design interpretive markers. All of these methods of transforming your knowledge into gifts for the community are very valuable.

Public programs have been especially popular ways for students to share their findings with parents, elders, local historical societies, and classmates. In this article, we’ll focus primarily on why and how to host a live public event, to give presents from a stage.

Why choose to give a program?

How will the projects be presented?

Your class will probably end up collecting a lot of information during the course of study, so how will that information be presented?
Townsend students stage an original play, written by drama teacher Julie Diehl, entitled Broadwater Crazy Quilt: A Patchwork of Quirky Characters and Memorable Events.
Students promenade across the stage as they present the 100-year history of Bigfork by staging a fashion show, highlighting fashions from 1901, 1951, and 2001.
Chester staff and students hold an all-school fair, celebrating life on the Hi-Line. Heritage Fairs are popular but a lot of work.
Third graders pay close attention to one of the Roundup presentations. Students completed many research projects, so they set up stations where community members could view their work.

Since you can give your gifts of scholarship to your community in many ways, why choose to give a public program, especially since it’s likely to be hard work and scary? The fact that it’s hard work and scary is part of the answer. Giving a program in front of other people requires us to put our skills and talents on the line. It demands the best of us. Like a sports event, a public program lets the world see just how much we’ve learned, how much time and energy we’ve invested in developing our insight and understanding, and the depth of our community research. We demonstrate how skilled we are and how invested we are in thanking others by sharing our knowledge with them. When we put our hearts and minds on the line, it commands other people’s attention. They admire us and are grateful for our work.

Other gifts—such as indexes, catalog lists, and articles—may also be valuable and certain to be used. But even these are enhanced when they are introduced through public programs, which may be the best way to call your community’s attention to them.

Finally, public programs are themselves gifts to communities that often hunger for interesting reasons to gather and celebrate. In the past, communities often enjoyed a rich array of community-wide concerts and Christmas programs, chautauqua events, all-town baseball games, and lecture series brought in by the Kiwanis or Lions clubs. Some of those events survive, but many do not. The reasons that once caused us to gather no longer seem compelling, but we haven’t yet invented new cultural reasons for getting together. The program or event that you offer can add variety and richness to your community life, especially if you’ve really tried to create unusual program content. The very process of drawing people together to watch you—their young people—demonstrate that you have learned about your town and that you care about it. It may be hard for you to realize the power you have to bring people together and to give them reasons for feeling glad they live in that community.

What do you want to accomplish?

Once you decide to offer a public program, spend some time thinking about what you hope the program will accomplish. You’ll be able to design your event more easily when you have a clear goal. You have many options. Your primary goal may be to thank the people you interviewed and those who provided you with other research materials. You may want to organize a “how to” workshop, using what you’ve learned to show others in the community how to use historic newspapers or courthouse records. You may want to offer a more general program for your families and others in the community to introduce them to the highlights of your class’s work. Check out the accompanying sidebar to see just how many options there are for you to consider. And the list is just to get you started thinking. There are many others you may come up with on your own.

The odds are good that you will want to accomplish more than one of these goals. That’s logical and okay. But you are more likely to create a program that pleases you if you outline your primary purposes and then choose activities and presentations most likely to serve those intentions. For instance, if you want to demonstrate to

Venues are important, too

A lot of where you hold your event will depend on how many people you want to invite or how much space you need, but another thing to keep in mind is the atmosphere you want to create.
Libby students opt for an informal picnic-type setting at a historic cook shack on the local museum grounds. A cook in the back is frying made-to-order hamburgers.
Eureka students read the papers they did on local residents at a bookstore, which is a kind of cozy, intellectual atmosphere.
Bigfork residents take a trip down memory lane as they view photos of the area from circa 1901. The photos are on display at the local art gallery.
Simms students invite so many people to their annual Heritage Fair and have so many displays and activities, that the only place in town big enough to hold everyone is the school gym.
community members how they can better use local records, you might want to schedule a day-long “open house” in your library so you can spend individual time with them at a microfilm reader. If your main goal is to thank those who have helped you, you’ll want to develop a specific guest list and invitations. If you want to share your work primarily with your parents, individual exhibits or short multimedia programs on several machines will let each of you show your work to your families. If you want many people in your community to understand your project, a more traditional program with a comprehensive presentation, or a play, or several readings may fit.

Any of these events will let you improve your public presentation skills: speaking, multimedia development, exhibit design, or drama. So, no matter what you do, prepare as well as you possibly can—go all out! Practicing the effort needed to go beyond the ordinary is an important goal in its own right.

Plan early and often

For a community program, there’s no such thing as too much preparation. You know how full your school’s calendar gets, so pick a date well in advance and get it on the school and community calendar. Tell the newspaper and any other organizations in town that keep a “master schedule” of town events. If you wait to set a date, you’ll be quickly frustrated by previously scheduled games, meetings, music programs, church nights, and book clubs.

Next, book a space that fits your event. It might be an auditorium or a meeting room at the bank. Don’t underestimate turnout. Heritage programs tend to attract many community members—even when teachers and students have feared low attendance. Because so many older people in the community are likely to have helped you or be interested in your program, think about a place and a time of day that will make it easy for them to attend. Somewhere in here, you’ll want to pull out a flip-chart and start listing all the tasks that need to be done. See the sidebar entitled “Event to-do list” for a start at that kind of list.

Anticipate mid-course corrections. Along the way, especially as you work with others, you’ll get new ideas. Your research and the contacts that you make will suggest different options. Not only is it okay to rethink your event and change your plans with those in mind, you wouldn’t want to do anything else.

Take responsibility for your program but get everyone involved

Every student involved in heritage project work should have a role in planning and presenting. You can learn a lot by being responsible for most parts of this program: organizing, working together, figuring out what will work in your town. Everyone should have jobs to do. Though your teacher is a good resource and a good place to go for advice or perspective, don’t count on him or her to be in charge. Students need to be in charge of the program.

How will the projects be displayed?

There are many different ways to display your project.
A student in Corvallis explains the video his class created to a community member. Students set up several stations displaying their work.
A Libby student explains to community members the work that went into creating a poster about Libby in 1910. If several display panels or posters are created, find a lot of tables and easels.
Corvallis community members take an interest in the 100-year history of the school. This exhibit includes ten framed photos with interpretive text.
PowerPoint presentations are a good way to present your research to the community. The PowerPoint can be as simple (just text) or as complex (sound or video inserted) as you’d like.

An important key to spreading the word widely and ensuring a good turnout is to involve lots of people. You can ask for help from your parents, other classes in your school, your principal and superintendent, your local historical society, and other community groups. Some people will be short of time, but if you ask lots of people you’ll be amazed at how much others are willing to do. Almost everyone is honored to be invited to make a successful event even more successful. Some organizations like the opportunity to be more visible or raise a little money for their own needs. For instance, if you choose to offer a light supper before an evening program while people browse through your exhibits, a local group can fix the food and turn it into a modest fund raiser.

Early in the planning process, organize a meeting with a representative from each group that you believe might be willing to help: the band teacher, if you’d like to involve the school band; a few parents of Heritage Project students; and delegates from the community museum or historical society or other organizations. Try to have a written list of all the tasks that need to be done and the supplies you’ll need. Tell them what you would like to accomplish with your program and what tasks need to be done ahead of time or on the day of the event. See if they like what you have proposed to do. Ask for their ideas. Ask for volunteers. It’s fine, also, to ask for donations of supplies, especially if you will give enthusiastic credit to the donors.

However, keep in mind that this event is yours. You can tackle most of the work needed to put on a good program, from creating invitations and programs to developing PowerPoint presentations, to making refreshments, to doing dishes and sweeping up. So, ask for help when it will be an honor or of benefit to others—not just because you don’t want to do what is needed. Finally, remember that you want this to be a gift to your community. You want everyone to enjoy the occasion and to come back next year. You can use that goal to help you decide how to involve others in the event.

Getting the word out

You’ll be very disappointed if you go to a lot of effort to host a program and no one comes. While there are no guarantees, you can do a lot to make sure that doesn’t happen. First, create a list of who you want to be there, based on your goals. If you want just your parents, that will help you decide how to market the event. If you want just your interviewees, that will help you shape your publicity plan. If you want the whole town to come, plus your parents and your mentors, you can tailor your advertising accordingly. Whoever your intended audience, you will probably use a combination of invitation strategies.

For small groups of people (parents and mentors), written and mailed invitations will work. Your class can design and print those or you can work with computer and graphic arts students. I recommend that you handwrite addresses, so that folks receiving them don’t assume that they’ve gotten another piece of pre-printed junk mail. Be sure that you correctly spell everyone’s name and address.

If you want to invite the whole community, it’s a good idea to take this into account at the beginning of your research project. Some research topics appeal to a much broader audience than others, and if your aim is a large audience, you’re better off studying something that affects or interests many people. Also, the community members whom you interview or enlist to help you as experts or advisers are likely to attend, so the more people you include along the way the easier it will be to get a crowd to attend your program.

Advertise your event

It’s awful when you throw a party and no one shows up. Make sure that doesn’t happen by advertising your event.

Call the local television station to see if they’d do a story on your project. This reporter from a Helena station is filming a Veterans Recognition Night in Townsend. The students used the free advertising to send an invitation to veterans who may be interested in having their stories recorded.

Newspapers are generally more amenable to doing a story on local projects than television stations are. A story a few days to a week before your event will help get people there. Paid ads also work, but of course, they cost money.

Large reader boards are also a good way of publicizing your event—and they’re free. Talk to area businesses—especially businesses located on busy streets—about advertising your event.

You should also plan on writing a story for your local newspaper. Include pictures of people in the community who have helped you or photos of class members conducting interviews or researching. Student “by-lines” may be even more compelling than a teacher’s. Deliver your material in person to the paper in both printed and digital form. Ask whether you need to make changes in the format so that they can use your story easily. Ask when they are going to run your story, and see if they’ll also do a short reminder the day of the event. The editor may be more likely to run your copy if you also buy advertising space. Talk with your teacher about whether the Project budget could help with those costs.

No matter what forms of advertisement that you use, include specific information and plan on making personal follow-ups. People want to know how to dress, what to expect, whether there will be refreshments, and how long to plan on staying. Give them as much of that detail as you can. As you get close to your program, call and remind the folks that you most want to come about the event—especially if you are honoring them. Nothing else even comes close to the power of a personal phone call or visit when it comes to getting people to come to public events.

Don’t be shy. If your town or bank has an outdoor message board, use it. Send notices to local access television or public service announcements and talk shows on radio stations that air in your vicinity.

Give your program life, lights, and action

Music is a popular choice to include in a program. Events can include historical pieces or popular music. You can ask community members to participate, as students do in Simms (left), or you can ask the band or choir teacher if they’d provide music, as Ronan students do (bottom two photos).
 

In all the bustle of promoting your program, don’t neglect putting together a program that you’d want to attend. You probably wouldn’t want to listen to two hours of talking. You’d want, instead, to be informed, entertained, recognized, fed, kept busy, and respected. You can create an event with this kind of power and energy by thinking about events that you and people on your planning committee like to attend.

To get to specifics, you can mentally move through your event picturing what will work, what your audience will like, and what will keep them entertained. What follows is merely the beginning of possibilities.

Consider greeters, someone to say hello to everyone who comes in. You might assign students who did interviews to meet their subjects and escort them to reserved chairs. Think about name tags for anyone you’re recognizing. Try a guest book that lets everyone who attends sign in. You can also modify a guest book for other specific purposes. For instance, you can use it to gather subjects for upcoming research projects. If you do this, be sure to leave a place for contact information.

Try printed programs. They reassure people about what’s going to happen. You can include a specific list of people that you want to thank. Programs make great souvenirs for grandparents or a mom who likes to scrapbook.

Few things are more powerful than music. Just as the pep band comes to games and parades to whip up your spirits, a band, a choir, or recorded historic music may have the same effect on your event, especially when you link it to the time period and the themes you’ve been studying. Audiences like to sing-along to music that they know and love. This also enlivens an audience after a session of listening passively. Don’t underestimate our need for recognition. Most people enjoy hearing their names announced from a podium or being called to the front for a certificate or standing up in the audience to be thanked. A handshake and a hug in front of the community is something that many older folks will remember as a highlight of their year.

Think about refreshments or even a dinner. People enjoy good food while they’re visiting.
If you’re going to have a guest book, it’s nice to have helpful people sitting near it to visit with folks as they come in.

Food is important. Even when many of us are limiting carbs and calories, we rely on food to make folks feel welcome and at home. Whether you offer a relish tray or cookies or dinner served by your local 4-H club, food helps us socialize. Put the coffee pot on ahead of time. Some seniors like to arrive early and enjoy some coffee while they wait and visit.

Think carefully about how long the event will end up being. It should be long enough that people are glad to have come, but not so long that they grow weary. Intermissions may help if you have a lot that you want to accomplish.

Don’t be afraid to add new twists. Some schools include dances and raffles and quizzes that involve the audience. Some display exhibits that they’ve created over the years. You’ll have good ideas on how to keep your townsfolk engaged.

Presents from your stage

You can choose many ways to give what you have learned back to your community, but don’t underestimate how valuable a community program may be. Hosting an event will summon skills that you and your classmates may have overlooked or not recognized. Even more important, a great community party—a gathering that celebrates the understanding forged between young people and older people—may be treasured and remembered by your town more than you will know. You will be giving your town the best present of all.

 

A note to teachers and administrators
Why do public programs?

In Horace’s School, a sequel to Horace’s Compromise, Theodore R. Sizer, founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, makes a compelling case for public exhibitions as the key to accountability in education. Public exhibitions are complex performances which allow us to assess complex learning.

In a public exhibition, a student’s knowledge is on the line. He or she has to do in-depth research, prepare the presentation, and be ready to defend it.

In nearly any public presentation, a student can be assessed for communication skills, forms of inquiry, and the way he or she puzzled things out. In specific presentations, such as a project focusing on veterans, students can be assessed for historical knowledge, knowledge gleaned from literature, and research and writing skills. In an ambitious project, such as building a Habitat for Humanity house, there are many possibilities for assessment. Besides the obvious math skills involved in carpentry, students could prepare an Environmental Impact Statement and be assessed for history, science, and research and writing skills. Or they could study architecture and be assessed for their knowledge of art. Perhaps they could prepare a rationale for why the home should be built by researching the plight of the homeless or working poor. This could set them up to be assessed in philosophy and sociology.

It’s commonly agreed that students should have to meet high and challenging standards but we can’t seem to agree on how to assess their progress toward those standards. Theodore Sizer and many educators around the country believe we won’t meet quality standards without quality assessments, and that public exhibitions should be part of our assessment repertoire.



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