Wednesday, March 7, 2018

How I Worked Skits in My History Class


Many materials I sell were designed to serve as basis for skits, which my seventh and eighth grade students loved. What I called “skits” were meant to last an entire period.

(I will give an address at the end of this if you might be interested; but if not you may be able to use many of the same ideas.)

I believe my materials are ideal for enrichment, if you have students interested in in-depth coverage that textbooks do not provide. If you have a student interested in the Civil War there are three handouts on the Battle of Gettysburg. These include Gettysburg: Human Interest; Gettysburg: Two of the Wounded; Gettysburg: “Terrible beyond Description.”

(I developed the story of the two wounded soldiers at Gettysburg after I retired; but I believe there would be an excellent writing opportunity associated with this selection, as explained below).
Belt buckle from the Battle of Gettysburg.
If I was still teaching I might ask students to write
about what this soldier thought after he recovered.


First: In my class students used many of these detailed readings to prepare for skits. The Puritans of New England and “Remember the Ladies” (detailing the contributions of women in the American Revolution) both served as excellent foundations.

Often we had multiple readings that might apply. When we studied the Civil War, I had classes read A Rebel Soldier’s War (provided free), Recollections of a Private Soldier and The Battle of Bull Run. If we had time we read Elisha Rhodes’ Civil War and Gettysburg: “Terrible beyond Description.” The Civil War Diary of John Ransom might interest students. Again, I can’t say for sure. It was written after I retired.

Second: I always asked for volunteers for any skit. My students were expected to do four projects during the year and a full-period skit counted as one. If you don’t do a lot of projects, you might offer extra credit. I also allowed students who performed well to skip tests.

I can say I never had trouble getting volunteers. Often some of the “weakest” students performed beautifully.

Done right, these exercises put students—usually three, four or five worked together—front and center in every class.

I felt that was a huge plus.

Third: I always took time to explain to volunteers the basic structure of the skit, make sure they had good roles picked, and allowed them time to discuss ideas on how they wanted to perform.

Allow me to focus on a skit about the Civil War as a good example. For this performance I normally asked one student to take the role of Sam Watkins (A Rebel Soldier’s War), a second to take the role of Frank Wilkeson (Recollections of a Private Soldier), and let others pick their roles. I had girls who asked to be “wives” of soldiers and agreed to talk about what husbands did during the war. We might have Sarah Seelye appear, a young woman who served in the Union army in disguise (mentioned briefly in The Battle of Bull Run). The options were nearly limitless.

Many of the finest ideas came from students themselves.

My favorite performance of all time was turned in by Ryan (alias), a severe stutterer, who asked to do a skit based on Sam Watkins’ life and eventually went up in front of his class alone.


Fourth: I explained to students that they absolutely must study the material, but assured them I would never ask questions designed to trip them up. I would not ask Sam Watkins:

“How many men did your army lose at the Battle of Perrysburg?”

My approach would be to ask open-ended questions whenever possible:

“Sam, you saw a great deal of bloodshed during the war? Can you tell us about some of your worst experiences?”


“Frank, you were only fifteen when you enlisted. What made you want to go off to war?”

Or a question for all members of the group:

“What did you think army life was going to be like? Were you excited to have a chance to fight?”

Naturally, it was important to shape questions based on what performers seemed to know. If a girl, playing the part of a soldier’s wife, knew a great deal about the Battle of Antietam, where her husband was “killed,” I asked for detail. I tried to pose questions that would allow for humor. In one skit a young lady named Sarah took the role of a Southern widow and brought tissues to class and kept honking her nose, in comical fashion, and weeping over the death of her beloved during the skit. The class audience was drawn in, especially when Sarah kept shredding tissue into smaller and smaller pieces.

So I said:

“Sarah, I know this is hard; but did your husband have any pet names for you…I mean, before he was killed?”

“He used to call me ‘Sugar Muffin,’” Sarah replied and started to cry all the harder.

Gimmicks, like Sarah with her tissue, helped keep the audience interested in what peers were saying.

Other favorite examples: the two boys who bought a pig’s heart and brought it to class for a skit on the Aztecs, the two girls who did an entire skit from inside a TV, and any skit where we could use sheets and interview “ghosts.” The broom and the pancakes will be described below.

Fifth: I told volunteers to be ready to help each other out. If one member of the skit seemed confused by a question others might interject. I posed as many questions as possible to all the members of the group. I wanted kids to succeed as every good teacher does.

In a Civil War skit such questions might include:

“What advantages eventually allowed the North to win the war?”

“What were your generals like?”

“Were your men usually well supplied?”

“Was there any point at which you said to yourself, ‘I think now, yes, we are going to win/lose this war’?”

“Did you have any funny experiences during the war?”

Sixth: I asked members of the audience to ask at least one question. I counted this as a minor grade, 3/3 A. Sometimes, for good questions, or for asking several, I gave a bonus point or two, 4/3 or 5/3 A+. I printed a class roster and lined out each student as they asked a question, keeping track that way.

It was important to steer the audience away from questions which might be picky, unclear, or aimed at tricking members of the presenting group. Such questions could deflate a skit.

Seventh: Even simple props could make a difference. Sarah’s tissue trick is a perfect example. In a skit about women during the American Revolution (“Remember the Ladies”), giving Mrs. Day a broom allowed for a little humor. I liked to ask the girl playing that role if she had any favorite “moves” with the broom. Could she show us how she went about battering the British officer?

In another story about the Nevada silver rush (I’m still working on perfecting the reading on this topic), it was said one miner could throw a pancake up his chimney, run outside his cabin, and catch it on the way down.

A frying pan and a couple of pre-made pancakes or frozen waffles allowed members of a skit to “demonstrate” their pancake-tossing skills. Having a frozen waffle ricochet off the classroom ceiling made for a little fun.

Eighth: I trusted students. I once had four young men ask to do a skit on the U.S. government—an idea all their own. I asked how they intended to do it. Three would be branches of government, they said, played as superheroes, complete with capes. In one case a boy wore gym shorts and red tights. The fourth, People Man, would try to keep the others in line.

They did a fabulous job. (I told them I couldn’t have come up with that idea in a thousand years.)

Reality check: Not every skit worked. When I was a new teacher we set up a shorter skit based on the Boston Massacre. This involved six or seven colonists throwing “snowball” paper wads at British guards protecting the Custom’s House.

If you’re a veteran teacher you already know what went wrong. The “snowballs” were a bad idea and it was worse when most of the class decided to join the fray.

It turned epically bad when a student in the role of Redcoat commander decided to wave my wooden pointer like a sword. Before I could warn him to be careful he struck Darryl, a “rebellious colonist,” squarely on the head.

Darryl did what any “rebellious colonist” in that situation would do. Darryl bled.

We never did that skit again.

The good news: on a typical day, when I had six classes, say four volunteers in each skit, I’d probably award 18 A’s and 4 B’s and one or two C’s or lower, for long skits.

Kids were really good at this kind of work.

You’re a teacher, though. You know. Some students are going to volunteer and fail to prepare.

Ah! The joy of watching a skit bomb and having half a period go to waste! I once had four young men volunteer to talk about cowboy life. From their answers you couldn’t tell if they were cowboys or car salesmen. After twenty minutes, we pulled the plug.

I would have been justified awarding four F’s. I served in the Marines before I taught, however. So I marched the quartet to the hall and chewed them out, channeling my Parris Island drill instructor. As always, I wanted them to succeed. I gave them a choice. Take their F’s or volunteer for some future skit and study next time. All four chose the second option.

I still remember Adam, who was naturally very funny in class. He did four skits over the remainder of the year and earned A’s every time. The other boys redeemed themselves too.

Odds and ends: Over the years I saw a number of great one-person skits and all kinds with two, three, four or five participants. If we had six participants (except when holding debates) it seemed one person ended up being squeezed out and had little chance to show what he or she knew. Occasionally, I talked with students in that situation and simply credited them with a project done; but no grade. Or, I let them volunteer again.

Katie, one of my star students, once asked if she and six friends could do a skit about women in Colonial Days (The Life of Colonial Women). Their plan was to compare with life for modern women. I told Katie I thought seven would be too many. Katie insisted she had a plan to make it work and I gave okay.

She and her friends interviewed their mothers and grandmothers beforehand, adding an extra layer of knowledge. For the skit they sat in a “sewing circle,” with Katie as moderator, three portraying colonial ladies, three talking about life in modern days, all comparing notes. The group took questions from the audience and Katie guided discussion herself. When they finished, it was my pleasure to award seven 100 A+ marks. (In my class, I counted a skit grade the same as a test.)

You could never be sure: We tried a skit on George Washington and his life one year, but it kind of flopped. We tried again the next year with similar results. I gave it up for several years and then (stubbornly) decided to try again.

Failure! Part of any real teacher’s life!

This time, Jessica, one of the girls in class, came to me with a key idea. The reading mentioned Sally Fairfax—George’s first love. Could she, Jessica wanted to know, portray Sally in the skit?

We already had “Martha” and two soldiers from the Continental Army; but I was almost sure this added role would help. It certainly did. In the skit I told “Sally” to make fun of Martha and talk about George and how he “loved her best.” That change made all the difference in most classes.

One of the greatest gimmicks I ever saw employed involved Derek, who played two roles in the Washington performance. First, he put on a mangy looking red wig (we tried to have props for all skits) and pretended to be Martha Washington. My room had two doors and “Martha” would leave by one and moments later Derek, now a “young soldier,” would reenter by the other and tell us why he enlisted in the army, or what it was like during the winter at Valley Forge.

I told volunteers it was up to them to be ready to discuss anything in the reading/s and answer questions about what we covered in class. Again, I always promised I would not intentionally trip them up.

Good skits were fun for the kids involved, for the audience, and for me.

A final caveat: It was surprisingly hard to listen carefully all day to what kids in skits were saying, to play off answers they provided, and adjust questions on the fly.

It was worth it to see kids shine.


Here’s how I describe my all-time favorite skit in my book, Two Legs Suffice: Lessons Learned by Teaching:

When Ken Burns’ documentary on the American Civil War aired in 1990, forty million viewers watched. One source was Co Aytch, a memoir by Sam Watkins, who survived four bloody years of combat. Once Burns alerted me to Watkins’ story, I headed for the bookstore to find a copy. As soon as I read it, I knew students would be interested in what Watkins had to say.[1] 

All I had to do was stitch together parts of his tale and hand it over to teens. The first time I used this handout, A REBEL SOLDIER’S WAR, I let students begin in class, to gauge reaction. Every student, all day, read quietly. No one asked, “What do we have to know this for?”

I put good material in good hands and let Sam do the rest:

    He was born in Columbia, Tennessee on June 26, 1839. Twenty-one years old when shots were fired at Fort Sumter, he enlisted as soon as he heard the news. “In my imagination, I am young again tonight,” he wrote twenty years later.

I hear the fife and drum playing Dixie...I see our fair and beautiful women waving their handkerchiefs and encouraging their sweethearts to go to war. I see the marshaling [gathering] of the hosts for “glorious war.” I see the fine banners waving and hear the cry everywhere, “To arms! To arms!”      

          Like all young men, Watkins was blind to what lay ahead. When news came that the South had crushed the Yanks in the first fight at Bull Run, he and his comrades were disappointed. “We felt that the war was over, and we would have to return home without even seeing a Yankee,” he explained. “Ah, how we envied those who were wounded. We thought at the time that we would have given a thousand dollars to have been in the battle.”

I threw in details, as below, because I knew I had to make history meaningful at the human level if I expected anyone to remember what they were taught after all the tests ended:

    Not long after, the eager soldier had his first taste of combat. It came one night as he was standing guard. “While I was peering through the darkness,” he remembered, “my eyes suddenly fell upon the outlines of a man.” The more he stared the more certain he was that a Yankee was closing in. “I could see his hat and coat—yes, see his gun.” Sam found himself in a “cold sweat” but called out, “Halt, who goes there?” When the shadowy figure failed to answer he advanced. With a sudden lunge he drove his bayonet “through and through” the enemy.
    Too late he realized: “It was a stump.”

Sam and his comrades had their first chance to shoot at targets that shot back when they played a minor role at the Battle of Shiloh (April 1862). Even when that battle ended, Sam found life as a soldier less glamorous than he had hoped:

    “War had become a reality,” he admitted, and the men “were tired of it.” During a winter march freezing rain fell on the troops and “icicles hung from their clothing, guns and knapsacks.” Many suffered from frostbite. Sam’s feet froze. Later his skin “peeled off like a peeled onion.” Another time he told about marching on a hot day in Georgia. Dust in the road was so deep it was “like tramping in a snowdrift, and our eyes, and noses, and mouths, were filled with the dust that arose from our footsteps.”

That fall, Rebel forces moved north into Kentucky, headed for a savage fight at Perryville (October 1862). Both armies were mauled. Watkins described the fearful cost:

Joe Thompson, Billy Bond, Byron Richardson, the two Allen boys—brothers, killed side by side—and Colonel Patterson, who was standing right by my side. He was first shot through the hand, and was wrapping his handkerchief around it, when another ball struck and killed him. I saw W. J. Whitthorne, then a…boy of fifteen years of age, fall, shot through the neck and collarbone. He fell apparently dead, when I saw him all at once jump up, grab his gun and commence loading and firing…I heard him say, “D—n ‘em, I’ll fight ‘em as long as I live.” Whit thought he was killed, but he is living yet. We helped bring off a man by the name of Hodge, with his under jaw shot off, and his tongue lolling out. We brought off Captain Lute B. Irvine. Lute was shot through the lungs and was vomiting blood all the while, and begging us to lay him down and let him die. But Lute is living yet. Also, Lieutenant Woldridge, with both eyes shot out. I found him rambling [wandering] in a briar patch.

Like Burns, I wanted students to feel what it was like for those who fought this terrible war. We followed Sam through four years of service, the South reeling ever closer to defeat, no matter what sacrifices Watkins and his comrades were willing to make, no matter how much courage they displayed, no matter how high the price for soldiers and their families.

          We finished the reading with something Sam said about the sorrows of war. Looking back, every death, he said, had lost its glory. All he saw was “broken homes and broken hearts.”

In fact, if you want to refute the idea that testing is the be-all-end-all of education, Ryan’s story is beyond price. For thirty-three years, one rule I followed was never, ever tell a student, “No, I don’t think you can do it.” Only once did I come close. Ryan was a pleasant young man in one of my afternoon classes, but afflicted with a terrible stutter.

Despite his handicap he was a pleasure to deal with in every way. Ryan loved history and could add good comment to any discussion. If I called on him, though, I had to have extra time. Words came slowly, painfully, and classmates and I had to listen closely to follow his logic. Occasionally, if I was in a hurry, I pretended not to see his raised hand.

One day, I was seated at my desk, while students started the Watkins handout. I reminded anyone who needed to do a project that this would be a good time to come back and talk. Ryan approached.

For obvious reasons he had never volunteered to get up in front of class. Now he said he would like to do a skit on the life of a Civil War soldier, a subject that clearly interested him. I held doubt in check, asking only, “Who will be working with you?”

Stumbling over every syllable, he replied that he would go it alone. “I…I…I wa…wa…wan…wan…want to bu…bu…be a Rebel sol…jer,” he stammered. 

It was in my blood to have faith in teens, to assume each young man and young woman could do more than they knew. Now I wanted to say, “No. You can’t.” I could only imagine how awful his experience would be, exposed in front of an entire class, trying to talk for forty-five minutes. 

The tip of my tongue touched my palette to form the word “no.” I didn’t want this kind-hearted young man to be cut up by the verbal knives of peers. But I couldn’t tell him to lose faith.

I caught myself and nodded approval.

A week later Ryan stood at the front of the room dressed in gray jacket and battered, gray slouch hat. For all intents and purposes he was naked emotionally at age fourteen, risking being stripped of his dignity if he failed. 

It was immediately apparent he had studied long and hard. Ryan wove details from Watkins’ story and half-a-dozen sources into a cohesive narrative. What surprised everyone was the clarity with which he spoke. Perhaps because he was so focused on what he had to tell, his stuttering was less profound. He still stuttered; but his classmates and I sensed we were witnessing something great. Ryan told us about battles in which he played a role, talked about seeing friends die, and mentioned love letters his girl sent from home.

When I asked what she looked like he said she was “b..b..beautiful, with d..dark hair and dark eyes.” He handled every question, stumbled over syllables, but never faltered in his tale, and held center stage the entire period.

When he finished, his class did something I’d never seen before. They rose and gave a standing ovation.

I don’t think I was ever prouder of a student—or a class—or happier to be a teacher.

Two Legs Suffice: Lessons Learned by Teaching is now available on


If you have an interest in any of the readings I sell you can go to my TpT page. If not, I hope a couple of my ideas may be helpful.

[1] If you’ve never read Watkin’s story, I highly recommend it.

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