Having spent several weeks "getting into" the topic with the boys, I began the process of writing the play with three brainstorming sessions--one in each class. I explained to the boys that we would be writing a play about the Oregon Trail, and I explained the idea of the "Old Timer" who would tie together a number of "episodes" from the Trail. Unlike the teachers, the students seemed to immediately understand the function of this character, although it was later necessary to help them avoid relying too much on his narration. I asked the students to help me brainstorm ideas for interesting or important events or stopping places on the trail. These could be specific historical events or more generalized problems or episodes. (The book the teachers were using for their social studies unit was organized geographically, taking each subsequent important stop on the trail as a chapter.) As we brainstormed, and put our ideas on the board, we discussed which ones would be most interesting dramatically, which would be difficult or impossible to stage effectively, etc. I include the results of our three brainstorming sessions (one for each class) at the end of this article. The most popular ideas were an "Indian Attack" (suggested by all three groups), various deaths by misadventure, such as being crushed by a runaway wagon on a steep hill, and an attack on Indians. This focus on violence and death dismayed me, but it didn't really surprise me. As I have said, teaching in an all-boy school has been a learning experience. However, I made it clear to them that I would be doing the selecting, and that they could probably forget about staging a bloody battle. I pointed out that, in addition to the extreme difficulty of staging such an encounter convincingly, our audience--the whole student body--would include Jr. Kindergarten boys who would probably be frightened. They saw the justice in this, but continued to agitate for topics that skirted the edges of violence. After we decided, in discussion, that the most interesting dramas were the ones with intellectual conflict--two characters with opposing points of view, difficult decisions to make, etc.--I started hearing suggestions about deciding whether to attack the Indians, etc.
A word about a word: Throughout the early sessions with the boys, everyone consistently used the word "Indian"--except me. I never made a big deal about it, but when someone would make a suggestion that included the word "Indian," I wrote down "Native American." Later, when we were scripting the play, we talked about it, and decided not to use the word "Indian" in our stage directions, and to substitute "Native American." However, it seemed historically accurate to have the characters in the play say "Indian," since they certainly would not have said "Native American" in 1845. Later I learned that the fourth-grade teachers had made a policy of never saying "Native American." One of the teachers had native friends who strongly objected to "Native American" on the grounds that "American" was a word they hadn't asked for and didn't want. Furthermore, in a sense the native people the Oregon pioneers encountered were not "Americans" since their land was at that time not part of "America." (That of course depends on one's understanding of the word "American," but it's a valid point. Actually, most of the native folk I know prefer the word "Indian"--thought they'd really prefer "Navaho" or "Hopi" as appropriate.) The teachers had been saying "native people." By the time I learned this we were well along on the project, and I had considerably bigger problems than that one word, as will become clear, but I thought it well to get the point squared away here. What we eventually settled on was the word "Indian" in dialogue, and the expression "native people" in stage directions. (Our school needs to get its act together on this issue. Every year the second-graders recite an essay that includes the line, "Now, of course, we prefer to be called 'Native Americans'"--and then go on to use the word "Indian" almost exclusively for the rest of their "Pow Wow." Some consistency seems in order.)
Once all three classes had generated a list of ideas, I selected three from each list. I made my choices with the whole play in mind, so that we would have nine "episodes" that were well balanced and dramatic. I divided each class into three teams and assigned each team an "episode." (Even though I chose the nine topics with the whole show in mind, I made sure to assign each class only topics that their group had suggested.) There was some disappointment expressed by those whose ideas had not been chosen, and by those who wanted to see a lot more violence than I was willing to allow, but we discussed the concept of editors, and the fact that I, as editor, had to make each class's three scenes fit into the whole play in a balanced way, and the students seemed to understand. As it turned out it was a good thing we had that discussion early, because it became necessary for me to do quite a bit of "editing." The nine episodes were assigned to the three classes with no concern for their chronological or narrative order in the final story. My idea was that after we had nine finished scenes, I would put them into a logical order and glue them together with lines for the "Old Timer." The boys understood this instinctively, even though, as I was to learn, their teachers didn't at first. I have never figured out why the concept was so much easier for the children than for the adults, but I suspect it must be related in some way to popular entertainment forms with which the boys were more familiar than the teachers were. The nine "episodes" originally selected were as follows (in random order):
A family makes the difficult decision to move to Oregon.
A group arrives in Oregon and has to decide whether to move on to California.
A group arrives at Chimney Rock, and a woman falls to her death trying to carve her name high up on the rock's surface.
A group of native people hold a meeting to decide whether to attack a group of pioneers.
A group discovers the incredibly bad food and snake-infested conditions at Fort Laramie.
A group must decide whether to attack the native people or try to trade with them.
A group arrives at Fort Bridger and finds it empty--all of the soldiers have gone hunting.
A relief party rescues a family whose wagon has been trapped in an early snow.
A group at the Dalles must decide whether to raft down the Columbia River or trek around Mount Hood.
All of the above were suggested by the students, and selected by me as representing a variety of outlooks and different kinds of conflicts. I was especially pleased, in light of the number of people who wanted scenes about killing Indians, by the student who suggested looking at the issue from the natives' point of view. The nine episodes we ended up with were not quite the same nine we started with, and the crisis that caused most of the changes was extremely humbling to me. Still, I look on it primarily as a learning experience.
In class, once each team had been assigned a topic, I put them to work writing their scenes. I told them to concentrate on dialogue, rather than spectacle, and to be clear about how the scenes would end. In a few cases, notably the two involving groups deciding whether or not to start a battle, I dictated how they must end--they must decide in favor of peace. I knew that might be dishonest of me--although it turned out to be extremely fortunate--but I knew too well what would happen if I once let the boys loose on a battle scene. One could conceivably stage a battle with a whole class of fourth-graders together under supervision, but not in one group who is competing with two others for a single teacher's attention. For the most part, each boy invented his own character's dialogue, and a "scribe" took it down. I moved around the classroom, side-coaching, settling disputes, and encouraging each team's "scribe" to get words down on paper. I reminded the class again and again that we were writing a "first draft" and that it was more important to get the words out there than to be sure they were perfect, but even a lot of professional playwrights have trouble with that concept, and it was difficult to keep them from getting bogged down in small details. By the end of one period, most of the groups had at least a skeleton of a plot, and by the end of two they all did. The scenes they had written were pretty simple--dialogue is not easy to write--and had a lot of rather silly jokes in them. (In the Fort Laramie scene, for instance, two men fainted from the smell of the food.) Despite my rules and my careful selection of material, we got more death than I had bargained for, as the group with the scene arriving in Oregon decided to kill one of their number with rabies. Still, I was fairly pleased with the results of the first-draft writing. I thought I had nine scenes with good, clear dramatic action and clearly differentiated characters, and as a drama teacher, that's what I was looking for. All of which made the classroom teachers' reaction to the first drafts that much more upsetting.
It is clear to me now that I should have kept in closer contact with the classroom teachers throughout the project. At the initial meeting, two of them had made noises that suggested they intended to attend some or all of the drama classes, but you know how that goes--they got busy with other concerns. There were times during all the fuss when I believed unquestionably that it was not my fault, and that THEY should have kept track better of what I was doing, but the truth is that everyone involved failed to stay as well-informed as they should have, and failed to communicate as regularly as necessary. Whatever the reason, the classroom teachers' first hint of what was actually going on in the writing process was the first drafts, which I typed in script format and handed out to the boys. About a day after one class had seen their drafts, I was at lunch when one of the classroom teachers came to me and said bluntly, "I've been looking over this play, and I can't have my students perform this." I was shocked, and I admit, panicked, because there wasn't really time to start over, and I had no idea what was wrong. As I talked more with her, trying to save my emotions for later, it emerged that she had two basic problems with the script. First, it was too short, and therefore "not at a fourth-grade level." She felt that fourth grade should be capable of much more detailed writing and that these very simple scenes were unacceptable. Especially, she wanted many, many more facts about the Oregon Trail to be revealed by the writing. I could have reminded her that what she held was only a first draft, and that we intended to fill it out. I could (and probably should) also have pointed out to her that writing dialogue is very different from writing narrative prose, and that in fact even the first draft was not bad for 45 minutes work from fourth-graders. (Later, when another teacher gave me some samples of the boys' writing in class "to see what they're really capable of," I didn't find it to be any more sophisticated than their output in my class, but until you've tried, as I have, to write dialogue that contains exposition, you don't know how difficult it really is.)* But I didn't bother with any of that at the time because her second problem was much more serious, at least to me. She felt that the scenes were historically inaccurate. It happened that her class's scenes included the one in which the pioneers contemplated attacking the Indians. Since all three of the classes had independently generated this suggestion, it never occurred to me to doubt its historical accuracy, but the teacher assured me that not only did they never learn about even one instance of pioneers attacking natives or natives attacking pioneers, the teachers had stressed over and over again that such things NEVER HAPPENED. (Not quite true of course, but that's beside the point--I sometimes wonder if teachers who teach the same revisionist history year after year eventually come to believe in its total accuracy, or whether they're just good at pretending.) The scenes her class had written, she said, proved either that they hadn't taken the assignment seriously at all, or that they had learned nothing about the Oregon Trail. She also felt that some of the humor in the scenes showed a lack of respect. (Respect for whom, I never understood.) In addition, the scenes, she felt, suggested that the trail was only three episodes long and her students all knew better than that. That was of course only because I hadn't made the overall plan clear, and when she understood that all nine scenes would eventually be put in logical order and tied together using the character of the "Old-Timer" that concern was satisfied. That teacher showed the draft to the other teachers, whose reaction was similar to hers.
* Part of the problem here was an essential disconnect between the way 4th graders (these 4th graders, anyway) are taught to write and the way playwrights must. In their English classes, the boys were at the stage where they were essentially always encouraged to get in more detail. They were focused on expository writing. And, like English teachers at nearly every pre-college level, their teachers ignored unrelated bad writing habits (such as unnecessary wordiness) that crept in while they were focusing on that goal. (I had a high school English teacher who forbid us to use the word "it," in an effort to force us to be specific in our nouns--which, if one looks at writing holistically, is a terrible idea, and results in horribly inefficient writing. But it may have served its purpose well. I've personally never been comfortable ignoring errors, stylistic or otherwise, just because they don't fall withing the narrow purview of what I'm currently teaching--I correct spelling and grammar in exam answers in history class, for example--but maybe that's why I'm not an English teacher.) But here I was, busily trying to teach the boys to be playwrights. The level of detail (that's how she put it--I think "number of details" would have been a more accurate expression) she wanted could not possibly result in "good" playwriting. (And, indeed, if natural, believable dialogue was the goal, the original drafts of most of the plays were stylistically better than the final, more detailed ones.) Exacerbating the problem, of course, was the fact that nearly all of the pre-written scripts they'd used in the past (as well as most of the written-for-the-age novels they read--though that's changed a lot over the past fifteen years) contained similarly awkward, exposition-heavy dialogue. In any case, while I went along with the changes happily enough, I have since concluded that, while I made a lot of mistakes in this process, judging the output of the boys as appropriate for their grade level and intelligence was not one of them.
I didn't know what to do. I felt ashamed that I had let the boys pull the wool over my eyes about "Indian attacks." I was hurt, too, that they had lied to me about the historical accuracy (according to what they'd been taught) of their suggestions. Clearly I had allowed the "fun" aspects of drama class to overwhelm its position as a serious course. I knew I had learned a painful lesson about giving an inch and yielding a mile, and I have applied that lesson to my subsequent teaching with considerable success. But I also had an immediate problem. How was I--and it certainly felt as if I'd have to do it myself--going to rescue the play? I was bitter--why had they waited until now to have a problem with it?--but that was unreasonable because if they had shown little interest in the goings on in my classroom, neither had I made any concerted effort to involve them. It still strikes me as odd that none of the boys mentioned anything in social studies class during the weeks of early writing that alerted anyone to the historical discrepancies, but apparently they didn't. In the future, I will also be sure to do my own checks on the history, but I was approaching the project with the idea that the boys knew their information, and besides, given the particular slant the teachers had taken, I'm not sure such research would have helped in this case. At any rate, I knew I had to get over my emotional reaction to the problem and apply myself to solving it.
Each class was in a slightly different stage of the process when the problem first came to my attention, but two of the classes had time for one more writing session at the scheduled drama class time. Their classroom teachers had, as one of them put it, "read 'em the riot act" by the next time I saw the students, so they were already prepared to work hard, and I spent only a little time expressing my disappointment and hurt over their taking advantage. (The truth was that I felt it was mostly my fault, but as a teacher I thought it important not to "let them get away with it.") I explained to the boys exactly what their teachers (including me) were concerned about, and made it clear that they were expected to supply details and stick to the version of history they had learned in class, even though their own version was "more fun." Their teachers had once again made noises about coming to class to help me watch over the writers--there are always things that slip through the cracks when one is trying to side-coach three groups at once--but at this point they didn't. By the end of that second class, the remaining two classes had produced scenes that were better than the first class's first drafts, but still had many of the same problems. And at this point we were drawing perilously near to the time when we would have to perform our play. I made it clear to the boys that I would be doing some "editing" over the weekend, and that we would probably be doing some comprehensive re-writing next week, possibly not only during drama class time. I also made it clear to the classroom teachers that it would be all right with me if they worked on re-writes without me, and also that I would be glad to come into their classrooms to work at any time when I was free.
Over the weekend I re-typed all the scenes (still in random order). I then went over them carefully for historical accuracy, level of detail, and dramatic and narrative quality. With a few exceptions I'll get to in a moment, I did not make significant changes in the scripts, but wherever I found a questionable passage, or a place where I thought more detail was needed or I thought the dialogue or plot was unclear, I inserted questions, in red. (I did this all on the computer because I do virtually all of my written work that way, but it would have worked just as well by hand.) The questions were in smaller type and right-justified so that they didn't interfere with the reading flow of the scenes. These questions ranged from simple questions of fact ("what would the pioneers really have eaten at Fort Bridger?" "Could a person really have recovered that fast from Cholera?") to stylistic issues ("Doesn't it seem odd that these characters all speak in unison?" "Why does he agree so easily? Doesn't anyone object?") and also included simple notes like "more detail here." I presented these annotated drafts to the classroom teachers as soon as they were printed, and encouraged them to read over them and add any other notes. (As it happened I had done a pretty good job of anticipating their concerns.)
As I have said, for the most part I didn't make wholesale changes, rather suggesting places where the students might make changes, but there were exceptions. I re-wrote the scene in which the group debated attacking the native people, changing as few lines as possible, so that it became simply a debate about whether to try trading with them or just give them a wide berth. I was able to do that without changing all that much, because it was still permissible for some characters to fear the natives--just not for them to propose killing them. I also rewrote the scene in which native people debated about what to do about the destruction caused by the pioneers, so that they also did not propose violence. (That actually involved only one line change.) In the final version of that scene they never do arrive at a conclusion, but it is followed by the scene in which a group of native people stop a wagon train and demand a toll. I excised a few mildly scatological jokes about buffalo chips, although I left one in the Fort Bridger scene. Finally, I cut the ending from the "shall we go on to California" scene, in which one of the characters died of rabies. The teacher specifically asked me to do that, but I probably would have anyway, because it made a truly bizarre tag at the end of what turned out to be the closing scene in the play. At first I was acutely uncomfortable making any changes at all on my own, rather than having the boys make them, and I did it only because we were fast running out of time. However, I have now concluded that it probably improved the quality of the learning experience for the boys to have changes and edits made in a variety of different ways. As I explained to them in my "post mortem" discussions after the plays were finished, writers in the real world often encounter editors whose cuts and changes may happen for almost any conceivable reason, or even apparently for no reason at all. (The "post mortem" discussions with the boys after the play were an extremely successful activity in lots of ways.)
The process by which the next wave of edits was made varied from class to class. One teacher--the one whose class had been least far along when the crisis presented itself, and therefore the one whose first draft was in the best condition to begin with--went over the scenes with his class, and made some minor changes, when I was not present. (In the final version of the play his class's scenes were noticeably the shortest three, but did not feel less complete or less accurate.) In the other two classes the classroom teacher moderated a discussion in which my questions and hers were discussed, suggestions were made, and I frantically took the changes down on my laptop computer. (Fortunately I type very fast.) When we came to places where the main problem was simply lack of detail, the students called out dozens of details and pieces of information and I did my best to format them into dialogue. From a purely dramatic point of view, the finished product ended up with too much detail in places--people don't really talk that way--but the process of learning how to put expositional material into dialogue, and the critical thinking required to come up with the relevant details were more important. Usually as I was taking down dialogue and expositional detail I didn't bother with which character was which, simply labeling every character "someone," or, in a few instances differentiating only between two or three classes of character rather than between each individual--as, "Soldier," "Pioneer," "Native Guide." Then afterwards I went through the new versions of the scenes and inserted appropriate character names, being careful to make most parts about the same size. Of course, by doing it this way I put my own stamp on the plays, so it could not truly be said that the boys had written the scenes "all by themselves," but that was all right. Ultimately one of the strengths of the project, in my view, would be its intensely collaborative nature. As I told the audience of students and parents before the performance, the classroom teachers, teams of students, individual students and I had worked together on this play in virtually every conceivably combination. Since the theatre is inherently collaborative, I thought this was about the most real experience I could have devised--though of course I didn't really devise it.
In the course of these in-classroom editing sessions, a few of the plots underwent further significant change. Because the teachers decided characters in the play shouldn't die, the Chimney Rock scene was changed so that the climber was merely injured, rather than killed. This provided an opportunity to get in a lot of details about how difficult it would be to travel with a serious injury, and also incidentally removed the necessity of finding out how a person would really be buried if they died on the trail. In the Fort Bridger scene, the soldiers who had originally been out hunting became fur trappers instead, for reasons of historical accuracy. The one scene which contained a confrontation between native people and pioneers was further changed so that the main focus became the pioneers' need for help from the natives. All of the scenes grew a lot longer and more detailed. By the time the re-writes were completed to everyone's satisfaction, the day of the performance was only a week away.
Of the playwriting, all that was left to do was to cement the nine scenes together in a logical order as one coherent unit. It had always been my intention to do this part myself, so I had left it for last in the confident knowledge that I could do it on my head. As it happened it didn't come out quite the way I had hoped it would, for two reasons. Right from the first printed drafts I had included lines for the "Old Timer," but I had not really even tried to make them perfect, considered as transitional lines. They were just there to hold the place until I came up with the precise lines, which I couldn't really write until the order of the scenes was decided. However, by the time the order of the scenes was set (by me, with help from one of the classroom teachers) many of the classes had memorized their scenes, and I couldn't make significant changes without throwing them off. Moreover, the class that had edited their scenes without me had discovered they had one more student than roles, and had assigned the "Old Timer" lines to a student, so in those scenes I couldn't change them at all. (I played the "Old Timer" in the other six scenes.) As a result, the "Old Timer's" lines in the final version of the play are more talky and less transitional than originally envisioned. (Also, of course, there are now two "Old Timers" instead of just one, but that actually worked well, because we ended up sort of chatting with each other about the old days, which seemed more naturalistic than if we had just addressed the audience, as I would probably have done had I been alone.)