The Discovery of Fire
I wrote this lesson to support the beginning chapter in my fifth-graders' Social Studies text. They do a world history survey that begins with the dawn of prehistoric culture. It is essentially a simple improvised scene activity, but the problem-solving aspect of any improvisation exercise is heightened because the students work to create a scene that answers a particular question. One could adapt this exercise to approach a different question.
I begin the discussion with the question, "What were some of the most important technological or cultural innovations of the earliest humans?" Usually I hear Language, Agriculture, Fire, and several others. I tell the students that today we will be working on a project that deals with the discovery of fire. I ask, "What were some of the main uses to which early humans put fire?" (These include cooking, which made meat easier to digest and prevented some diseases; protection against predators; heat in cold climates, which allowed humans to migrate over a much larger percentage of the Earth's surface; frightening prey animals into traps; and light, which allowed the working day to be extended and may have led to the "leisure-time" creation of art and other cultural hallmarks.) "Which of these uses do you think occurred first to early Man?" (I have no idea what the "right" answer to this one is and I doubt anyone really knows. Generally the class is split pretty evenly among all the possibilities.) Finally I ask, "How do you think early humans first discovered that they could use fire?" We discuss this question briefly, and generally many plausible solutions are posed. Then it is time to move into the active part of the project.
I divide the class into small groups--four or five in a group. Each group must come up with a solution the the question, "How did early humans first discover that they could harness and use fire?" They must then prepare a short skit or play which dramatizes that discovery. (In order to keep the sketches physical I usually add the rule that students may not speak--or may not speak in a real language--grunts or gibberish is allowed. This forces them to use their physical skills and expressiveness to convey the plot of their scenes.) The groups, working independently, are given five or ten minutes to "rehearse" their scenes. I move from group to group, side-coaching as necessary. I try to keep them focused on the problem, and I work to help them cooperate. I try to head off potential personality clashes--most of which involve one or more people who insist on being "the leader." I remind my students that working in a group is an important skill, and not so easy. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to let someone else lead for a while. This is also a leadership skill. I continue the rehearsal process (and pray that an administrator does not walk by--four or five small groups all brainstorming scenes at once can look a lot like chaos) until each group has rehearsed a more-or-less "finished" scene at least once.
Each group, in turn, "performs" their scene, with the rest of the class functioning as audience. We discuss each scene. What worked? What didn't? Did they find a plausible answer to the question? Did they convey their answer clearly? (In all of my lessons with older students I spend time working on critiquing skills.) If it seems warranted, I have the group perform all or part of a scene again, in response to the feedback of the class.
In teaching this lesson, great care must be taken to head the students off deliberately silly or humorous solutions. There is nothing wrong with humor in Drama class, but in order for this project to be as effective as it can be, the students must seriously examine the central question. The solution they choose to dramas should be chosen because the consensus is that it is the most likely solution--not because it will be the funniest one to act out. (Which is not to say that the acting out cannot be funny.)
My Fifth-graders love this project!