In the past, each fourth-grade class presented a play about ancient Greece or Rome--generally an adaptation of a myth of folktale. Such plays are available from countless educational publishers, usually royalty-free, but to call the quality of these scripts uneven would be high praise--most are truly awful. My first idea was to stick with ancient Greece, but have the students write their own plays in much the same way as the third-graders write their Egyptian plays. But the way the schedule fell out this year, that would have meant presenting the play just at the beginning of the students' unit on ancient Greece and Rome. Since we were consciously trying to create a project in which the process was of greater importance, and in which the ideas and information in the play were generated by the students rather than by some outside teacher or writer, this seemed not a good idea. So we (the three fourth-grade teachers, the school head and I, in consultation) decided instead to do a play about the Oregon Trail--the social studies unit the students would just have finished on the scheduled date of the performance. That way the boys would have access to real information they could use in creating the play. We also decided to try and design a project that would result in one unified play, rather than three independent ones connected only by a common theme, as in third grade. It was evident immediately that that put a lot of pressure on me, since of the five of us at the meeting, I was the only one who taught all three fourth-grade classes, but that just meant I would have to be especially well-organized and keep my lines of communication open. (As it turned out I wasn't as successful in this as I should have been, which was one of the difficult learning experiences the project held for me.)
The basic structure, which held good all the way through the project, emerged from our brainstorming at that first teachers' meeting. It was obvious that the Oregon Trail suggested an epic structure, but that left us with a problem. In a traditional epic one character or set of characters remains at the center of the action throughout, and we still wanted to be sure everyone had about equal stage time. We toyed with the idea of a play that watched one family, perhaps made up of the "best actors" in the three classes, as it made the journey west to Oregon, encountering other actors at each stop. That would have made an interesting play, but in addition to the problems (political as well as philosophical) we had with trying to select the "best actors," it would be extremely difficult to rehearse such a play without radically altering the school's weekly schedule for the duration of the project, because it would require most or all of the rehearsal to take place with the three classes together at one time. The idea of each class dramatizing one important event from the history of the Trail was explored, but we concluded that, first, it would wind up effectively being three separate plays, which we wanted to get past, and, second, it would de-emphasize the continuity of the teachers' general approach to the trail by focusing on three "events" instead of on the succession of stops, each with its own triumphs and hardships, which the pioneers had to negotiate. What we finally came up with I regard as brilliant, which makes it unfortunate that I can't remember whose idea it was. I'd like to think it was mine, but I really don't know. Our structure involved one character--an "Old Timer" and I mean really, really old--who would "remember" various episodes--lots more then three--from his experiences as an Oregon Trail Boss. This character, who we though would probably be played by a "guest adult" or by me, might serve a narrative function when necessary, but would serve mostly to tie together episodes into a single unit. This allowed us to keep the epic nature of the trail without the need for logical narrative continuity, since each scene would be a sort of "flashback" instigated by the "old timer's" remembrances. It also meant that it would not be necessary to cover every part of the trail, since the "old timer's memory would pick out certain interesting episodes and gloss over others. As I was later to learn, not everyone at the meeting really understood this concept, but it was more-or-less decided to proceed with that structure in mind.