Monday, July 14, 2008

"Once Upon a Nation" teaches history through storytelling

My family went to Philadelphia for the US Independence Day weekend. Among other activities, we visited thirteen storytelling benches arrayed around the historic district. At these locations, storytellers told us tales about Revolutionary War-era figures and other notable people and events from Philadelphia's history, including:

  • The first bank robbery in the US
  • A Philadelphia witch trial
  • The invention of bubble gum
  • The escape of one of President George Washington's house slaves
  • The hiking and camping adventures of a young boy who became a renowned artist and horticulturist.
Of all the cool things we did that weekend--visiting the Liberty Bell and touring Independence Hall (where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were debated), eating at a tavern where Jefferson ate--the stories were the most memorable part of the trip. Our five-year-old insisted that visiting all the benches was our highest priority for the weekend.

We attended several events featuring performers playing characters from the period--Ben Franklin, a Patriot soldier, a young aristocrat. You could hardly walk down the street without running into a printer, militia officer or milkmaid--in character always.

At night, we recounted the stories we'd heard that day. As we toured, we looked for references to story characters in the historic buildings.

All of the above are a product of Once Upon a Nation, a group charged with creating a "living history" of Philadelphia. And they've succeeded. The stagings and stories intertwined beautifully with the historic sites to create an fun, immersive, reiterated experience that "Brain Rules" author John Medina would approve of completely.

A real testament to the power of stories at work.

[P.S., The storytelling benches are open all summer till 4:30pm.]

Related post:
"Brain Rules" rules

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Michael Boamah said...

do you know what. i find it obvious to teach history by telling a story. maybe it's because i'm French. in french we have the same word for story and history

John Caddell said...

Merci, Michael. I would say that the US storytelling culture has suffered in favor of a more analytical approach. But I think things are changing.

regards, John