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Spotlight: “Telling a Story” to Teach History

Preston Hyer (right) has for the past eight years taught social studies at Arts at the Capitol Theater (ACT) Performing Arts High School in downtown Willimantic. He is part of the academic instruction team working to create connections between a traditional curriculum and performance arts for students in grades 9 through 12.
For Hyer, the marriage of social studies and the performing arts can provide authentic and “meaningful” applications of learning and development. 
“I look at teaching history as telling a story — a human story,” said Hyer, a member of our AFT Connecticut-affiliated EASTCONN Federation of Teachers. “Often, social studies can seem distant, and not have a direct impact on kids’ lives. Once you move away from the textbook and start showing them the people and their stories, history becomes more alive,” he said.
Hyer sees his mission as finding and pursuing the “social studies approach that works best for our students.” By collaborating with a fellow educator assigned to the subject area, he helps provide a fundamental part of the academic learning experience that strengthens his students’ artistic endeavors.
Click here for press reporting on the success of ACT’s unique educational approach.
Teaching social studies was a choice based on both Hyer’s natural interest in the subject and a desire to “give back to future generations.” He believes it allows him to “guide students toward realizing that they do have the opportunity to make a positive change in their community.”
“We have a very passionate group of students that are aware of many different struggles here and around the world,” said Hyer. “They often use their particular art — whether it be dance or a poem — to communicate struggles going on within their own lives or that they’re seeing in their community,” he added.
For Hyer, teaching history in a performing arts setting provides ample opportunity to incorporate important concepts associated with human rights as recurring themes in his lessons.
“The concept of human rights is natural to what we do here,” said Hyer. “As I constantly tell my students, our school couldn’t thrive and we couldn’t create quality art without the fundamental freedom to express ourselves,” he added.
Hyer frequently reinforces the importance of these freedoms with his students in their classroom learning experience.
“I try to highlight examples throughout history of how individuals came together in small groups to create dialogue — and eventually create change,” he said. 
During the previous quarter Hyer taught students how women in Chile under the reign of former President Augusto Pinochet adapted a traditional courtship dance to protest the “disappearance” of dissidents. Through film footage, he helped them see how, with great courage and determination, an oppressed people used “la cueca sola” to both express themselves and help take down a dictatorship.
“It’s a powerful lesson for students to be exposed to,” said Hyer, adding that it shows that “they, too, have the ability to use their art to create change.”
Click here for interviews with women who danced “la cueca sola” to protest the Pinochet regime.
“The most important message for my students to take-away from history is to learn from the terrible abuses of the past,” said Hyer. “They need to know that bad things have happened; but they also need to know the good that’s come from struggle,” he added.
Click here to watch Hyer share more about how he exposes his students to history through a performance arts lens.
International Human Rights Day is on December 10 observed each year to commemorate a milestone achievement in the history of the struggle for freedom, justice and equality for all. On that day in 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in order to “prevent barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.”
The “Dignity & Respect Campaign” has since extended the recognition throughout December and coordinated the annual observance of the Universal Month for Human Rights. The initiative, launched in 2008, seeks to assist organizations, communities, schools and athletic teams build cultural awareness and teach effective approaches to finding common ground among all peoples.
Click here for press reporting on this year’s observances and the issues the United Nations seeks to spotlight.

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