SHORT TALK BULLETIN
Vol. LXXVII No. 4 — April 1999
The New York Times recently reported a survey showing that more American teenagers could name the Three Stooges than the three branches of the U.S. Government. This startling statistic reveals that many young Americans fail to grasp even the basic elements of citizenship.
The United States Capitol Historical Society's flagship educational program, Where Freedom Speaks, seeks to combat this troubling social trend. The Where Freedom Speaks pageant, the laying of the original Capitol cornerstone by President George Washington and other Freemasons, enhances elementary school-age children's knowledge of government through participation in creative activities. It is the Society's hope that two major historical milestones the 200th anniversary of Washington's passing in 1799 and the bicentennial of Congress moving into the Capitol in 1800-will raise awareness about the importance of the very history lessons emphasized by Where Freedom Speaks.
The United States Capitol Historical Society, a non-profit, non-partisan educational organization founded in 1962, was chartered by Congress to educate the public on the history and heritage of the Capitol and Congress. It developed Where Freedom Speaks in 1993, the bicentennial of the laying of the Capitol cornerstone, in conjunction with educational consultants and Society board member, Carmella LaSpada, director of the "No Greater Love" Foundation.
Through production and performance of the pageant, students learn three vital concepts of citizenship: the symbolic and institutional importance of the Capitol building; the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship as guaranteed in the Bill of Rights; and, the importance of working together across different cultures and backgrounds. They are given a better appreciation of representative democracy, their responsibility to participate in the governing process and their connection to the nation's history. The pageant not only teaches students about history, it helps them relive it. As one young actor remarks in the instructional tape that tells how to produce the program, Where Freedom Speaks shows us that "history is in ourselves."
President George Washington and capital city planner Pierre Charles L'Enfant had selected the site for the Capitol building in June 1791. Washington supported Dr. William Thornton's winning entry for the Capitol design, recommending it to the District Commissioners for its "Grandeur, Simplicity and Convenience' " On September 18, 1793, President Washington led the comer stone laying ceremony. He marched at the head of a parade from the Potomac River to the Capitol site followed by members of his lodge, the Maryland Grand Lodge, the Alexandria, VA, Volunteer Artillery and Masonic lodges from all over Maryland, Virginia and the District. With a ceremonial marble-headed gavel and a silver trowel Washington set the cornerstone on a silver plate marking the date as the thirteenth year of American independence. The Alexandria Gazette reported that the ceremony "ended in prayer, Masonic chanting Honours, and a fifteen volley from the Artillery."
Since its debut in September 1994 at St. Francis de Sales, a Catholic parochial school in Philadelphia, PA, the pageant has received wide support from educators and politicians concerned with teaching children about the unique heritage of their democratic republic. "One of my most important-and enjoyable-responsibilities is helping our young people learn how government works ... I spend as much time as possible visiting schools and trying to help students understand the importance of playing an active role in a democracy," Wisconsin Senator Herb Kohl said. "Where Freedom Speaks is a magnificent opportunity for schools to combine a variety of teaching tools in a fun and exciting presentation."
An advisory board of educators consulted with the Society during the development of the pageant. The resulting Where Freedom Speaks production kit merges the insights of their classroom experience with the play's conceptual framework. The boxed kit, available from the Society to your lodge for distribution in local schools, costs $50 (or less in larger quantities). It is an invaluable resource for elementary school teachers or community leaders who wish to produce the pageant in their communities.
The kit includes an instructional video for teachers, an audiotape of the music used in the original production, a 27-page lesson guide (with related additional reading materials, tests and learning projects), a 23-page production guide and a copy of the script and the sheet music. The kit also includes a copy of the Society's Capitol Guidebook, We, the People. Groups that perform the play will receive 20 complimentary copies of the book which, in numerous editions published in six languages, has sold more than 5 million copies in the past 30 years.
The 15-minute video shows how the students of St. Francis de Sales performed the first Where Freedom Speaks pageant. The school's staff also discusses the play's impact on the students, the modest production costs and the teachers' own insights into staging the play, including how the Catholic nuns made the Masonic uniforms for the participants.
Part of the value of Where Freedom Speaks is that it integrates valuable lessons of individual citizenship with practical classroom activities. Through the learning process outlined in the lesson guide, students hone skills in such fundamental areas as history and research, mathematics and design, singing and public speaking, acting and socialization. The pageant format is flexible, allowing teachers to include as few as 25 to as many as 100 students from various grade levels. Teachers also may add their own ideas, other patriotic songs or historical references to legislation or issues.
The production guide offers teachers a good resource for the mechanics of play production and promotion. Among other items it includes information on the performance of ed music; diagrams on how to assemble some of the props and costumes; and a sample letter to local Members of Congress and other elected officials, inviting them to the pageant.
In June 1998, the national capital debut of Where Freedom Speaks at Watkins Elementary School drew local politicians and school board officials. The Alexandria, VA, and Georgetown, D.C., Masonic lodges supported the event by displaying to the Watkins School students and their audience the actual gavel and trowel Washington used in the 1793 cornerstone ceremony. Later that fall The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation underwrote the distribution costs of the Where Freedom Speaks kits to every Washington, D.C., elementary school and numerous other public and private schools in the metropolitan area.
Since the program's inception, more than 900 kits have been made available to schools nationwide through the generous support of other sponsors like General Dynamics Corporation, Kemper Insurance Companies and GTE Corporation. Twentyfive Members of Congress have supported these distributions by reviewing the program and writing letters of introduction to educators receiving the kit.
Congressman Jim Moran (VA) strongly endorsed the Where Freedom Speaks kit before it was distributed to more than 20 schools in his Northern Virginia district. "As a symbol of our democracy, the U.S. Capitol Building demonstrates the importance of responsible citizenship and the values of the U.S. Constitution to our future leaders-our young people," Congressman Moran said. "Where Freedom Speaks will provide a valuable educational opportunity for students to learn about, appreciate and embody the values of democracy as they fulfill their leadership potential and carry on our American purpose."
Once the schools receive the kits, the Society encourages them to keep in contact with its Educational Outreach Department. The Society is eager to provide promotional assistance for groups that plan to produce the play, for instance, by sending "press releases" about the play's performance to local newspapers and media outlets. The Society also is available to offer production advice and to answer teachers' questions about the kit. Most importantly, the Society wants to hear educators' reactions and suggestions concerning the play. To that end, educators may expect a follow-up letter and questionnaire after they have had time to review the materials.
Since 1962, the Society has created and presented educational programs and publications to foster, through the story of the Capitol and the U.S. Congress, an understanding of the richness and inspiration of representative democracy. The Society sponsors scholarly conferences, research programs and educational fellowships that contribute fresh and important studies about our nation's democratic republic. Through the generosity of foundation support, the Society has developed several programs-such as Where Freedom Speaks-to inform elementary, high school and college students about the history of the Capitol and those who serve in it. The Society also provides special tours of the Capitol, lectures and symposia for its thousands of members and hundreds of thousands of history enthusiasts, scholars, students and the general public.
If you are interested in distributing Where Freedom Speaks through your lodge to local elementary schools or through other community venues or to learn more about the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, contact the Manager of Educational Outreach at (202) 5438919, ext. 28, or write: Where Freedom Speaks Program, U.S. Capitol Historical Society, 200 Maryland Ave., NE, Washington D.C., 20002. You also may visit the Society's website at www.uschs.org, or call 1-800-887-9318.