THREE ELLICOTT City students learned unexpected lessons this year -- through firsthand experience.
Kristen Zwobot of Mount Hebron High School stepped into another world when she auditioned for a part in the drama, "Dear Old Patapsco." The play premiered at the Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City on April 24.
The Patapsco Female Institute, built on one of the highest hills in Ellicott City, opened in 1837.
The school offered academic courses -- not just domestic training -- for young women. Under the direction of headmistress Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps, the school became nationally recognized. Its ruins were restored this decade by the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks, which owns the site.
"Dear Old Patapsco" is based on diaries, journals and records of the young women who went there that have been kept by the Friends of Patapsco Female Institute.
Zwobot says she didn't know about the school before auditioning for the play and was fascinated by "how they kept the records." She and other young actresses play girls who attended the school about 1850.
Zwobot plays a younger girl and braids her hair in pigtails. She says she wears four layers of clothing including a crinoline and a purple dress.
She was surprised at how strictly the students' lives were regulated -- and how uncomfortable her four layers of clothing became.
Kristen said she found that creating the role of a person who lived at the school about 150 years ago was "creepy" and "really neat."
The play will run through June, with day and evening performances.
Tickets are $10 or $8 for students, seniors and groups.
A different road
Sarah Kenney, an eighth-grader at Dunloggin Middle School who is also interested in drama, took a different road to learning. She decided to compete in the National History Day Program.
The competition encourages students in grades six to 12 to investigate historical topics of their choice. Competitions are held at regional, state and national levels.
Maryland's History Day Program is based at the University of Baltimore; the national program is based at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Kenney chose to depict Sally Ride, the first woman astronaut. She and her parents went to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Goddard space library to do research. They watched a videotape of Ride after her space mission and bought the mission patch for Ride's flight in the gift shop.
Kenney read articles from magazines on microfilm at Howard County's Central Library. She recorded Ride's words and incorporated them into her presentation.
NASA lent her a spacesuit.
Kenney portrayed Ride speaking to a classroom of students. She spoke as Ride, in the first person, describing her childhood, how she qualified to be an astronaut and how the mission was accomplished.
The most difficult part of the presentation, Kenney said, was to imitate Ride's "laid-back" style. Kenney "talks fast" and is "pretty bad at multisyllabic words."
She practiced speaking slowly, and saying "remote manipulator."
In March, she placed first in the regional competition at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Kenney also participated in the History Alive! program at Dunloggin Middle School. The program, organized by history teacher Paul Higdon, is in its second year.
Higdon has several connections with the staff at Dunloggin. His high school history teacher in Catonsville is the grandmother of Lee Kiessling, one of the reading teachers at Dunloggin,
As a student, Higdon went on hay rides at Dunloggin teacher Sue Donaldson Cook's farm off Old Waterloo Road. Higdon said Cook, now deceased, was "a fabulous English teacher."
For his History Alive! program, Higdon asked 60 pupils to choose and research a person who made a difference in American history. Then they were to write a five-minute script about that person's life and present their character in costume.
Higdon believed that living history might keep his pupils' interest, develop public speaking skills and help them appreciate the arts as a way to express themselves.
He hired Mary Ann Jung, an actress from the Renaissance Festival who portrays Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII, to help his pupils dramatize their characters.
On Jung's first visit, she portrayed Rosalie Stier Calvert, describing her experiences at the Battle of Bladensburg and the burning of Washington, D.C., in 1814.
In succeeding visits, Jung helped the pupils develop interesting scripts and block their movements to create effective presentations.
Sixty eighth-graders presented their characters at the school April 19 and 20.
Kenney presented Sally Ride.
Higdon said that when the pupils began, none believed they could portray a historical figure. Now they know that they can, and they know history is made by individuals.
He is planning next year's program.
Learning through building
Three 14-year-old home-schoolers taught themselves the principles of engineering by building a bridge.