9780812978186By Krista McKim, AP® Language and Composition teacher at Rockville High School in Rockville, MD

On March 24, 2018, 40 students from Rockville High School came to enjoy a performance of Ragtime at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. Each student received a copy of the book by E. L. Doctorow. They read the book on their own time, and they all came together to talk about it before they saw the play. After the performance, Stephen F. Schmidt, an actor who played various characters and who is also a  teaching artist at the Ford’s Theatre, came to visit and give them a glimpse of the show from behind the scenes. As a result of these experiences, students thought deeply about the choices writers and directors make to bring a book to life.  They analyzed how Doctorow integrated historical and fictional characters, and they learned how a book goes from the page to the stage.

1Students debate the historical accuracy of Ragtime during lunch.

This opportunity solved a problem that the AP® World History teacher and I were wrestling with. I teach AP® Language and Composition, and I assign independent reading for students. I had been having trouble getting students invested in the books that I chose. The World History teacher and I share students, and she was noticing that they were missing background knowledge for American history. Ragtime offered a solution. It is a highly engaging book that also helps students to understand the early 1900s; they would be reading for my class and learning for her class. Plus they would be able to see what the 1900s were like through the performance on stage. Seeing a musical is an immersive experience that helps students to develop tolerance, because they have to read emotions in other people (the actors). By reading this book and seeing the play, students immersed themselves in the people and ways of the early 1900s.

I wasn’t sure that students would dive into the book on their own. It wasn’t for a specific class assignment, and there were no tests. So, I was surprised when this book caused a buzz. Some of the students were even Snapchatting pages to share with each other. The book tells the story of three different families and their attempt to reach the American Dream. Although it takes place before World War I—more than 100 years ago—many of the themes translate to what we see today.

One student, Paola, said, “The story is a lot like the video game Red Dead Redemption. Coalhouse Walker is a lot like John Marston. They both are seeking justice for their families. There are a lot of people today who could probably relate to Coalhouse.”

At our book club, sponsored by media center specialist Sherry Weiss as well as myself, the students argued about which characters were fictional and which were historical. “Coalhouse felt so real, I was surprised to find out he wasn’t. I knew Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud were real people because I was learning about them in my AP® Psychology class. I liked seeking them in the story,” said Mary-Margaret.

They also debated what they would keep in a stage production of the play.  “You have to keep the mother in the story, she’s like the heart,” said Alexis.

Gianni responded, “Sarah is the heart of the story, her death changes everything.”

After much debating, they agreed to keep Sarah and the mother, but decided to dump Houdini and Freud. There was no consensus on what to include regarding Tateh and the daughter. They wanted to know if they were right, did the stage production get rid of Houdini? Did they keep Sarah? I told them to wait and see.

After a long bus ride to Ford’s Theatre, students were able see how book writer Terrence McNally, composer Stephen Flaherty, lyricist Lynn Ahrens, and director Peter Flynn brought the book to life.

“So, I didn’t think they needed to keep Houdini, but I loved how they used him to connect the stories,” said Kishan.

Nick remarked, “The set design was incredible. I can’t believe how they made so much out of a place that was so small. They were so creative with how they integrated the staircases and the dance numbers. I never imagined it like that.”

Nicole added, “The book seemed more interesting because you got more details about the families, but it was also confusing. The play was easier to understand.  I liked how actors told you who they were and it was fun saying, ‘Oh, I read about him.’”

2Actor and teaching artist Stephen F. Schmidt speaks to students during a post-show visit.

Meeting with actor Schmidt helped them understand the complications of putting a show on the stage. The set includes three different levels, and those levels were used to show social status. The students learned that the cast practiced without the levels for most of the rehearsal period.

Dalawi said, “I didn’t realize that they practice in a different space than the theatre. The transition from a flat to a 3-D surface must have been difficult.”

Students surprised me with their investment in the story. They formed strong opinions about the book, the play, and how the book was adapted for the theatre. They walked away understanding more about life in the 1900s and recognizing the humanity in people from a world so different from today.

Dyana summarized the experience as exciting and fun. She said, “I learned that people go through the same issues regardless of the time period and I’m excited to bring my mother to come see this play. She’ll love it too. Maybe I’ll make her read the book first.”

® English students from Rockville High School prepare to see Ragtime at Ford’s Theatre.

Click here to learn more about Ragtime.

Click here to access our Ragtime Educator Guide and here to explore other titles by E. L. Doctorow.

Email highschool@penguinrandomhouse.com to request a FREE E. L. Doctorow classroom poster (only available to first 50 respondents, while supplies last).