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Wolftrap Students Travel to Civil War

A teacher-written play finds students studying antebellum letters, taking them to place and time.

When a group of teenagers finds a bag full of letters, they discover all of them were written in the first half of the 1860s. Subsequent readings take them back to the time and places, from nearby Manassas to faraway Gettysburg.

Wolftrap Elementary’s language arts teacher Ellen Collins co-wrote the musical about modern day children finding the letters and having their imagination roam through the battlefields of the Civil War. What Collins and co-writer Linda White, a music teacher at Haycock Elementary in McLean, sought to accomplish with "Musical Letters from the Civil War" is for their sixth graders to gain an understanding of how their peers lived during the time period. Last week Wolftrap produced the play for a third time. "Linda and I spent about a year doing the research," said Collins, who has been teaching at the school since 1991.

A SEGMENT of the play tackles the issue of young boys wanting to become soldiers, rather than musicians for the two armies fighting. "Maybe if I’m tall enough by spring I can convince the Colonel I’m 18," reads a letter from Jess. A subsequent factual presentation informs the audience that 40,000 musicians helped the Union while 20,000 served the Confederacy.

Collins said she and White researched the clothing, the food and the roles young people played in the war. "I learned a lot of interesting facts," said Emily Fisher. "I liked learning about all the different jobs kids had to do."

Classmate Emily Buzek said she was interested to learn that a lot of girls disguised themselves as males in order to join an army, many of them to find brothers or others dear to them that have been missing for months or years. She added that she could see herself doing the same if she was in their shoes.

Connor Driscoll said he learned that Civil War was gruesome. "A lot more people died than in any other American war," he said. He was interested to learn about the life of a soldier during the time period.

"Everything is historically accurate," said Collins. The production involved 71 students, the entire sixth grade of Wolftrap Elementary. "The best part of writing a play is you can add lines or take them out as you need to," said Collins. There was not a single adult part in the play, and Collins attributed that to the fact that she and White like to see youngsters play youngsters. "We believe if you have a kid playing an adult it will look like a kid playing an adult," said Collins. Also, there was no starring role in the play.

DIRECTOR Sharon Kassing said the students were hesitant during the auditions, but later grew in confidence. "Which is what is so rewarding," said Kassing. The play helped the sixth graders incorporate what they learned in their elective courses throughout the school year, including photography, technology and art electives.

"Musical Letters from the Civil War" is not the first play Collins, 61, and White have written together. The two have written eight plays and are working on one about the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay. "We try to do things that fit into sixth grade curriculum," said Collins. She said she and White make a great pair and that writing the plays is a lot of fun. At least some of the students feel the same. "It was really fun to do," said Maddy Hummell about last week’s production.