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The City Journals

McMillan students learn ancient Egyptian history while performing ‘Aida’

Aug 05, 2019 04:58PM ● By Julie Slama

After learning about ancient Egypt, McMillan sixth-graders performed their own version of “Aida” for the school and community. (Ann Saltzman/McMillan Elementary)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

When Boston Hampton auditioned for a role in McMillan Elementary’s play, “Aida,” he thought it would be fun to be the pharaoh of Egypt. 

But that role fell to his cousin, Ethan, and he was given the part of High Priest Ramphis.

“It’s a great part; I get to compete against him, which is something we do all the time,” Boston said. “It was really neat to have a sword fight of Egyptians versus Ethiopians over the Nile River and who would win it would get to provide water for their land and people.”

The boys were just two of the sixth graders who were part of the school’s first-ever play on ancient Egypt, which may turn into a McMillan tradition.

When teacher Cheryl Weiss learned she would be teaching ancient civilizations as part of the sixth-grade core curriculum, she remembered from her Utah State University days how to adapt a play from a children’s book.

“I thought it might be fun to write a play about ancient Egypt for the students,” she said. “The kids just loved it. Everyone has a part in it, from guards and handmaidens to the leads and stage crew.”

The play, “Aida,” was just supposed to be one rotation during the unit on ancient civilizations. The students learned about hieroglyphics using paint and pastel chalk and mummification, creating their own sarcophagus and filling it with specific candies to represent different organs.

However, “Aida” evolved as students learned about the importance of trade and commerce on the Nile River back in October, to presenting it May 23 for classmates, family and friends — and videotaped, thanks to volunteer Richard Hale.

“We were just going to do it as a small school assembly, but then it became bigger,” she said.

Costumes and props including authentic peacock feather fans and swords and scepters were added as well as sounds, thanks to the stage crew under the direction of teacher Rebecca Elder. 

That’s when Weiss realized this could become something greater than a classroom production.

“At Longview, sixth-grade students aspire to their Shakespeare festival at the end of the year. I can see that happening here with our Egyptian play. Years later, these students won’t forget their experience and their understanding of Egypt, even after they may not remember their lines,” she said.

Sixth-grader Katelynn Nelson, who played Princess Amneris, said she didn’t know the two countries were at war until they studied that time period. 

“We learned a lot about ancient Egypt and why they fought for what they did as well as about good acting and communicating,” she said.

Her classmate, Laila Aarabi, who played Aida, agreed.

“It felt like at first, we were hitting the ground, memorizing our scripts, but it was easier because we learned about the time period at the same time so it became more meaningful,” she said, adding that her sister helped her with her part. “I didn’t realize they relied so much on the Nile.”

Sixth-grader Kat Richter said that whoever controlled the Nile was more powerful in terms of water and crops, which provided food for their country. 

Kat, along with Claire Martin, were student directors who met with their peers in working out scenes and rehearsing lines.

“It was a big job, but it got easier as people learned what they were doing,” Claire said. “It was hardest keeping everyone quiet backstage as they were so excited.”

Weiss said that through listening to their peer directors, “students learned the process of respecting those in charge. And these student directors gained confidence and patience in producing the play.” 

Students learned responsibility, cooperation and appreciation, and theater skills such as memorizing lines, speaking clearly and emphasizing words, and speaking to the audience. That, in addition to the sword fight which Sam Brousseau, as King Amonasro, and Jones Bonney, as captain of the guard, thought was a memorable part of the play.

While McMillan already has a long-standing history with the first-grade performance of “The Nutcracker,” these students thought adding “Aida” would be a good tradition.

“We learned a lot more and took on more responsibility,” sixth-grader Bonnie Henricksen said. “It was way harder than ‘Nutcracker,’ but we got a lot more independent in making sure our parts were ready so we could put it together.”

Boston agreed it was more work than he realized: “It was a lot more serious as we memorized our parts and learned to act in character, but it was a lot more fun to put on than I thought it would be.”