Bewigged attorneys argue, ultimately, for teaching more civics in CT classrooms

In a new historical video drama created for Connecticut schoolchildren, producers turned to actors more likely to be found in a courtroom than on a theater stage.

The stars of a re-enactment of a debate at the 1787 Constitutional Convention include actors such as Connecticut Superior Court Judge James Abrams.

“I had a lot of fun doing it,” said Abrams, who appeared in full Colonial garb alongside several Connecticut lawyers in “Forging a New Democracy,” a video released last week to teachers at the fall conference of the Connecticut Council for the Social Studies.

The 20-minute video tells the story of the debate between large and small states over the makeup of Congress. It was a debate that produced what became known as the Connecticut Compromise, creating two houses of Congress — the House with the number of representatives from each state based on population and the Senate with two representatives per state.

“We’re hoping teachers use it to enhance their teaching about the Constitutional Convention and the basis of our government,” said Beth DeLuco, executive director of Civics First Inc., a nonprofit group that promotes law-related education projects in the state’s public and private schools.

Civics First and the Connecticut Bar Association’s Civics Education Committee collaborated on the project, with production work done by CT-N, the state’s public service government affairs television network.

The video is part of an effort to promote instruction in civics, a subject that some officials think receives too little attention as schools focus largely on high-stakes tests of reading and mathematics. “Civics and history…are getting squeezed out of the curriculum,” Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill told teachers at last week’s social studies conference. “If it’s not on the test, it doesn’t get taught.”

The video will be offered to middle schools and high schools along with lesson plans on how the compromise came about –- a particularly timely topic in light of the current, highly partisan debates in Congress over budgets and other issues.

“There are so many different ways to use this and relate it to current events,” DeLuco said.

DeLuco wrote the script based on detailed original notes from James Madison. When project organizers called for volunteer actors from the state’s legal community, the response was overwhelming, she said. Filming was done at the Old State House in Hartford.

Abrams, a judge in Superior Court in New Britain, played the role of Roger Sherman, one of the Connecticut delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Abrams is not an entire stranger to the stage.

“I was a theater major in college…and then I took a 30-year hiatus,” said Abrams, who also has acted in community theater productions by the Saybrook Stage Company.

Abrams saw the video for the first time this week. Watching a re-enactment is another way of learning history “as opposed to reading it in a book,” he said. “It’s probably more accessible…It makes it a little more real.”

Other cast members included attorneys David Vegliante as Edmund Randolph; Robert Fortgang as Ben Franklin; Stephen Hryniewicz as George Washington; and David Moore as George Mason. The role of James Madison was played by William Bevacqua, a CT-N executive. Franklin was a Pennsylvania delegate to the convention while Randolph, Washington, Mason and Madison all were Virginia delegates.

“The biggest thing I had to struggle with was the Virginia accent,” said Bevacqua, who described himself “as a big civics buff.” He said CT-N’s work on the video “is right in line with our larger goal…to help citizens understand how our government works.”

Melissa Thom, a teacher at the Renzulli Academy in Hartford, was among those who saw the video at last week’s social studies conference.

“It’s definitely something I’d use,” she said. “We’re in the middle of our own Constitutional Convention re-enactment.”

She said the video will give students “a sense of the tone, the mood, the language” of the convention and help them understand “that these people were real human beings with different ideas who had to sit in a room and come to consensus.”

The civics video on YouTube can be found here.

 

 

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