Decoder Ring Theatre is a new obsession of mine. I found it by accident–one of those websites a friend liked and thus caught my attention, but it took me a while to actually explore it. I was thrilled with it when I finally did so.
Even when I was a kid, I had a fondness for old timey radio programs. Maybe it was because I wasn’t allowed to watch cartoons on Saturday mornings and so watched old school westerns. Maybe it was because I used to watch the old Batman TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. Maybe it was my interest in the Green Hornet, which I followed in comic books. Hard to say, really. Hard to know what led to the other, too.
The programming available on Decoder Ring Theatre is the style of the old noir detective shows and superhero programs from the Golden Age of Radio. I heart Black Jack Justice and his fellow-P.I. Trixie Dixon, girl detective. I most enjoy those shows, but the real superhero is the Red Panda and his sidekick Flying Squirrel who keep the streets of Toronto safe from mad villains in the 1930s. Each pair has their own show that can be downloaded as a podcast or played on your computer and smart devices.
The style of the shows are in the classic style of radio dramas, before TVs largely replaced the medium. (And yet, coming full circle, perhaps, so many of us seek out the book-on-tape option to sneak texts into our busy lives.) Certain aspects, common in this early style of story-types, whether in comic book, pulp fiction, dime novels, or radio programs, have been modernized. The women are not uniformly helpless–in fact, Trixie Dixon, while still a knockout worthy of centerfold, is a pretty darn tough gun-toting sleuth, and the Flying Squirrel can rumble with any back-alley thug–and have key roles to play in the crime fighting and detecting.
This factor makes them rather more palatable than some of the classics they otherwise emulate. While the programming is genuinely entertaining, the era is also recreated in an accessible manner. For this reason, I think they have real potential in education. Not only do they reproduce the era in their sordid tales of crime and justice, they also reproduce one of the major cultural experiences of the era: radio programming entertainment and news. So, you could create a playlist that the students can access using one of Franklin Roosevelt’s Fire Side Chats and one of the shows from Decoder Ring Theatre.
I wholeheartedly approve of teaching about other eras through experiences. Reproducing the later years of the Depression through role-playing in built-in class scenarios is an excellent way to bring home the difficulties of the age. For example, you could easily set aside a couple of classes and recreate the 1930s life within a scenario such as a town hall meeting or recreate a social gathering. You could also recreate a fictional town and assign each student a character with a particular goal, for example:
- a few characters with different backgrounds can each search for a job from other classmates who own businesses
- several standard business-owners: bank, grocery, newspaper, etc.
- pick a blue-collar industry that supports the town and have the various roles filled: owner, foreman, workers
- standard town services: police, postman, doctor, etc.
- CCC/WPA project workers
In this way, the Decoder Ring Theatre could actually be assigned as homework along with a handful of other leisure activities that fit the bill–marbles and other games, baseball or football games on the radio, newspapers and comics, etc. Other activities could be done in the class, such as canning–yes, I’m serious, just find a parent with a hot plate and a pressure-canner–sewing old clothes into new sizes (like letting a pair of pants out for someone who is growing or shortening them for a younger sibling), watch a news reel and movie from the era, hold a pot luck and have everyone bring in Depression-era recipes, etc.
Experiences are a great way to bring things home to students. When a student takes on the role of a character, the real-life troubles of the character become much more real to him or her. Assign primary sources to help the characters come alive. And, leverage student interests–one of the real values of this approach to teaching. If Suzy plays the trumpet she can take a look at the music of the era and be a musician as with other types of artists, many of who were specifically sought out by various federal programs. If Carl is into cars, then make him a Packard dealer or a mechanic and let him study the historic forerunners of today’s automobiles. Etcetera, etcetera. Help them learn and get excited about it. It’s ok if they have fun! *wink*