MCKAYLA LEVASSEUR speaks during a reenactment of the 1773 tea tax debate at Bowdoinham Town Hall last week.

MCKAYLA LEVASSEUR speaks during a reenactment of the 1773 tea tax debate at Bowdoinham Town Hall last week.


“It is more than the fate of the tea that we discuss here tonight,” said moderator Seth Berry at the tea tax debate echoing off the walls of the historic Bowdoinham Town Hall last week.

“It is more than a frequent tax,” Berry continued. “It is the fate of our union. It is the rights of each individual… It is the role of government in our lives. Perhaps the fate of the United Kingdom itself.”

Arguments about the tax were made intermittently by patriots and loyalists, which students portrayed and fell into character during the reenactment of the tea tax debate set in Boston in 1773. That year Parliament passed the Tea Act which kept the tax on tea and only allowed seven loyalist merchants to sell tea in Boston.

Cameron Orr, playing the role of patriot John Hancock, argued, “The king and Parliament are treating us like second-class citizens… I will not pay this tax because Parliament has no right to tax us without our say in the matter! We need to demand our full rights as equal citizens.”

“What I want more than anything else is peace; not war,” said one of the students playing a loyalist.

Fifth grade students of Bowdoin Central School teachers Jessica Theberge and Steve Crowe dressed for the era and talked the talk during their reenactment of the tea tax debate.

They even began the debate by singing the patriots’ “America” and loyalists’ “God Save the King” and concluded with both the loyalist and patriot rendition of Yankee Doodle.

“Long live the king!” the loyalists shouted as the patriots yelled, “Boston Harbor a teapot tonight!”

Mary Wheeler said the class has been learning about the Revolutionary War and started working on the tea tax debate about a month ago. The students had some lines from the debate they could choose from or make up their own lines.

“I was really excited about doing that,” Ben Humphrey said. “I like history,” so the historic nature didn’t bother him. “It’s a fun thing to do.”

The last two fifth grade classes didn’t get to do the tea tax debate, Wheeler said, but “I think it would be better if they did it because we learned a lot from it and it’s really fun.”

Berry has been running the tea tax debate for about ten years. It started when he would get together with fellow educators after work to find an activity to get kids involve and perhaps provide public speaking opportunities.

“Also we wanted it to be a differentiated activity, where kids who had mastered the fundamentals of the time period and studying colonial times who maybe needed a little extra challenge, could actually do more than just be given a character and some lines, but research a character and go to primary sources, and use their imagination a little bit to come up with a speech.”

At the time, in 1773 when this meeting did occur at Old South Meeting House, only men attended, “so we encouraged kids, if they wanted, to use their imagination to bring someone else to the debate that couldn’t have actually been there at the time and spoken — and bring their perspective.”

Berry, who recently termed out of the House of Representatives, has done the tea tax debate with every School Administrative District 75 school at some point, but had to put the activity on hiatus the last couple years when he took on a leadership role in the Legislature. He said it’s been fun to get back to it.

“Honestly it’s been harder for the teachers to find the time for this because of the pressures of No Child Left Behind and Adequate Yearly Progress,” Berry said, “and things like this that are more multi-modal and that involve public speaking and performance and that sort of thing, are unfortunately, less valued by standardized tests,” and harder to assess.

The students learned to stand and speak, within the very building where Bowdoinham often holds its town meetings, and that’s citizenship, Berry said.

“You’re not just learning history and you’re not just learning public speaking,” he said. “It’s also about persuasion and that ability to put yourself in the role of a person who you aren’t and who you might not even agree with, and learn something from that.”

Berry said there were many loyalists in Maine as well as Massachusettes who had very strong reasons for thinking the way they did, and who often sympathized with the patriots but also really didn’t want ot have a war. Berry said students also learn about creulty visited on patriots by loyalists and on loyalitsts on patriots, “and I do think they bring away that sense that history is something that we live, it’s not just something written in a book. So that’s why we do it.”

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