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Role-playing history game gets students jazzed

by Hawke Robinson published Jun 20, 2015 05:05 PM, last modified Feb 05, 2023 12:22 PM
Archived from the USA Today site in case it disappears - USA TODAY visits a class at Barnard College "Reacting to the Past" - Robert Deutsch and Jason Allen.

Originally from Greg Toppo, USATODAY 11:55 a.m. EDT March 28, 2015.

NEW YORK — It's an icy Tuesday afternoon on Manhattan's Upper West Side, but in Room 302 of Barnard Hall, the freshmen are wrapped in togas. Socrates is on trial.

The class session will inevitably end in a crucial vote on the fate of the Greek philosopher, so one of the 16 students suggests that the charges be posted. Theresa Christensen, a tall freshman who is clearly in charge, pops the top off a dry-erase marker and quickly writes: "Socrates is an impious teacher who seeks to corrupt the youth and undermine the strength of Athenian democracy and society."

The next hour goes by in a blur: After a quick prayer to the goddess Themis, the six Barnard College students serving as the two sides take turns passionately condemning or defending the philosopher. A loud, sometimes raucous debate follows as the session — part freewheeling discussion, part improv session — heats up. The speeches inevitably lead to pointed cross-examinations and cheers — or jeers — from the crowd.

The class is part of a quiet revolution taking place at colleges across the USA and abroad, one that takes an unusual approach to teaching history. Called Reacting to the Past, this teaching method rejects lectures and laptops, instead asking students to stand up, dress up and compete against one another. They do intensive research on key moments in history, then act them out over a series of class sessions. History, in other words, as a giant, live-action role-playing game.

"Students live in these worlds of social competition, whether it's Facebook friends or leveling (up) in video games — that's part of what motivates us," says Barnard history professor Mark Carnes, who has pioneered the history games over the past 14 years. "And to banish it from our motivational arsenal is to guarantee that we've lost a lot of motivational power."

Now in use at about 350 colleges and universities, from Ivy League campuses to community colleges and even in a few prison classrooms, the games span much of world history: the trials of Socrates, Galileo and the 17th-century Boston religious leader Anne Hutchinson, the Crusades, the French Revolution, the birth of India and women's suffrage in turn-of-the-century New York City, among other topics.

Fourteen games have been published so far, but another 60 are in development, part of a movement among college instructors worldwide. In 2013, a handful of instructors formed the Reacting Consortium, a non-profit group that now runs the program.

The idea came to Carnes more than 20 years ago, when he began to realize that, despite his own hard work and his students' obvious intelligence, his history classes simply weren't engaging.

"I had smart students, but they weren't giving it their all," he says. "This was not their passion. They were doing enough to get A's, but it didn't deeply resonate in their lives."

He soon realized that the problem was not new. Yale University literature professor Henry Seiden Canby had long ago pointed out the "deathly indifference that hangs like a fog bank" over the American university, marveling at "the astonishing power of the undergraduate mind to resist the intrusion of knowledge."

Carnes checked the date of Canby's observations: 1915.

The culprit, Canby had decided, was the social life of students. Even at the turn of the century, before automobiles and radios and the Internet, students simply had more interesting things tugging on their attention. Greek life, collegiate sports, clubs, drinking and pranks were all taking their toll. Colleges, even the best colleges in the world, were struggling to keep up.

A century later, Carnes realized, classroom instruction had improved, as had the academic credentials of most college professors. But most students were still focused on anything but classwork. "They're doing something else that's more compelling — or they're too tired because they were out doing the things that are more compelling," he says.

Much of their extracurricular excitement, he realized, revolved around competition. So Carnes decided he would bring students' love of "subversive play" into the classroom. He realized this was a decidedly unpopular position for a college professor to stake out. His colleagues frowned on competition of nearly any sort. Competition created winners and losers.

"We've got this notion that if you lose, your ego is going to be shattered," Carnes says. "And what really happens is that by not giving students these experiences in play modes, they end up having a superficial sense that 'they can do anything,' and then they get turned down by their girlfriend or they get fired from a job and they're shattered. They just don't have any experience with this — or they just don't take any risks at all."

So one day he asked two students to run a classroom debate. He found that almost instantly the focus shifted "from me to them." Students, he realized, naturally gravitate to other students, especially when something is at stake.

Since Carnes is the guy who gives out grades, the class members still kept him in their field of vision. After the first session, he moved his chair back 5 feet from the discussion table. "Nobody even commented on it," he said. The next session, he moved his chair to the back of the room. It's been there ever since.

What many teachers forget is that the flip side of the coin labeled "competition" is "teamwork." In the games that came out of those first debates, teams of students compete to outdo each other, in the process diving deeply into the material in order to give their side the upper hand. In the process, Carnes found, students immerse themselves in the characters and even come to love them.

"It's a month of their lives," he says. "It sucks them in." After the game is over, the winners exult and the losers sulk. "For many of them, they call home and they talk about this experience and it's sort of a painful one. This is the class that students talk about with their parents."

The curriculum is challenging. Students must read hundreds of pages of background, much of it in the form of historical documents, and write several papers. Grading is based not only on their writing but also on their mastery of historical characters' points of view and their ability to make them come to life in class. Carnes laughs as he recalls that a student guide to Smith College, which has embraced the games, said they appeared fun and easy but actually tricked students into doing more work than all other classes combined. "Be careful!" it warned.

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, says the games clearly engage students, helping them "situate themselves in the past" in a way that simply reading about history doesn't.

"There's a lot there that contributes greatly to student learning in history and to helping students think historically, which is our goal," he says. Most historians believe that thinking historically is more important than "inculcating an ability to memorize names, dates and facts. And I think 'Reacting' does that."

Each game hews closely to history, except at the end. That's when students must make their own judgments about the small slice of history playing out in front of them.

In class this afternoon, Daisy Homolka, 18, a freshman from Asheville, N.C., made a passionate defense of Socrates, telling classmates, "He does not tell people what to think — he asks them what they think." It must have been persuasive, because minutes later the class defied history and narrowly voted to acquit Socrates. As Christensen read the verdict, a cheer rose from his defenders. No suicide by hemlock after all.

"I love being able to share my opinions and I love the public speaking aspect of the class," says an energized Homolka. "We definitely get kind of rowdy, but that's part of the fun."

Reacting instructors report better — in some cases perfect — class attendance, fewer students dropping or failing classes and engagement that's often stratospheric. "What everyone says about Reacting classes is that students show up," Carnes says. "Part of it is they don't know what's going to happen that day. They don't know who's going to win a particular debate, what sort of thing is going to occur, and there is an element, in these worlds, of drama, which is true of any good competition."

Carnes last year published a book on his experiences. In one chapter he recounts a class on the trial of Hutchinson, the New England religious leader. In it, a student who rarely speaks in class finally rises to defend Hutchinson and is verbally smacked down by a more polished speaker. Eventually, though, the defender — in the book, Carnes calls her "Veronica" — works up the courage to fight back and challenge her classmate, perhaps not as eloquently but in a heartfelt way.

Afterward, Carnes marvels at her performance. As he and Veronica walk across campus, Carnes asks how she finally screwed her courage to the sticking place and was able to speak.

"They were trying to hurt Anne," she tells him. "I couldn't let them do that."