Give Your Students the Chance to Revolt

September 2, 2015

guillotineAmy Curry is a professor of History at Lone Star College–Montgomery in suburban Houston where she teaches Western Civilization and U.S. History. She holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Minnesota with a specialization in medieval England. She is a member of the Reacting to the Past Consortium and is currently writing a Reacting to the Past game set in medieval Norwich during the Black Death.

This post is part three of a four-part roundtable about Reacting to the Past. Please also check out parts one and two.

One of the best aspects of Reacting games in the classroom is the level of engagement between students, yourself, and the material. Because students enjoy the experience of role playing, they enjoy the class, and in the end, enjoy the learning process. My students have said about Reacting:

  • “I learned more. This class kinda makes you go the extra mile and actually LEARN.”
  • “This is a great way to learn about history and get involved on an emotional level.”
  • “I feel like I learned more because I had more fun.”
  • “I feel I learned more, and it was also way more fun and less stressful than a normal history class. Although participation is mandatory for a good grade, contributing to the discussion is entertaining and satisfying.”

cardinal hatI could continue with these kinds of “reviews,” but you get the picture. Students enjoy the class, stay engaged, and walk away from the class feeling as though they have learned more material than in a traditional lecture-based history course.

But are they learning more?

The answer to this depends on how you quantify learning. If you spend six weeks in a survey course playing the French Revolution game (Rousseau, Burke, and Revolution in France, 1791), you are going to give other material short shrift. In my course, the Stuarts suffer. By the end of the game, my students could give you a detailed account of the sins of the French monarchy, but they could not do the same for the English royal struggles. For me, however, the payoff is worth it. This is not because I favor the French over the English but because I favor skill development over content.

While considering the French Revolution, my students are doing more than just mastering historical content. They are developing incredibly important skills. They are learning to read critically, analyze, and present a coherent argument. They debate, compromise, and learn when to call for a full retreat. They collaborate with each other both inside the classroom and out. Reacting games generate all the aspects of student engagement that so many educators and administrators in higher education are calling for today.

IMG_2105_1_1 copyTo be a role player in a Reacting game, a student has to be willing to take on the role and do the work. And this is perhaps the most difficult roadblock to “good” gaming. As I am a professor at a community college, many of my students are unprepared for the intellectual rigor at the heart of Reacting games. It is not that they are not capable of matching the intellectual rigor, but that no one has ever challenged them to do so. They do not yet have the tools to get through Rousseau’s The Social Contract or Plato’s Republic. They might read the assigned pages, but they are meaningless to them. Here is where Reacting games force them into the light. To understand why the French Revolutionaries reacted and made the decisions they made, you have to understand where they were intellectually. And even if the students cannot get through Rousseau in the set up phase of the game, just the discussion of Rousseau, and then excerpts of Rousseau, and then quoting Rousseau in a debate as a explanation for one’s actions, opens that tool box and allows the students to start exploring the skills and the knowledge therein. The confidence they get from tackling, even if clumsily, these heavy primary sources, builds them up for future games, and future academic hurdles.

I will wager that my gaming classroom does not look like the gaming classroom of professors at four-year universities. We tackle the primary sources in smaller chunks, relying more heavily on the historical perspective than on the intellectual one. My students spend more time reading the game book and their role sheets than they do the book-length primary sources that so often accompany the games. We take baby steps rather than broad leaps. However, Reacting games get them on their feet— both literally and metaphorically. It engages them in material that they might otherwise ignore and teaches them skills that stretch to all areas of their academic and professional lives. And it demonstrates to them that learning does not have to be a chore.