By Gillian Macdonald
“To start with I thought it was terrible, then we got to the game, and oh my god, I had no idea that I knew that much about American history just immersing myself in one person.”
This is the statement that makes being a Teaching Assistant worth it. TA’s are forever talking about teaching assignments and class work – it’s all part of the experience – and what you tend to find is that either the funny or the heartwarming stories stick out. There are so many great stories when using the game-based learning pedagogy, Reacting to the Past or RTTP. It may seem strange to use game based learning in a history class, but when the documents alone can’t quite get the idea across or grab students attention, it’s a fabulous way to learn. In a wide-ranging survey course designed to teach students American history from Reconstruction to present, “experiencing” a moment often is the best way to explain historical events and help students deepen their understanding of their very unique heritage.
Reacting to the Past: Greenwich Village 1913 is one of those moments. Don’t be fooled by the game aspect – it is a lot of work; students must take on a historical role and remain in that character for 4 or 5 weeks while trying to achieve their game objectives. Because it is a game, they mostly focus on the winning, but in the end, they have a much better understanding of how historical forces actually work in real life. To play the game, there is a period of set up. However, this is the point where you can lose students. Prepping for the game is work, but once the game gets going it feels much smoother and pretty much runs itself. However, this type of leg work is often something students are not accustomed to and complaints are to be expected. Those who stay end up really enjoying it, especially if they win ;-).
The hardest part for the TA is deciding on the cast. Greenwich Village has the luxury of so many great characters like Emma Goldman, John “Jack” Reed, and Margaret Sanger, to name just a few. Students must know their character inside out. Taking on the role of a historical person requires a multitude of skills – skills they often didn’t know that they had. In order to make their character believable the student must know: who was this person? How did their life experiences shape them? How did the events of the day influence their political views? What did they want and why? The TA on the other hand, has to know all of the characters—everything about them—including how they would react in a multitude of situations. It’s crazy, although now I could tell you all about “Big Bill” Haywood’s trial for murder and how students used this in the game, and more importantly, how and why it was used to make arguments for and against him and the labor faction’s objectives....
This year, the class did unbelievably well. Students went above and beyond – in costume every day, created buttons, posters, paintings – and it showed. The fun part, at least for me, was watching them learn, react, and evolve. For instance, there are a number of surprises in the game (which I won’t spoil) and seeing their faces and how they felt afterward was just fantastic. Students grow confident, learn how to speak out, and express historical opinions in meaningful ways, all while they gain transferable skills. Their journals and reflection papers, which help to try and ground the experience, are where the lightbulb moments happen, and that makes them so fun to read. Students often make connections between what they have learned playing the game and the lecture material. That reflection often creates a deeper understanding of historical forces at work.
This is where RTTP can do things that reading a document just doesn’t do. Students are reading and researching without even really thinking about it because they are immersing themselves in a situation because they want to win! It’s a game after all, experience matters. One faculty member, Dr. Kathleen Donohue told me that students feel RTTP has a lasting impact, particularly when they have played a person who was fundamentally different from themselves. It can be a powerful experience. One student expressed afterwards that it was an eye-opening experience and reinforced his opinions on gender-equality.
Overall, RTTP is definitely a worthwhile experience, but it’s not for the faint-hearted ;-).