Keeping Our History Lessons Meaningful During Role Play

history_logoby Aaron Brock

Most social studies teachers are expected to cover very specific content, whether or not it resonates with the students personally or politically. This often leads us to fall back on reenactments as the primary method of giving students an historical “experience.”

While there is value in these activities, it is important to reflect on the purpose of any hands-on lesson. Having students act out historical episodes “just because” is as meaningless as making students memorize names and dates for a test.

I divide on-your-feet history lessons into three broad categories: dramatization, experiential, and real-world application. This post will focus on dramatizations. I will cover experiential and real-world lessons in a later post.

Dramatic missteps

A dramatization is any activity where students take on historical personas or act out specific events in history. There is no question that dramatizations have the potential to be fun. As with all fun activities, however, it is easy for process to overwhelm purpose, and to come away feeling like little of academic value has been accomplished.

In the past, when I have struggled with these lessons, it was for two reasons: the purpose of the activity was not clear to the students, and I choose the role of active director rather than observer, lessening the likelihood that students would dig deeper into the history content.

medieval-costume-340My first attempt to give students an experience from the past came while trying to teach feudalism in seventh grade. I selected one student to be the “monarch.” The selected student then had to choose “nobles” to be in their service. This continued until the remaining students were dubbed “peasants.”

Result: Less than half the class was directly involved, and I had to orchestrate the entire affair from beginning to end. The classroom “discussion” that followed was dominated by my explanation of the point of the activity and the historical connections. My students practiced no skills and had no better understanding of feudal Europe at the end of the lesson. A three-minute lecture would have accomplished what I took an hour to do.

Reflecting on this lesson, I understood that my primary mistake was assuming that getting students “on their feet” was the point. It is a good idea, when working with adolescents, to keep them physically active and engaged. This physical engagement, however, must be viewed as a vehicle for an academically rigorous lesson.

Success at last

declaration-325Good teaching is as much about experimentation and reflection as it is about theory and planning. Despite dismal results early on, I have continued to try different approaches to dramatization.

This year, I conducted my first truly successful “living history” lesson. Students first spent a week working in pairs to learn about two prominent figures from the American Revolutionary period. The students had to read about their historical characters and identify their successes, failures, thoughts and motives.

CrispusAttucks-150Once all of this preparation was in place, I had a student help me model an interview between two historical characters. Then the students conducted interviews in their original pairs. The second interview helped students determine which of the personas they were more comfortable adopting.

The students were then tasked with getting interviews with each different historical character in the room. Students had to take notes during each interview, and pay special attention to the way their classmates interpreted their adopted personas.

MercyOtisWarren-150Because many students struggled with the reading (recall that I teach in an inner city LA-area school with significant literacy challenges), I required that two interviews be conducted for each historical character. The second interview forced students to attend to factual and interpretive discrepancies. Students became de facto fact checkers, and some even helped those they were interviewing to correct a misinterpretation of the text they read.

The dual responsibility each student had as both interviewee and interviewer kept everybody engaged, and allowed me to devote most of my energy to supporting the students who struggled most with the activity.

Keeping it meaningful

Bringing history to life is never easy. It is a discipline rooted in documents and ideas that are difficult to parse and feel remote from the day-to-day lives of adolescents. It is important that history teachers strive to make their classes engaging and relevant. However, making a history class fun is not always the same thing as making the subject meaningful or accessible, and the latter should be the ultimate goal.

Students should not come away from a dramatization having done something memorable and learned nothing valuable.”

When creating historical theater activities, we are often inclined to make the experience memorable. This can lead to lessons that students remember in form, but from which they gain little academically. Students should not come away from a dramatization having done something memorable and learned nothing valuable. There should always be a core skill or concept guiding the activity.

Every year I experiment with a variety of ways to get students on their feet and into the history. I have learned as much from my failures as successes, and I know that there exists a whole range of creative possibilities I have yet to really explore.

I hope what I’ve shared here will provide a good starting point for a dialogue about the successes and challenges we have all experienced with dramatizations in our classrooms.

Aaron Brock

Aaron Brock entered teaching in 2008 and teaches middle school social studies in California's Compton Unified School District. He has a BA in History from California State University Northridge and received his teaching credential through UCLA’s TeachLA program. His love of history dates back to his own adolescence, and it is his goal to help students discover the aspects of history about which they can get excited. Follow Aaron on Twitter @HistoryBrock.

2 Responses

  1. farkmitz says:

    Hi Aaron,

    Really interested in your reflections on dramatisations. I am just setting up my Year 8s with a task to research the life of a individual in medieval times. Have you come up with a meaningful and successful role play activity from this period?


  2. Sorry for the delay, Mark. I taught Medieval history for less than two years, and never had a chance to create many good, meaningful lessons with the material. I love the content, but I never had a chance to distill the huge scope of Medieval World History into something accessible to the students. My instinct would be to have students engage in dialogues (in pairs or groups) as particular historical characters or from the perspective of specific social classes (e.g. serfs, clergy and nobility in feudal Europe). The dialogue should follow individual research or reading, and include some kind of writing activity to keep the students accountable as they speak with one another. It could be interesting to allow students to judge the other characters they meet from the perspective of their own character (how might a Christian priest feel about a Muslim merchant and vice versa).

    Whatever you do, be prepared for the first time to be a little rough. Adapt, edit and repeat next year. As long as you reflect on the results, clunky new lessons are a great way to learn and develop new curriculum.

    Good luck!

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