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Students bring history to life

The Trial of Anne Hutchinson is one of the “Reacting to the Past”
games used by Professor Russell B. Sisson at Union College.
Illustration by Missy Frederick/Courtesy of Union College.

By Renee Elder*
5:05 PM EST Feb. 2, 2010 | LA GRANGE, Ga. (UMNS)

Students at United Methodist–related LaGrange (Ga.) College are bringing history to life by re-enacting famous scenes. They also may change historic decisions and create different futures.

LaGrange history student Alison Jones role-plays B.R. Ambedkar, one of India’s first college-educated “untouchables.” As Dr. Ambedkar, she argues for the rights of her people––even opposing Mohandas Gandhi.

Defenders of Anne Hutchinson, Ashley Gattis, Marcela Custodio, and Ximena Aguilar argue with Puritan clergy opposing Anne during a class by Dr. Russ Sisson at Union College. Photo courtesy of Missy Frederick.

“I didn’t agree with Gandhi on lot of things,” admitted Jones. “Gandhi didn’t think the untouchables should have special treatment because he didn’t want to acknowledge the caste system. As Dr. Ambedkar, I wanted to get rid of the caste system, too, but thought that if the untouchables weren’t recognized, their political power might be dissolved.”

Because of the role-playing experience, Jones came to a better understanding of India’s political compromise over the untouchables.

Re-enacting the role of the Indian activist is one of several “Reacting to the Past” games used by LaGrange professor Dr. David Oki Ahearn.

“The India game is complicated, involving strange names, various provinces and a confusing ethnic makeup,” said Ahearn. “Students have to learn about the Sikh religion and Hindu policy.”

“In these role-playing situations, there is conflict and different sides to an issue, and also the possibility for people to change the outcome so it can be counter-historical,” Ahearn added. “Students learn that history didn't have to inevitably go the way that it did; it could have worked out differently had some things––sometimes small things––changed.”

Nine games

“Reacting to the Past” is a series of nine games created by Mark C. Carnes, a history professor at Barnard College in New York.

LaGrange students were engaged in the course on “Defining a Nation: India on the Eve of Independence.” Other published titles include the “Trial of Galileo, 1616-1633,” “Darwin and the Rise of Naturalism” and “Athens in 403 B.C.”

Carnes is now preparing additional games.

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Some 40 colleges––including several United Methodist-related campuses––use the role-playing lessons to teach history, religion, philosophy and science.

Five faculty members at United Methodist-related Union College in Barbourville, Ky., now use the curriculum. “They love it,” Union Professor Russell B. Sisson said of his students’ response. “One game involves Henry VIII and the English parliament as they decide whether to break with the Catholic Church. It’s a great way to teach history and religion.”

“Some of the lessons students learn are not strictly academic,” says Nicolas Proctor, chair of the Department of History at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. “The dialogue and debate fostered through role-playing games hone critical life skills, including political persuasion, coalition building and the ability to handle criticism from peers––something many students initially are uncomfortable with,” noted Proctor.

Ahearn was skeptical of the unorthodox approach to classroom instruction, but an after-class occurrence convinced him to continue to use the lessons.

“Two hours after class was supposed to have ended, the students were still debating the role of Sikhs in Indian society,” recalled the LaGrange professor. “I finally had to force them out of the classroom.”

*Elder is a freelance writer in Raleigh, N.C.

News media contact: Joey Butler, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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Reacting to the Past games

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