Students ‘Reacting’ to historic events

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Posted: 
November 23, 2010

The setting is Paris, France, 1791.

The debate is whether to remove soldier Marquis de Lafayette as head of the French army or execute King Louis XVI.

As street crowds riot for more rights and representation
in government, the common language is French.

Georgia College senior Sasha Rojas and 11 other students are the first in the nation to speak only French while play Reacting to the Past, a powerful role-playing pedagogy of interactive historical games.

“Being overwhelmed doesn’t even begin to describe my role,” said Rojas, a French major playing King Louis XVI. “I’m trying not to be overthrown and most importantly beheaded.”

Dr. Peggy Schaller, assistant professor of French leads the game, “Rousseau, Burke and Revolution in France, 1791,” during her upper-level French class.

“The idea is to get students engaged in learning,” said Schaller. “Our particular game has a double objective: improve the students’ mastery of the French language and also make them a part of the French culture and history during that time period.”

While Schaller’s students attempt to prevent and make history-changing decisions in Terrell Hall, 17 students in Georgia College’s Arts and Sciences Building sift through Reformation materials for Dr. Deborah Vess’ Reacting game, “Henry VIII and the Reformation Parliament.”

Junior Will Little tries to maintain order in the English Parliament.

“I’m portraying Sir Thomas Audley, Speaker of the House of Commons,” said Little, who’s a history major and French minor. “I have to see that the king’s wishes are fulfilled. Fortunately, the views of my character make a lot of sense. Reacting to the Past is an amazing way of studying the politics and culture of the Renaissance and Reformation.”

Students have responded positively to the game-playing teaching method.

“One day, my students really went at it on how to treat beggars and vagabonds in 16th-century England,” said Vess, professor of history and interdisciplinary studies. “You just don’t see that very often.”    

Dr. Jerry Herbel, assistant professor in the government and sociology department, teaches “The Threshold of Democracy: Athens in 403 B.C.”

The Reacting to the Past series debuted at Georgia College during fall semester 2010. Dr. Steven Elliott-Gower, director of the Honors Program and associate professor of political science, introduced the games on campus.

“These Reacting classes are different from your average lecture classes because they’re tremendously engaging,” he said. “Students are assigned historical figures to play and victory objects to accomplish.

“Because our students are pretty competitive, they have a real interest in the outcome of the game — which is to win.”

Dr. Mark C. Carnes, professor of history at Barnard College, developed Reacting to the Past in 1995.

During 2004, Reacting to the Past was honored the prestigious Theodore Hesburgh Award in higher education for pedagogical innovation. The games have grown in popularity on campuses across the country.

Reacting also has been featured in The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education and Chronicle Review.

Throughout the academic year, the Reacting to the Past Consortium sponsors a national meeting at Barnard College and several regional conferences for faculty and administrators to learn about the Reacting curriculum.

“We will host a teaching lecture series and workshops on campus for a few of our faculty during spring semester,” said Elliott-Gower. “We’re probably going to play a truncated version of the Athens game and talk about games available in the sciences, art, history and religion to get faculty excited about Reacting.”

The elaborate games take learning to new heights.

Students first focus on a particular aspect of history as it relates to their assigned character. Then, the character is situated into the historical and cultural context during that period.

“Reacting requires you to read a great deal of research and literature in order to make strong arguments,” said Hillary Cobb, a sophomore acting as French president of the National Assembly. “I even write out my speeches in French to help me address my assembly of classmates.”

Students literally are reacting to the past, Vess said.

“They’re understanding why people living in the past behaved certain ways and reading primary sources much deeper than they otherwise would to support their ideas,” she said.

Students can anticipate new games during spring semester 2011.

Dr. Elissa Auerbach, assistant professor of art, will lead “Modernism vs. Traditionalism: Art in Paris, 1888-89;” Dr. Vess will teach “The Trial of Galileo: Aristotelianism, the ‘New Cosmology,’ and the Catholic Church, 1616-33” and “The Trial of Anne Hutchinson;” and Dr. Stephen Auerbach, assistant professor of history, will replay “Rousseau, Burke and Revolution in France, 1791.”

“Reacting fits nicely with Georgia College’s liberal arts environment because the games engage the students with big ideas—ideas like the nature of democracy, the relationships between religion and science, aesthetics and society,” Elliott-Gower said.

For more information e-mail steve.elliott-gower@gcsu.edu.

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ABOUT GEORGIA COLLEGE: Georgia College, the state’s designated Public Liberal Arts University, combines the educational experience expected at esteemed private liberal arts colleges with the affordability of public higher education. Its four colleges – arts and sciences, business, education and health sciences – provide 6,600 undergraduate and graduate students with an exceptional learning environment that extends beyond the classroom, with hands-on involvement with faculty research, community service, study abroad and myriad internships.

Founded in 1889, Georgia College boasts one of the most beautiful campuses in the nation with Corinthian columns fronting red brick buildings and wide open green spaces. Georgia College also offers graduate education at the historic Jefferson building in downtown Macon, at Robins Air Force Base and online.

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