William “Big Bill” Haywood stands on a soap box, exhorting the Bohemian patrons of a coffee house to support the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) in a strike for fair wages, an eight-hour day, and safe working conditions. Across the room, Mabel Dodge — wealthy socialite, art patron, and nationally syndicated columnist — listens to a group of suffragists trying to persuade the crowd to join the “new women” in their fight for equality. When Emma Goldman tries to speak, she is promptly arrested.
Greenwich Village in 1913? No. Amy Tyson’s class, Topics in Public History.
“I believe in the value of learning through play, so I was naturally interested in Reacting to the Past, a ‘living history’ pedagogy in which students learn about a time period by taking on the roles of real people in an interpretative game,” says Tyson, assistant professor, History. “This class, which was focused on museum education, illustrated the use of performance as a medium to make public education both engaging and entertaining.”
In the game Greenwich Village: 1913, students learned about turn-of-the-century issues of economic and social reform, as embodied in the philosophies of the Wobblies and the suffragists. The historical context was set through primary- and secondary-source readings. Then, students were assigned — or volunteered for — roles as historical people, some actual, others aggregates of types. They researched their characters’ points of view and came prepared to speak as those people in class. The students representing labor activists or feminists were tasked to persuade the rest of the class — the Bohemians — to choose between two rallies.
Writing assignments were specific to characters; for example, the Wobblies published a weekly paper, while “Emma Goldman” published a magazine, Mother Earth, summarizing the debates going on in the classroom. Also, students earned “personal influence points” by doing extra activities: for example, bohemian “Neith Boyce” wrote a play that was performed in class. The class’s final project was to write a “living history” program, hypothetically for the Chicago History Museum, based on an event in Chicago during the same time period.
“I’d never had a class like this before,” says Jessica Burgwald (Mabel Dodge). “During the second half of each class, we’d get into our roles, walk around the room, and talk to each other about the issues. No one had a script, but everyone had an agenda! A speaker would present his or her opinion, and then everyone would ask questions or present counterarguments. If you didn’t do your homework — and more! — you’d be embarrassed because your character wouldn’t be able to speak intelligently about the topics. The focus wasn’t just being ‘in character’ but in using role playing to educate each other.”
Kevin Kauffman (“Big Bill” Haywood) agrees: “Each of us wanted to be prepared for class because we had to rely on each other for information. You would know your own character’s perspective, but you’d have to ask others about their characters’ ideas. Then, they’d ask about yours, so you’d better have a response. What we learned really stuck —when I run into a classmate now, we still call each other by our characters’ names! And I must admit I’m now definitely sympathetic to unions!”
“Game-based learning requires all kinds of skills from the students: research, writing, public speaking, and, perhaps most important, imagination and creativity,” says Tyson. “To be persuasive — or persuaded — the students in this class needed to understand and articulate the issues. And because the class had no pre-determined outcome, the students learned a valuable lesson: history is made in the possibilities of moments.”
For the class’s final project, the students had to apply all they’d learned about interpreting the past and about public involvement — all the information they’d gained about social context, cultural context, and historical context — to write what’s basically a new game. “Yeah, I’d say we all got a big ‘bang for the buck’ from Reacting to the Past,” concludes Tyson.
Reacting to the Past was pioneered by historian Mark C. Carnes (Barnard College). Greenwich Village: 1913 is a game in development, written by Mary Jean Treacy (Simmons College). To support interested faculty, Barnard organizes regional workshops and an annual institute, as well as hosting an interactive website for the sharing of course materials, questions, and advice.