L.A.R.P. stands for “Live Action Role Playing.” It may sound odd, but chances are good that if you’ve ever run a classroom you have asked students to dress like, write like, act like, or argue in the mindset of a historical figure or fictional character. These active, imaginative modes of imitation speak to the essence of L.A.R.P. A few years ago I decided to implement some L.A.R.P. tactics in my middle school classroom.
I learned about extended classroom role playing projects at a teaching seminar in the summer of 2014; we discussed RTTP (Reacting to the Past) pedagogy embraced and developed at Barnard College in which students take on roles of historical figures and engage in debates about events as they are revealed by the “Gamemaster” (i.e., the professor). Students use primary and secondary sources in order to inform their discussions. In the seminar, we talked about potential benefits of this kind of activity. Some suggested that taking on a role in history would increase level of student interest and engagement with the important questions of history. Students might learn to feel more empathy for others. The activity could also promote independent thinking and curiosity, provide practice with communication, and promote literacy skills involved in interpreting primary and secondary sources. With hopes set high, a colleague and I decided to implement a version of RTTP at the middle school level in our own classrooms.
Inspired by one of the Barnard programs, we assigned each student a role in the Roman senate and played out debates in the aftermath of Caesar’s death. I won’t go into the nitty gritty here, but ultimately, many of our desired results were achieved. Students became excited about the classical history and the class. They dove into primary sources and historical events. They sought out their own answers for questions and discoursed with their peers. They understood key points about the history. I was even able to rope in some language content and concepts using “graffiti” projects and short Latin compositions.
The challenges of this activity had to do with planning and implementing a project of this size in the time allotted. A protracted game with complex characters took many steps to set up. Scaffolding was key and takes time. Three years now using a similar project has resulted in my cutting down what students need to know to the most important points, reformatting all of the primary source materials, and focusing in on how to best “debrief” debates in order to avoid anyone going away with the impression that Caesar’s body was dumped into the Tiber. It took ample preparation to maintain continuity between debates, try to create meaningful assessments and assess students’ work, and role play during class time.
After discussing this project at length with my colleague from the seminar and with other teachers at school, I have come to a couple of conclusions about this level of role playing in the classroom. These may already be quite obvious to you!
- It’s worth it. Most students enjoy role playing. They get into the ideas and they like to be empowered in their roles.
- Students don’t always understand the activity. They need resources that clearly show them how to become this other person and frequent review of how to engage with their peers. A fishbowl framework will be my strategy this year.
- The activity should either be everything you do in class, encompassing language learning and cultural units, or downsized to be a much smaller learning activity to spice up your classroom like a Saturnalia celebration. Balancing a sizable role playing agenda with separately language learning is a difficult task.
I would be excited to hear about your experiences, strategies, and opinions concerning classroom role playing in the comments or at C.A.N.E. this year.