L.A.R.P. in the Classroom

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.

Stratagems – a AP Caesar Enrichment Activity

Making Caesar interesting and exciting to students can sometimes be a challenge for teachers used to a mythology or poetry background, particularly when confronted with passages about war.  This can be especially difficult for students and teachers who have issues with the violence and arguably genocide Caesar commits as part of his campaigns in Gaul.  While I can’t give any good advice there except to either avoid teaching it entirely or specifically make the unit about the horrors of war, I do have an idea about presenting a different aspect of war that more students can appreciate, and that is to focus on stratagems.  War and conflict is often resolved as much by the use of intelligence and crafty tricks as by the use of force.  The best strategies can resolve a conflict without the use of violence at all.  Today I’d like to share some of the places you can find these stratagems as well as some of my personal favorites.

Hannibal uses a stratagem to convince reluctant elephants to cross the river.

Sextus Iulius Frontinus is a treasure trove of these ideas and, as a bonus, he writes using somewhat Caesarian language.  His book Strategmata was so influential it was required reading for generals through the 15th and 16th centuries until gunpowder and cannons radically changed how battles were fought.  Better yet for a Latin teacher, Frontinus organizes his book by the kinds of ploys he found in history and then gives several paragraph length examples.
My first example is from the very beginning:

M. Porcius Cato devictas a se Hispaniae civitates existimabat in tempore rebellaturas fiducia murorum. Scripsit itaque singulis, ut diruerent munimenta, minatus bellum, nisi confestim obtemperassent, epistulasque universis civitatibus eodem die reddi iussit: unaquaeque urbium sibi soli credidit imperatum; contumaces conspiratio potuit facere, si omnibus idem denuntiari notum fuisset.

This is a great story because it shows how Cato used deception to convince all the cities in Spain to weaken themselves at the same time by making each one think they were the only one being compelled to do so.
In my second selection, also from Book 1, we learn of the clever method by which Duellius circumvented the underwater chain that the Syracusans were using to block access to their harbor.

C. Duellius consul in portu Syracusano, quem temere intraverat, obiecta ad ingressum catena clausus universos in puppem rettulit milites atque ita resupina navigia magna remigantium vi concitavit: levatae prorae super catenam processerunt. Qua parte superata transgressi rursus milites proras presserunt, in quas versum pondus decursum super catenam dedit navibus.

Sometimes a general pretends to have less of a force than he actually does to trick someone into fighting a battle.  Here’s an example from Book 2.

Memnon Rhodius navali proelio, cum haberet ducentarum navium classem et hostium naves elicere ad proelium vellet, ita ordinavit suos, ut paucarum navium malos erigeret easque primas agi iuberet: hostes procul conspicati numerum arborum et ex eo navium quoque coniectantes obtuleruntse certamini et a pluribus occupati superatique sunt.

I also like this tale from Book 3:

Hannibal apud Tarentum, quae a praesidio Romano duce Livio tenebatur,Cononeum quendam Tarentinum, quem ad proditionem sollicitaverat,eiusmodi fallacia instruxit, ut ille per causam venandi noctu procederet,quasi id per hostem interdiu non liceret. Egresso ipsi apros subministrabant,quos ille tamquam ex captura Livio offerret; idque cum saepius factum esset et ideo minus observaretur, quadam nocte Hannibal venatorum habitu Poenos comitibus eius immiscuit: qui cum onusti venatione, quam ferebant, recepti essent a custodibus, protinus eos adorti occiderunt. Tum fracta porta admissus cum exercitu Hannibal omnes Romanos interfecit,exceptis his, qui in arcem profugerant.

Here Hannibal uses a traitor within Tarentum to begin a habit of hunting at night with some friends.  Once the guards get used to seeing him, they notice too late the night that Hannibal switches out Cononeus’ friends with his own soldiers!
And, lest you think that these only exist in Frontinus, my last example (slightly shortened to get to the best stuff) comes from Cornelius Nepos’ Vita Hannibalis 10-11, in which the famous general uses amphora full of snakes to cause a superior force to scatter!

Superabatur navium multitudine; dolo erat pugnandum, cum par non esset armis. Imperavit quam plurimas venenatas serpentes vivas colligi easque in vasa fictilia conici. 5 Harum cum effecisset magnam multitudinem, die ipso, quo facturus erat navale proelium, classiarios convocat hisque praecipit, omnes ut in unam Eumenis regis concurrant navem, a ceteris tantum satis habeant se defendere. Id illos facile serpentium multitudine consecuturos…Reliquae Pergamenae naves cum adversarios premerent acrius, repente in eas vasa fictilia, de quibus supra mentionem fecimus, conici coepta sunt. Quae iacta initio risum pugnantibus concitarunt, neque, quare id fieret, poterat intellegi. 6 Postquam autem naves suas oppletas conspexerunt serpentibus, nova re perterriti, cum, quid potissimum vitarent, non viderent, puppes verterunt seque ad sua castra nautica rettulerunt.

How to use these in class?  There are several methods – in my own class I divide up the selections I think are the most interesting and then ask the students (singly or in groups) to read the selection that they’ve been given and summarize it in their own words to the class.  They could also make posters or dioramas or videos, and this makes a great choice or challenge activity for a long-term project.
Have any great ideas?  We’d love for you to share them in the comments!

Veni, Vidi, "Video" – Some Useful Videos to Supplement the Teaching of Caesar

Today’s feature article is brought to you by Ruth Breindel.

I teach Caesar’s Gallic Wars in both my second year and AP/Latin 4 classes.  Personally, I love teaching Caesar – the prose is quite straightforward, the action can be intense, and there are many things one can bring up in class about Caesar as an anthropologist, general and diplomat.  As I often tell my students, “Caesar alone was more intelligent than all of us put together.”

There are 3 videos which I use with the classes – 2 for Latin 2 and one for the AP.  Here is where to find them and how to use them!

  1. Veni Vidi Vici

This video is a humorous look at a little Roman who wants to be a soldier.  He has to go up against the strong, burly soldiers, but with intellect, vicit. It lasts 3 ½ minutes, and is perfect to show at the end of a class when you have about 5 minutes left.

  1. Caesar vs. the Helvetians

This is a film of my students’ reenactment of the battle in chapters 24-28 or so of Book 1 of the Gallic War.  We have small soldiers, carts, horses and a long corridor to use.  John decided to film it, and then we collaborated with putting music in and the words.  It’s quite eye-catching, and might inspire your students, too.  Every year my students reenact this – it’s a crowd pleaser, and other students will come to see what’s going on; nothing like publicity!

  1. Ambiorix and the Romans

This is a much darker film, which I show to the AP/Latin 4 class after we read Book 5 of the Gallic Wars.  It lasts about 2 ½ minutes.  As a reenactment it is extremely effective, and the scenes of battle, while violent, are done quite carefully.  It gives the students a good sense of the confusion of battle and the ominous nature of being a conquering army going through the woods.  This can lead to excellent discussions:

  • The Romans are the conquerors – on whose side do you stand?
  • How do the Belgae compare with the Americans during the Revolutionary War?
  • How do the Belgae compare with the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War?

I find that videos, used sparingly, have a great impact on students.  They certainly remember what they see and hear, when presented in an emotional context.