This semester, University of Maine at Presque Isle students in the History class HTY 313: Early Modern Europe are taking on the roles of historical figures and reliving major events from the past—in this case, Henry VIII and the Reformation Parliament in the 16th Century, when marital discontent, an heir to the Tudor line, and religion all took center stage—as part of a curriculum that has been used all across the United States and abroad.
This curriculum, titled Reacting to the Past [RTTP], is a 2004 Theodore Hesburgh Award-winning educational game where students take charge of the class as they participate in live action role play and multi-factioned debates.
Dr. John DeFelice, UMPI Associate Professor of History, has been implementing RTTP in his classes for the past four semesters. The games have ranged from politics in ancient Athens to the Industrial Revolution and the problems that follow.
“These games are sophisticated learning tools that engage students in reliving some of the great contests in history,” DeFelice said. “There are few activities that I have experienced in 20 years of teaching that engage students in historical issues in such a realistic way. The game creates a competitive atmosphere where studying historical sources is an important requirement for success. Students are far more self-motivated and quite often surprise me with things they bring to debates in class.”
DeFelice said that students develop a wide range of skills, from research methods to public speaking and strategy, as part of these games. Another benefit is that groups develop skills in emergent leadership—“One skilled student may initially take the lead, but will quickly come to learn that success can only come with cooperation and allowing everyone in the group to contribute,” he said.
RTTP was developed at Barnard College in New York City. To prepare for RTTP game days, students research and develop their roles as historical figures connected with a critical moment in history. Last year at UMPI, four of Dr. DeFelice’s classes participated in RTTP games: one class wrestled with what to do after the death of Caesar, and another class took on the roles of Catholic Church cardinals and Renaissance thinkers during the trial of Galileo.
Sam Bonczyk, a junior majoring in Liberal Arts and minoring in History, is taking part in her fourth RTTP class with DeFelice. “The Trial of Galileo was my favorite,” she said. “Each student took on a major role. I played a cardinal and the leader of our faction. The thing is, many of the characters are real, and we have to learn about them so we can act like them. Learning like that, you really make the most of your experience because you have to get invested in order to play the game right.”
According to the Reacting Consortium’s website, RTTP consists of elaborate games set in the past in which students are assigned roles informed by classic texts. Class sessions are run entirely by students; instructors advise and guide students and grade their oral and written work. It seeks to draw students into the past, promote engagement with big ideas, and improve intellectual and academic skills.
The RTTP curriculum has been implemented by faculty at hundreds of colleges and universities in the U.S. and abroad since dissemination began in 2001. All of the games are set in the past, and thus might be regarded as history, but each game also explores multiple additional disciplines. Part of the intellectual appeal of RTTP is that it transcends disciplinary structures.
Reacting to the Past was honored with the 2004 Theodore Hesburgh Award (TIAA-CREF) for outstanding innovation in higher education. RTTP has also been featured in Change magazine, the Chronicle Review, the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere.
“Most students find these classes enjoyable and can see their skill sets improve from experience to experience,” DeFelice said. “Often shy and even unmotivated students end up as innovators in these classes. Of course, they learn history and how to access the primary sources historians utilize, but the important thing is that they learn that while the past is the past, the human experience is dynamic.”
DeFelice hopes that others will use RTTP, or elements of RTTP, in other classes.
“I have had both History majors and non-majors take class after class to participate in as many of these as possible,” he said. “In fact, one veteran student has gone on to develop his own games as he teaches in high school.”
As RTTP lovers everywhere would say, let the games continue.
For more information about the UMPI History Program, please contact DeFelice at firstname.lastname@example.org.