Role-playing becomes focus of Formative History class

Jimmy Miller

A meeting recently took place at Kent State, where figures such as Frederick Douglass and Charles Dickens took to a New York City church to discuss slavery and the Constitution. Yoga pants and snapbacks were not around in the 1800s, but many students at the meeting in the Business Administration Building were in them. At the front of the room, a podium served as a makeshift signpost saying “OUTRAGE.”

Professor Elizabeth Smith-Pryor and her U.S. Formative History class have been participating in a role-playing game that seeks to creatively teach students about what life would have been like in a previous time period. The program, called Reacting to the Past, was first created by historian Mark C. Carnes, according to According to the website, more than 300 colleges have used the program.

“I thought (the program) was very effective,” freshman exploratory major Ian Cameron said. Cameron participated in the game by portraying Charles Dickens. “A lot of people lose appreciation for the past because they don’t think about it.”

Smith-Pryor has taught at Kent State for 12 years but was looking for something different to further “engage” her students.

“It’s been really good. I was a little nervous because I’ve never done (the program) before. Students … seem to be getting into roles. We laugh, and we have fun,” Smith-Pryor said.

The first week of the program was a mock forum hosted by Dickens to discuss the literary quality of Douglass. The next event was a banquet hosted by wealthy New Yorkers, and finally, the program concluded with a big church in New York City to debate whether or not slavery is protected by the Constitution.

“It’s graded on different components,” Smith-Pryor said. “There is no script. The game gives you broad outlines. As part of the game, students write papers from the perspective of characters. The second component is class participation, where you are required to give speeches.”

The roles are either real characters from history or personas created to replicate people from the selected time period, perhaps using a fabricated name. Each student was assigned a role, Cameron said.

Smith-Pryor had this program in mind before the semester began and integrated it into her syllabus. The professor said the success she had with the program has led her to believe she will be using it again next fall.

“I want to use something more modern,” Smith-Pryor said about finding other materials. “You must engage with materials from the past.”

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