Reacting to the Past
Reacting to the Past is an educational role playing game in which students take on the roles of historical figures. Students build on their existing knowledge by researching their historical character then applying this knowledge to inform how their character would handle challenges in their time period.
Recent Game Synopsis (Click to Expand)
Early in the game, the Senate put Brutus and Cassius under house arrest following Caesar’s murder but forgot to follow through by holding a proper trial. I used their mistake as a chance to discuss court procedures, then provided the students with a taste of the chaotic and unpredictable late Republic: I announced on the class website that the senate’s decision to hand out land to veterans caused a rowdy celebration to break out in the city, and that Brutus and Cassius had taken advantage of the chaos to escape and were now gathering forces and supplies to march on Rome. This threw the Senate into disorder, as the planned agenda had to be scrapped to deal with this new threat.
Meanwhile, the student playing Gaius Mattius saw an opportunity to further his assigned goal of avoiding civil war by causing a serious disruption to the status quo. Mattius believed that Antony was the most likely to cause another civil war, and wanted to remove him from power. Inspired by the letters that brought down the Catilinarian conspiracy, Mattius stood before the Senate and read a letter that he claimed he found on the body of Mark Antony’s slave. The letter purported to be from Brutus and Cassius, thanking Mark Antony for his assistance in their escape!
Lucius Antonius, who was interested in safeguarding the power and reputation of his brother, alleged that the letter was a fake. The Senators who stood to gain from Antony’s downfall, however, were inclined to believe the letter. Students proposed a number of immediate steps, including house arrest while an investigation was made, exile and/or confiscation of property, and even execution! I took this opportunity to remind the class of the right of a Roman citizen to a trial, and we also briefly discussed the feasibility of the various proposals, as well as some historical examples, including the debate about the Catilinarian conspirators and the exile of Cicero.
After the end of the game I relate the actual historical events, and we discuss how it’s easy for people studying history to assume historical events were “always going to turn out that way”, but people at the time would have been both facing individual choices (as represented by the students’ actions) and things outside of individual or even human control (as represented by my actions). Students were incredibly enthusiastic about Reacting to the Past, and reported feeling more interested and invested in the material they were learning about, as well as gaining a deeper understanding of the workings of Roman politics and society.
Student Comments (Click to Expand)
“It allowed us to think as a Roman would inside the structure of the Roman society, so it eliminated a lot of biased opinions that we may have had by simply studying the historical facts and events within the senate.”
“It was nearly impossible to get anything done without the help of others, even if your idea was reasonable. Making political friends was incredibly important.”
“Those who were able to convene the senate and set the agenda had immense power in being able to decide what gets voted on.”
“Once you have power it becomes exponentially easier to build that power, so it’s best not to let your rivals acquire any at all.”
“RttP taught us about the importance of alliances and ‘amicitia’ in Rome. Rome was founded on these intricate webs of friendship, patronage, and alliances.”
“This game connected me to the processes the senators had to follow…a successful senator would have had to be an excellent communicator, and able to convince others to follow their decisions.”
“With governance and personal gain intertwined, it must have been very hard to predict and maintain loyalty among senators.”
“Roman politics has always been a topic that was hard for me to wrap my head around. Having a visual representation of Roman politics in the form of a role playing game helped me to understand the various issues that would be discussed in a senate as well as those in the senate and what their positions were.”
“I was playing a normal senator with no real clout in the senate, or big name to throw around. Instead I was somewhat powerless in a way, and I had no real effect with my words. I learned why every Roman was so focused on ancestry and status. If you didn’t have status, no one listened to you. I learned that in the Roman senate you can’t do anything alone. You must get allies or you will stall in the waters of politics and drown.”
“I have taken classics classes in the past where I have kind of learned Roman history, but always had trouble keeping it straight. Being in the game at that time really put things into perspective for me, and even things that weren’t in the game I can now think ‘this happened before/after these events’ and have better insight into how it fits into their history.”
Battle(ship) of Salamis
Battle(ship) of Salamis is a fun way to practice noun and verb forms. The links below the image let you download the board and instructions for the game.
(My contribution to this game was improving the visuals; please speak up if you are the original creator, as I'd like to give you credit.)
This assignment introduces students to an everyday, casual style of Latin and encourages them to think about different levels of literacy and uses of language.
Top Hat encourages active learning by letting students ask and answer questions via their electronic devices.
(Click to Expand)
This semester I am experimenting with Top Hat in my Heroes of Classical Mythology course, which has over one hundred students. Large classes present several challenges and concerns, and so far I’ve found Top Hat helps with several of these:
Large Scale Participation
Instead of one-sided lecturing, my presentation slides are interspersed with question slides. The students use their electronic devices to answer, and I get the results instantly. This allows for regular class participation, which would otherwise be unmanageable for a class of this size. I also sometimes ask very easy questions, which I use to find out how many students have done the readings.
Testing for Understanding
Besides encouraging student participation, the questions also regularly gauge their understanding of the material. Because I get the results instantly, I can adapt my teaching throughout the class period based on the results. The results from the following question showed me that student understanding was strong enough that I could quickly reiterate once that Caucus means "bad man", and then move on.
Less Intimidating Participation
Students have the option to ask questions anonymously, which will allow those students who are nervous about speaking in front of large groups to participate more fully in class and get any clarifications they might need.
Top Hat also allows me to give students short practice tests, which provide them immediate feedback and give students the chance to build their confidence outside of a high-pressure test situation.
My only initial concern about Top Hat was that there might be some financially struggling students who don’t have a device to use. I prepared my old laptop to share just in case, but this scenario has not yet come up. So far, both attendance and student engagement have improved relative to similar courses taught in the past. A number of students have said it helps them to pay attention. A far wider spectrum of students are asking questions as well as answering them.
Prezi is a non-linear alternative to Powerpoint. In this video, I use my "Roman House" file to demonstrate how Prezi's flexibility can be helpful when presenting. (Length: 1 minute and 55 seconds)