The Power (and joy) of Role Play

posted Oct 9, 2018, 6:44 PM by Kevin Roughton
On my last trip to Disneyland I had an experience I'd never had before. (As an aside, that's part of the magic of Disneyland. I've been dozens of times and always have something new to experience!) While exiting Space Mountain my group crossed paths with two Storm Troopers. Seeing characters in costume is nothing new at Disneyland but this time they stopped us. They pulled my brother aside and told him he was under arrest for supporting the enemy. They then pointed at his shirt. He was wearing a Buzz Lightyear shirt. (I, of course, was left alone as I was sporting my official Story Trooper Pew Pew shirt.) They pulled him aside for questioning as a crowd gathered as we laughed hysterically. My brother played right along defending himself from their accusations. 

We talked about that experience for the rest of the day and still now months later. It was such a small thing but by putting us all in the moment and letting us role play as citizens being accosted by Storm Troopers we were given an experience we will never forget.

Role play rules!

This week in my class we're doing two big role play activities. My 8th graders are living out the Constitutional Convention while my 7th graders are experiencing the first Crusade. The Constitutional Convention sim is modeled after one from TCI and is the highlight of my Constitution unit - if not the entire year. Students are each assigned a delegate to the convention that they must represent throughout the 3-day activity. They read background information on their person and the state which they represent. They are told throughout that if the final results of the convention match their character's true wants then they will earn extra points. My kids this year in particular have really gotten into it. 

The lab opens with a meet and greet where they go around introducing themselves to the other delegates. I require them to bow to one another in greeting and to speak very formally and properly. It's fun. It's silly. It's a joy! I play the role of George Washington and go WAY over the top in my greetings to really set the stage. Like with those Storm Troopers, if the person you're playing with goes all in it encourages you to do so the same. My kids start to amp up as I do. By the end of these few minutes they are into their character. It really helps set them up to want to live out their character. 

In the next phase the students, acting as their assigned delegates, debate the options for representation in the new government. My kids this year really grappled with what the various options meant for themselves and their home states. It was awesome. The small state delegates passionately argued that their rights would be trampled while the large state delegates argued just as passionately that the government existed for the people not the states. They really got it. When Mr. Sherman introduced his compromise they understood exactly why the government needed two separate houses. The debates were intense, but respectful. They loved it. 

For the Crusades role play I play the monk leading a village of peasants on a journey to the Holy Land. It begins with me dramatically unrolling a scroll and reading it in my best (worst) British monk voice. I have an Applause sign that I hold up at dramatic moments (unannounced of course) which the kids absolutely eat up. We set up the rules for our adventure (no talking, St. Benedict wouldn't approve!) and we head out. We travel the school with me leading them around in circles (bad maps after all) until we arrive in Jerusalem where... nothing happens. We were too late! The battle already occurred. We return to Europe and each students reads an individual fate letter that determines their ultimate fate. 

Both activities are exhausting for me - much like I imagine it is for character actors at Disneyland. Staying in character all day long isn't easy. The engagement and learning though are well worth it. Allowing students to play a role engages them in deep, meaningful ways that build historical empathy and understanding at a tremendous rate. 

Designing such a lesson isn't easy either but here's a few tips that may help.

3 Tips for Successful Role Play

1) Make it Real
Disney character actors look the part from beginning to end. The costumes, obviously, are key but they learn the mannerisms of their character as well. For the princesses that means even mimicking their voice. Using costumes and voice in your simulation can add a layer of realism that really sets it apart. For the ConCon sim I dress as George Washington, complete with an over-the-top colonial wig. For the Crusades I dress as a monk. When I greet students at the door dressed that way they are already in. Speaking in an over the top accent only makes them feel even more like they can be someone else as well.

Rearranging your room (or leaving it like with the Crusade sim) can also help add to the realism. For the ConCon I make small adjustments like arranging the desks into small groups based around the state delegations. I also cover the windows add put up a sign that says "Do not disturb, Constitutional Convention in progress." Adding music or murmuring voices as audio backing is also an easy and cheap way to make the room feel different. Those little touches that students experience before the lesson even begins go a long way.

2) Make it Fun
Fun doesn't have to mean a game but fun has to be present for a good role play. Debate can be fun. Reading extremely over-the-top situations that happen to your character can be fun. Having to bow to your fellow classmates to show your etiquette can definitely be fun. Find the fun in your story. It's always there, we just have to look and make sure it fits.

3) Make it Meaningful
Debriefing your role play is a necessity. I love how TCI debriefs with a 2-column chart. In the left side they list the various aspects of the simulation and on the right students write how those aspects represent events or ideas from history. With the Crusades role play, for example, one thing we write is "Walked all over school." In the represents column students would write "the very long journey to Jerusalem." Having students make these connections is vital in turning these experiences from simple fun games into true learning opportunities. It also helps these ideas stick in a way they simply don't in a traditional lesson.

I will have kids referencing back to these lessons all year long. They will remember them when we do our end of the year class evaluations. Role Play is simply powerful and joyful and we should try to find as many ways as possible to fit them into our curriculum.
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