Gamifying History Class

"I'm Thaddeus Hair and I'm 85 years old." These are not the words you'd expect to come out of a high-schooler's mouth. Yet, Thaddeus, along with Comfort Onion, Zodak and Rufus Toule, were not rehearsing for a play, they were engaged in a history lesson.

The class was playing Reacting the Past (RTTP). "RTTP consists of elaborate games, set in the past, in which students are assigned roles informed by classic texts in the history of ideas," states the website of Barnard College, where the concept was dreamed up by history professor Mark Carnes.

On a recent day in Griffiths Hall, Academy students were immersed in a snapshot of history during the trial of Anne Hutchinson in Puritan New England in the 1600s, which involved the "struggle between the followers and allies of John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and those of Anne Hutchinson, a strong-willed and brilliant religious dissenter," describes the RTTP curriculum.

"Anne Hutchinson was banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony. The question is, was this just?" explained Ted Demura-Devore, Academy history teacher. "The goal of the students is to examine the trial and vote to reaffirm banishment or rescind it, while persuading neutral parties to join their cause."

Demura-Devore is excited to be basing the semester's curriculum on a several RTTP games. He spent the summer learning about this new curriculum at a conference in New York City as part of a teaching and learning fellowship through Punahou.

"Once the game starts, I fade into the background," Demura-Devore shared, noting that the game is run by students. "They are shocked by the independence."

The games are based on textbooks that detail the historical background and context specific to the setting for the game. In addition to learning about history, students practice persuasive writing and public speaking.

Students also work on collaboration and empathy. "In order to understand the other side and sway them, students have to be empathetic to those they're trying to convince. Students have to feel their way and figure it out," said Demura-Devore.

In the classroom, the students listened attentively to a classmate delivering her speech at the front of the room. "Miss Hutchinson did not receive a fair trial. I ask you to see her as a being and not a woman," she said. When she was finished, students' questions prompted her to defend her position.

Afterward, classmate Hailey '19 shared, "It can be a sneaky game that takes a lot of strategy. We work on public speaking and answer questions on the spot."

Other games on the schedule for this year include "Greenwich Village, 1913: Suffrage, Labor, and the New Woman and Patriots, Loyalists" and "Revolution in New York City, 1775-76."

"The students really get into it," said Demura-Devore. "They like the playfulness, and each game has a different tone."