It is always an adventure when I try a new roleplay activity with my class. I am a great believer in the power of acting out to help students make connections. Roleplaying is a fabulous tool to communicate main ideas. I try to create a challenge for the students, one that usually involves a fair degree of whimsy. Through laughter and some invented obstacles to conquer, I try to build a path for understanding larger ideas that might otherwise be confusing for them. If I can create an emotional response, then I have got them. When they join the game, they forget that I am actually teaching them history.
Here is the one that I created for this week. It could easily be adapted to a lot of different lessons. The main idea has to do with power and how far one group will go to control another. We are studying the end of the Civil War, but as one of my students pointed out, it could be applied to Iraq today. When I am using a roleplay, the goal is not to have them hold onto all of the historical details. In this case, I want them to grasp why the North invested in the South after the War, during Reconstruction, and then why they stopped. I want them to experience the feelings and challenges that the North faced.
So here is where the whimsy comes in. For the initial set-up, each girl was told that she had a Home Planet, one that had been attacked by aliens. She also had control over a new planet, that was inhabited by Weegits. For the first 60 seconds, their task was, in silence, to name their new planet and draw a picture of the Weegits, the creatures who live on the planet. The purpose of this was simply to get them invested in what happened to their Home Planet and their new one. They fairly quietly drew what their Weegits looked like, adding antennae, large stomaches and budging eyes. Whatever their imagination came up with!
I then gave them a few seconds to share with the people around them what their Weegit looked like. This is a critical steop, one that it took me awhile to recognize. I often want to move right on, excited to get the actual game aspect started. I have found, however, that if I don’t allow them to share their new creations as part of the lesson, they are going to do it anyway. And that just gets me frustrated that they aren’t playing the game MY way. Ah, games! When I set up time for sharing, it connects them to their roles, and the room fills with laughter and excited chatter. Then I have exactly what I want as a foundation!
Each student had a worksheet to keep track of their finances: their income, expenses and total for each round. They started with 50 coins. For each round of the game, they had to spend 5 coins for the upkeep of their Home Planet. They also had to pay for any transportation to the new planet: 2 coins for a person and 3 coins for any goods. When they started, it seemed like a lot of coins to all of them, and they were sure that they could maintain their Home Planet and colonize the new one with no trouble.
Then came the four rounds. Each girl chose a card that told her about the expenses for that round. “Build a school for your Weegits. Pay for transportation of lumber and 2 coins.” “Your great-grandmother leaves you 3 coins in her will.” “The Weegits rebel. Send 4 police to the new planet. Pay transportation and 2 coins.” I created the cards so that the majority of them had to do with expenses of settling a new planet. They had to build schools, hospitals, housing. There were cards where they made a profit: the mine strikes gold, you collect taxes, you win the lottery. Those cards were far fewer than the expenses.
For the first two rounds, each girl read her card aloud, so the whole class could share in the successes and expenses of the class. This led to lots of groans and some envy. For the last two rounds, I simply handed out the cards and reminded them of the expenses of maintaining the home planet and of transportation. After the four rounds, I had them raise their hands if they wanted to move back to their home planet and abandon the new one or if they wanted to continue to develop the new planet. All but two of the girls raised their hands for abandoning the new one! Success!
We then had a conversation about why. What was it about securing, maintaining, and upgrading a new planet that made them want to abandon it? This conversation had been the goal of the roleplay. As they talked about their Home Planet and their Weegits, I used the vocabulary of the history lesson. What did the North want in the South initially? Why would the North leave the South? What would happen when they did that? The girls hardly noticed the shift. Some of them talked about Weegits and some of them talked about Southerners, but they all understood the challenges of keeping control over a territory that is not close by.
Laughter and invention are wonderful tools for making kids leave behind their apathy and embrace the fun of learning!