Transforming Reacting to the Past Games for Large-Lecture Courses

I’ve been hearing about Reacting to the Past (RTTP) games for a few years now. I’m curious to learn more. Normally, I would have attended a conference to play one of these games, like Art and Modernism in Paris in 1889, but I now normally teach large classes of more than 200 students. With so many students, I’m never sure if RTTP games would work. I believe they are mainly designed for smaller classes of under 40 students.

Nevertheless, inspired with the little knowledge I had about RTTP games, I decided in Spring 2017 to experiment with a game inspired by RTTP. My humanities class (again, over 200 students) focuses on the ancient and medieval world. Every semester students eyes roll to the back of their heads as we discuss Greek democracy. I’ve rewritten the lecture more times than I can count to make it more interesting, thought-provoking, controversial–the list goes on. In desperation, I decided one January morning to do something different after I had read a colleague’s blog about RTTP. What better way to show students how Athenian democracy “worked” and who it benefitted than to make it real. So I did.

I walked into class and asked all the ladies to sit on one side of the lecture hall, all the gentlemen on the other side. They looked curious (so looked terrified). As class started I distributed post-its to 10% of my male students. Then, at the appropriate moment in lecture, after a dramatic buildup to the origins of the polis, I announced to students that we would be replicating Athenian democracy in a small way. We discussed Athenian social hierarchy–and how women were not citizens. We discussed metics and slaves, and of course who comprised the group of Athenian citizens. I asked the students with post-its to stand up. This 10% of my class represented the citizens of Athens.

Next, these male citizens elected the Boule, or Council of 500. Basically, I have them elect 2 students. These 2 students come to the front of the class, receive mics, and look at a list of several scenarios that they can discuss to set the agenda for the Ekklesia, or Popular Assembly meeting of all citizens. One scenario describes the repercussions for anyone who doesn’t fill in their Student ID properly on scantron sheets. Another proposes the rewards for citizens who come to class early in the next period. You get the idea. Once my Boule choose the scenario, they develop possible laws to be passed, and which will be voted on by the Ekklesia. And so we proceed to the popular assembly meeting, giving every citizen a chance to come to the front of the room and discuss–just like they would in Athens. I’ve even had students offer a sacrifice (well, a form of it anyhow).

Once a law is voted upon, and either passes or fails, we do a debrief in class. I ask the citizens about their experience, then the metics and slaves, and finally, the Athenian women. And let me tell you, the female students who are “from Athens” (or otherwise) are generally upset. They’ve been silenced and ignored for much of class. They have played no role and had no say. They vent, they grumble, but then the real magic happens. They begin to ask questions about the role of women, why democracy was structured this way, how women were treated, and so on and so forth. We launch into a discussion not only about the origins of democracy, but also the role of women, slaves, and metics. We talk about ostracism, the oddity of democracy (vs. other poleis), and even religion.

I’ve now played this game for 2 semesters, and almost every student lists it as a high point in the semester. As one student wrote in their evaluation this past semester, “democracy came alive rather than just hearing about it.” Students have been very encouraging of the game, and have requested I develop more.

(True confession: I tried a game in Fall 2017 on the Roman Republic, but it didn’t work well. I need to brainstorm more.)

The overwhelmingly positive student response has encouraged me to think of more ways to make material “come alive” in the large lecture class, particularly in ways that involve all the students in some fashion. I’m already considering something that divides students into groups involved in making a Gothic Cathedral. Stay tuned.

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