Bringing history to life

GVL / Courtesy -

GVL / Courtesy –

Anne Marie Smit

While there are many forms of teaching, finding exciting new ways to involve students can be challenging. Recognizing this, David Eick, associate professor of French literature and European culture at Grand Valley State University, uses the “Reacting to the Past” (RTTP) pedagogy in his classroom to teach students about significant events in European history and to strengthen language acquisition skills in his French classes.

RTTP is a role-playing game that Eick incorporated into his curriculum shortly after Gretchen Galbraith, associate dean for faculty, resources and scheduling at GVSU, experimented with it in an honors sequence in 2011. With the support of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS), GVSU is one of the founders of the Reacting Consortium, a collaborative effort of colleges and universities to include RTTP role-playing games and programs at their institutions.

Eick said RTTP is currently used by professors in multiple departments at GVSU. 

“Professors in classics, women’s studies and history run games, and the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures has a team researching the use of the pedagogy in foreign language teaching,” he said via email.

RTTP games are primarily run by the students while Eick monitors them. Before the game starts, students are assigned a character or group from a period in history. To make the game realistic, students have to research the person or political group in history they were assigned to ensure they are knowledgeable and can accurately embody them.

Eick believes that students come away from an RTTP-run classroom with critical reading skills, the ability to effectively persuade others and think on their feet, and a more complete understanding of events in history. 

“Students will tell you they benefit a great deal,” he said. “First, they learn skills: writing, close reading, critical thinking, public speaking, information literacy, collaboration, problem solving. They also learn the content that is the subject of the game, be it tensions around democracy in Greece, 403 B.C.E; India’s independence; or Title IX in (the) 21st-century United States.”

Amber Sackett, a senior studying French and Middle East studies who is enrolled in Eick’s French literature course, is a transfer student who has participated in RTTP games every semester since coming to GVSU. She has become involved by teaching faculty in workshops and going to a program development conference.

“The reason that I’m really involved is because I saw it transform my own learning experience,” Sackett said. “It’s helped my French improve a lot. A lot of it is spur of the moment, which is hard to do in another language, which is why when you go through that process you can gain further progress in your fluency.”

Cayla Dwyer, a senior studying French and writing at GVSU and a student in Eick’s French literature course, said she first tried RTTP during her freshman year in a class with Eick and that it has increased her fluency.

“With French it helps a lot because you have to have these conversations about separation of powers and rights of man all in another language,” Dwyer said. “It forces you to use that vocabulary and think on a higher level.”

Eick thinks RTTP is challenging for students, especially at first, because they need to learn to express themselves eloquently and persuasively in difficult contexts while also learning how to handle failure. 

“They must figure out for themselves how to accomplish their objectives,” Eick said. “They must interpret complex texts, they must react creatively and decisively in difficult situations, they must persuade others via informed reasoning and eloquence. In addition, they may perform brilliantly and still ‘lose’ the game, so they must learn how to deal with failure.”

Sackett said RTTP makes students more comfortable expressing complicated concepts in French and enables them to better grasp the complications and tension that historical figures must have felt.

“You have to express these complicated emotions, and one of the things I really appreciate about it is it simulates certain aspects of history,” she said. “For instance, we get to experience that frustration to communicate and come to agreements with people and actively counter what they’re doing. You feel that same frustration that people in 1789 in France felt, too.” 

While students are expected to express complicated concepts and participate in active debates, they are sometimes also assigned a person whose worldview goes against their values. Dwyer said RTTP requires students to open their minds by taking on another perspective that is contrary to their own beliefs. 

“Sometimes you get a role that’s someone you agree with and sometimes you don’t,” Dwyer said. “You have to figure out, ‘How do I do this? How do I sympathize with someone that I don’t sympathize with at all, whose ideas I don’t agree with?’ It forces you to be more open-minded. It forces you to see the world through another side’s eyes.”