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October 11, 2013
CONTACT: Gordon Ovenshine

Students learn through role-playing

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Students in Slippery Rock University's "Pennsylvania History" class are characters, and that's a good thing.

SRU has introduced a learning program in which students participate in elaborate role-playing games set in the past to engage with historical texts and the history of ideas. Students role-play as Native Americans, Pennsylvania colonists and treaty interpreters to gain a better understanding of the French and Indian War.

The game pits characters against each other in a set of debates where they attempt to convince opposing sides to join their side.

After reading foundational texts, students are distributed role sheets that provide them with background information on their historical character - real or composite - and the victory objectives that will set them up to win the game, along with strategic and tactical advice.

"The desire to win begins to take over and students recognize that knowledge is power. Victory requires a solid understanding of the material," said William Bergmann, SRU associate professor of history, who teaches "Pennsylvania History."

The game is Forest Diplomacy: War, Peace and Land on the Colonial Frontier, 1756-c1757. The game pedagogy is called Reacting to the Past and was initially developed in the late 1990s by Marc Carnes, a professor of history at Barnard College.

"The game takes place in the early years of the Seven Years War - also known as the 'French and Indian War' - and violence has begun to spread in colonial Pennsylvania, threatening the relatively peaceful relationship colonists had achieved with Delaware and Iroquois Indians," Bergmann said. "The goal of the game is for students to create a treaty that will sustain peace and prevent further bloodshed."

In hammering out an agreement, students, most of whom are secondary education history majors, learn that creating a treaty is not easy. Factions of the colonists are at odds over the language of the treaty and Native Americans likewise differ on what the treaty should look like and struggle over leadership, Bergmann said.

In his classroom, Native Americans sit on the ground and the Pennsylvanian leadership at the table. Interpreters stand between them.

"Now that the document has been created, there is one more day of game play. Native Americans and Pennsylvanians return to their respective communities and debate the outcome of the treaty," Bergmann said. "If enough trust has been created by the treaty process, it will hold. If suspicions continue to exist and if promises made in the treaty are broken, the treaty will fail. I think everyone is excited to see what happens."

Learning becomes student-centered and Bergmann - now a game master - largely enforces rules and answers technical questions.

Assignments include written and oral versions of speeches, pamphlets, formal letters, the construction of wampum and treaty documents, all of which are based on interpretations of the texts.

"Students develop their toolbox of history skills, including reading comprehension, rhetoric, research methods, as well as written and oral competencies, while actively pursuing knowledge as a means to win the game," Bergmann said.

The role-model approach gives students a better appreciation of the varied interests in both colonial Pennsylvanian society and Native American societies of Pennsylvania, Bergmann said.

"Typically, they tend to view both as monolithic but now they see how historic developments are the consequences of choices of people at the time rather than some inevitability," he said. "I can also report that some students who are playing Native Americans are gaining empathy with Native Americans of the past as they experience in the game some of the unscrupulous methods that were used by colonial Pennsylvanians to secure lands."

Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania's premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.