How role-playing levels the playing field in my high school English class

If you want to transform your English or social studies classroom into a place of deeper learning and higher engagement, consider transforming your students into other people.

More precisely, consider transforming students into characters from the past or from literature. In my classes, we don’t just learn about history and we don’t just read the books; instead, we become the individuals who we are studying.

One day, a group of students might stand atop desks that cross the room. In their mind, it is a bridge taking them out of the city of Tenochtitlan. Other students, sliding on chairs, approach them imagining that they are on canoes gliding across a lake. The room is dark. It is just after midnight. We roll dice, envisioning arrows flying. Some students on the desk are hit and pretend to fall into the cool water below. Those on canoes scoop the prisoners up to bring them back to a temple to offer their hearts in sacrifice.

Another day, four students stand in the middle of the room. Two of them are playing Juana and Kino, the native Mexican protagonists in a Steinbeck novel who had discovered “the greatest pearl in the world.” The other two are buyers who had conspired to low-ball their price. Juana and Kino look desperate as they bargain. Their future depends on getting the right deal, the one that could guarantee education to their child. Unaware of the pearl’s value, they still know the sellers’ first offer was a cheat. Kino and Juana’s shoulders begin to slump. They argue, their marital unity falling apart in the face of this conflict.

This is role-play, a strategy in which students become the characters and also the authors based on what we know from a previous text. The effect is that students gain more insight into what the book is really about.

It’s also a tactic that allows all types of students to shine — a great equalizer against socioeconomic and academic inequalities that surface in the classroom.

About three years ago I became one of the founding teachers of Harvest Collegiate, a high school in Manhattan. Despite its name, Harvest is a regular, non-selective public school that takes students from all over New York City. We have students from low-income and high needs backgrounds (including about 70 percent who qualify for free lunch), but we also have a significant cohort of kids from middle and upper-middle class families who enter at or above grade level and could easily fit in at prestigious city schools.

For struggling students, the process of acting out the story in English or social studies before learning what “actually” happened increases student interest in the story, which has a number of positive consequences.

Students are more likely to read, more likely to care about the discussion, and more likely to work on the assessments that build writing skills. One student explained, “In the beginning of the story when we were assigned to read the first couple pages I didn’t read at all, then we did the role-play and I really liked it so I decide to actually read, and I enjoyed it.”

For students who normally have behavioral difficulties, role-playing provides a welcome outlet for their energy. They can move around, call out, and enjoy themselves in a way that actually contributes to the whole group’s learning. They often become the key figures.

High-performing students also benefit from role-play, as it becomes a realm for making connections between characters and scenes and more deeply understanding characters’ perspectives. Role-playing particularly helps engage students in understanding conflict and assessing authorial choices.

“When we do role-play it helps me to better understand the text,” one of my student explained.

If you want to bring learning to life and teach the types of classes students remember, role-play is a powerful tool to get you there.

This excerpt was adapted from the book “The Classes They Remember: Using Role-Plays to Bring Social Studies and English to Life,” being published by Routledge this month.

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