One strategy for bringing learning to life in your high school classroom is to have your students take on the role of characters from the past or from literature. Role-playing immerses them in history and literature. Students begin to feel an emotional tie to the story. And when students hear, see and act out the story, their comprehension increases.
Role-playing cultivates perspective and empathy. Students strive to understand the experiences of others, even if they do not agree with them. Students imagine the narrative, transform a text into three dimensions, create alternative scenarios and see the impact of their choices. One of my students explained, “Role-playing is helpful in learning history because it puts the students in the shoes of people of the time period. You can get a much better sense of what the event was like through role-play than you would just from reading about it.”
Role-playing helps students to make sense of ideas like power, identity and choice and coaxes them to grapple with what it means to be human. In many history role-plays, for instance, we look at relationships of power in which stronger groups attempt to exert their will over the “other” for a variety of reasons.
Students engaged in role-plays must use their communication and problem-solving skills. Students playing Aztecs must decide how to respond to the arrival of Spanish conquistadors. Students playing the couple Juana and Kino from John Steinbeck’s “The Pearl” must figure out what to do with their immense pearl. Role-playing encourages students to cooperate and then to reflect upon the conflict, the stakes, the choices they made and the consequences of those choices.
Role-playing also helps develop literacy as a prereading tool. One 11th-grader reflected, “It helps me understand what’s happening in the book better. … It keeps me interested because when we do a role-play, I never know if that’s going to actually happen in the book. Then I get excited to find out what really happened. It keeps me anxious and in suspense.”
This holds true in the social studies classroom as well. After acting out a historical scenario, my students are eager to find out whether the real historical actors made the same choices they made.
By acting out the text first, students gain a deeper understanding of what they will read and have a deeper investment in it. Role-playing also increases student interest in the story so students are more likely to read, more likely to care about the discussion and more likely to work hard on the related assessments that build writing skills.
In the role-plays in my English classroom, I ask my students not only to be the characters but also to be the authors. We create the story and the dialogue based on what we know from the literary text the students read beforehand. In this way, students gain deeper insight into the book.
We should not underestimate the importance of the fun and joy that students have while role-playing and the subsequent increase in their engagement in their studies. I remember when one student, playing Louis XVI, attempted to get rid of a document, a few pages long, that would cast suspicion on him as a traitor to the French revolution. As I described the mob approaching, he began shoving the pages in his mouth one by one, chewing and swallowing them all to hide the evidence. Nothing I could say would stop him, and the room was filled with uproarious laughter at the spectacle.
Role-playing allows all types of students to shine. Oftentimes, those who struggle with traditional tasks excel in role-plays. The quiet student who carefully takes notes and then provides advice to the actors can add something to the scene. The rambunctious child who leaps from her seat and can’t resist talking (or calling out) in class can become the star.