Freshman history students learn the facts through a role-playing game.
Sean Ramsden

The New York City of 1775-76 wasn’t all that different than the Big Apple of today in one respect: for all its hustle and bustle, it was a place of divergent political viewpoints, and very much at the center of the action.

“You had patriots, loyalists and revolutionaries . New York City,” said Dr. Anne Osborne, professor and chair of the Department of History, about 18th century Manhattan. “They all played their roles and had been engaged in the struggle for New York City.”

Students in Osborne’s freshmen history seminar at Rider have also played their roles this semester as part of a method of teaching and learning history called Reacting to the Past. Developed by Dr. Mark Carnes of Barnard College and supported by a consortium of colleges and universities, Reacting to the Past is an elaborate game in which students are assigned roles in representative historical situations they’ve learned through class texts and lectures. By seeing historical events to their outcomes – and not necessarily the ones that occurred in actuality – students are drawn into the culture and ways of the past and fully engaged with ideas and critical thought.

“We use the game as a jumping-off point for the class,” said Osborne, who took her students for a sightseeing field trip to historical New York at the conclusion of the most recent Reacting to the Past game. “It’s fun for them to see the locations where it all really happened.”

Osborne said the trip to lower Manhattan affords her the chance to impart some of the more subtle lessons of history to her students, the things that don’t necessarily show up in history texts. Including the burial grounds at Trinity Church and St. Paul’s into the trip allowed her to interpret the stories of the people buried beneath each headstone by their engravings.

“There is a lot of information about the material culture and beliefs of the 18th century contained in those graveyards,” Osborne explained. “The stones have a variety of images like death’s heads, urns, cherubs and such that tell us a lot about their thoughts on immortality and others things.”

Osborne’s class also visited Federal Hall on Wall Street, the site of George Washington’s first presidential inauguration, as well as the Bowling Green at the foot of Broadway, the site of a protest by colonists against King George III’s Stamp Act of 1765 and later, where a statue of the monarch was torn down by patriots after a reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 9, 1776. The statue was completely destroyed, and its metal was recast as musket balls to aid the patriots’ efforts.

Osborne led the students to a number of other sites of historical significance, ones they knew from their participation in Reacting to the Past. She was introduced to the series a few years ago and says the game has become an integral part of her curriculum. In Reacting to the Past, “each student has a role, whether that is portraying an historical individual, or a representative from a group,” Osborne explained. “You might represent landless laborers who want the right to vote and own land.”

The instructor tells each student their game objective, and then they work with each other – and against each other – to advance their purposes. Throughout the game, students must remain in character when in class, according to Osborne. Failure to show a proper amount of respect for a member of an elder or someone of a higher social order can easily squelch an agreement achieved through otherwise careful diplomacy. Lack of preparation or historical knowledge will also likely lead a character to an unsatisfactory end, she explained.

“Students tend to like the game,” Osborne said. “It gives them a reason to read their primary sources (of information), and by understanding them, they can really attack an argument. They have to think critically, because the game will pull them in.”

Osborne, who evaluates the students’ work in Reacting to the Past by observing their ability to remain in character, says it has nothing to do with their ability to act, but rather, how well they equip themselves with the information needed to transform their role.

“As they develop that sense of voice, and use appropriate language, they are able to present their schemes differently,” she said. “The sense of urgency is there for them. They know, ‘I might lose Manhattan if I can’t use the course materials.’”

Reacting to the Past earned Carnes and Barnard College the 2004 Hesburgh Award, presented annually by TIAA-CREF for outstanding faculty development programs, and Osborne has been an enthusiastic participant in various institutes and workshops showcasing the game.

“I have a wonderful time with it, so I can see how students would be seduced by it,” she said. Reacting to the Past is not limited to Revolutionary War history, Osborne said, adding that its reach has expanded to include topics from Democracy in Athens to Britain in the time of Henry VIII, with some of the nation’s most noted scholars in those fields authoring versions of the game.

“There are several dozen schools across the country using Reacting to the Past to some degree,” said Osborne of the game, which is no longer confined to the discipline of history. “There’s even a science game about Charles Darwin.”