Learning History in a Modern Way

Culture and civilization topics are often taught with the development of attitudinal skills in mind. Any Romanian teacher of English knows that the process of teaching and learning of receptive and productive skills, without any development of positive attitudes and values, is incomplete. Therefore, how could students learn a foreign language without understanding its origins, without internalizing its contextual manifestations, its real-life evolution in terms of history, geography, education, entertainment, the government, the arts, the media and so on?

The British philosopher and Oxford academic John Locke stated that “Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.” This paper will identify the advantages of using history content in the English classroom as a context for dialogue and interaction, for simulated scenarios and, why not, for experience to learn from and made ours. Role-playing, as a learning method and a teaching technique, will also be presented as an opportunity for the teacher to explore his/her own students’ selves, their knowledge of the world, in order to get to know them better: their values, their preferences, their prejudices, their needs for further instruction.

Whether “history repeats itself” or not is highly debatable. However, the teaching and learning of historical content can be performed through improvisation and rehearsal even when its main purpose is only to improve one’s communicative skills in English. Imagination, supported by some comprehension of the actual events and the genuine willingness to practise, allows the students to travel in time, reassess a certain historical moment and manage to embody a major social or political figure, a military leader, a human-rights activist etc. in front of an audience.

What is more, those who use role-playing to teach challenging topics, even emotional, heart-warming or heartbreaking ones, notice that students are reached on an affective level as well. Some attitudinal skills and values will be instantaneously assimilated during the role-playing activities, naturally embraced and adopted from such inspirational characters or circumstances. This is a win-win situation for everyone, since open-mindedness, sympathy, tolerance, empathy, respect, loyalty, acceptance of diversity are only a few of the necessary values that enable our students to face contemporary issues such as social inequity, racism, discrimination, abuse, extremism, intolerance and, following the long-term goal of education, turn them into better decision-makers, more efficient problem-solvers and more responsible citizens of the future.

However, when using history for educational purposes, research from multiple sources is compulsory and checking the reliability of these sources in also an essential part of the preparation process. The understanding of complex historical figures, of controversial past events or history-changing decisions made by some of the greatest world-leaders or powerful authorities also involves curiosity, initiative from the part of the student(s), thorough investigation, emotional and cognitive involvement, conflict management, critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.

The history of Great Britain and that of the United States of America provide more than linguistic content or input for the learners of English. The following is a simple procedure of the steps involving a role-playing activity coordinated a few years ago at my school, based on the events of the American civil rights movement (1950- 1968) and the remarkable attitude of a truly  inspirational character, the so called „first lady of civil rights”, Rosa Parks.

The main objectives of the lesson were:

  • Students will be able to trace the historical development of the event;
  • Students will activate prior knowledge and voice opinions/arguments to perform the chosen/assigned roles;
  • Students will understand and apply new concepts (e.g. the term “boycott”) and realize the impact of peaceful protests and demonstrations on the various levels of a democratic society;
  • Students will improve/develop critical-thinking, problem-solving skills and also attitudes of tolerance, empathy, compassion;

The 5 steps of the role-playing activity were:

1. Setting the scene. The “preparation” stage of the activity may involve either an objective presentation of the background information from the part of the teacher or asking the students, before the lesson, to do their own research, then select, collect and interpret data using their own resources. (I used the information provided by the textbook for 12th grade students.)
2. Assigning the roles. The students may choose the roles or the teacher may assign them according to their personalities, preferences or level of competence.
3. Giving the instructions. Although role-playing is supposed to be spontaneous, and, unlike dramatisation, it does not normally involve the presence of a script, there are some rules or instructions which the teacher has to employ in an attempt to create a more realistic environment and provide a positive audience.
4. Acting out the Role-play. One of the role-playing tasks was to re-enact the conversation leading to the Montgomery bus boycott and resulting in a significant victory of the civil rights movement, which was the beginning of outlawed segregation on buses. Here is an excerpt of the conversation between Rosa Parks and the bus driver acted out by the students:
Student A (Bus driver): “Ma’am, I’m afraid you’ll have to stand up”.
Student B (Rosa Parks): “I’m sorry, sir, but I’m already sitting in the colored section”.
Student A (Bus driver): “You’ll have to move, those seats are needed now.”
Student B (Rosa Parks): “I won’t move, I paid for my ride back home just like everyone else.”
Student A (Bus driver): ” Well, it’s not about that. I’m the driver and, on my bus, I’m the one to decide who takes a seat and where!”
Student B (Rosa Parks): “And I’m a passenger and I’m already sitting….”
Student A (Bus driver): “You know there’s a law banning…”
Student B (Rosa Parks): “Well, the law is not fair! Good laws don’t divide people based on their skin colour!”
Student A (Bus driver): “If you don’t move, I’ll have you arrested.”
Student B (Rosa Parks): “You may do that, I’m not afraid. I am only tired of being told what I can’t do all the time: where I can sit, when I have to move… .”
Student A (Bus driver): ”The police are on their way. You’ll regret it later, when you are in jail.”
Student B (Rosa Parks): “I won’t regret defending the truth. One day everything will change, you’ll see.”
(The same interaction may be reenacted, from a more contemporary perspective, altering the events more consistently. To increase the dramatic developments of the scene, other passengers on the bus may also get involved.)
5. Feedback. An informal discussion which analyzes and clarifies some aspects, allowing both the “characters” and the audience to express their feelings will end the role-playing activity. Its purpose is to evaluate what was learnt as well as other gains and- why not- losses in the form of suggestions and recommendations for “the next time”.

The lesson taught me that, when considering an event of the past from a modern, 21st century perspective, it will facilitate not only a creative approach in analyzing the factual information involved but also a more knowledgeable exploration of alternatives. Apart from the obvious educational and linguistic merits of the activity above, three more statistically proved advantages have to be mentioned: higher motivation rates, more active participation and fewer discipline problems.

As well as these, by being aware of the development of historical events and their consequences, the students are encouraged to actively engage – maybe even identify with the characters they play, creatively solve problems, make amends and, no matter how overwhelming or exhilarating the temporary “moment of glory”, even attempt to change the course of history and do justice.

In conclusion, if you “role-play” your cards well as the teacher, if the selection of topics is wisely made, if the content is properly introduced, then students’ interest and intrinsic motivation will take care of themselves and the English classroom will become a stage where the “mere” players of today can learn from the recorded pages of yesterday so that they can write their own “mighty” future.


prof. Claudia-Emilia Frînculeasă

Liceul Teoretic Radu Vladescu Patarlagele (Buzău) , România
Profil iTeach: iteach.ro/profesor/claudia.frinculeasa

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