HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Role-Playing Between Accuracy and Creativity

by David Fain Issue: Teaching Jewish History

While acknowledging the benefits of role-playing developing student historical empathy, the author confronts challenges that this activity poses to the transmission of historical understanding.

At the end of every semester of my 8th grade Zionism course, the students attend an “Israel Peace Conference.” They come as leaders who have lived throughout Israel’s history to share their experiences, hopes and dreams for Israel’s future. The goal, as they prepare for the conference, is to learn about the depth, richness and complexity of the personnages and historical eras they represent, and at the same time learn about themselves.

Characters are selected based on students’ interests, with historical figures ranging from politicians and military generals to community organizers and athletes. Students spend two weeks doing research, both at home and guided in class, before coming to class dressed in character for a two day conference. The first day of the conference is a meet and greet. Some characters lived during the same period of Israel’s brief history and others have never met. Students introduce themselves, share what they have learned and get to know other influential leaders. The second day of the conference features a conversation on Israel’s future based on what the students have learned about their characters’ beliefs. Sitting at the same table, Theodor Herzl and Benjamin Netanyahu may conduct a discussion about Diaspora relations or Middle East politics.

The goal of this project is much more than just research. I seek to have students connect personally with leaders in history, understanding their thinking and the factors that influenced them, and ultimately aligning their own thinking with the thinking of their character.

There are several challenges in role-playing scenarios. First, can an 8th grade adolescent really step outside of him/herself and get into another person’s head? Adolescents struggle to understand their own thinking and to reflect on themselves, let alone to understand someone else. This program asks them to be critical thinkers not only about someone else’s life but more importantly, their own. For example, when personifying Hannah Szenes, who was willing to sacrifice for her country, the student is asked to think about what he or she is willing to sacrifice. When students learn about Teddy Kollek, who worked to bring Arabs and Jews together in Jerusalem, they think about what work they would be willing to do for coexistence. The challenge of doing this is that for many students they have never struggled with coexistence or for that matter any of the challenges that leaders throughout history have faced, so they have a great deal to learn about others and themselves to prepare for the role-play.

A second challenge derives from the intractability of historical data. Can students integrate what they read and create a larger idea and thesis? For example, when learning about Benjamin Netanyahu, it is hard to understand what he really thinks about peace and Israel’s future; his stated views fluctuate often. How can students synthesize all of this information and create their own understanding of the character? Another example is Menachem Begin, an extraordinarily difficult man for historians to understand; at first he was a leader of the Irgun, and toward the end of his life he made peace with Egypt. Can an 8th grader bring this complexity into role-play? What are the appropriate expectations for teachers to have in this activity?

Finally, there is a tension inherent in the activity of role-playing itself between creating an accurate representation of the person in history and engaging students’ creativity. The student is asked to bring the person to life in a realistic manner; the teacher wants to engage the student’s personality and understanding of the material and at the same time does not want a misrepresentation of history. How do we strike the balance to encourage both history and creativity? Do they both matter equally?

For example, often students want to learn about athletes who participated in Israeli Olympics. This is a great opportunity for students to explore a personal interest and be creative. Having an athlete sit at a peace conference could bring an entirely different perspective on history. At the same time, it is nearly impossible for a student to know this person’s views on issues of public and philosophical importance. Should we allow the student to be creative and make up the character’s beliefs from nearly whole cloth?

Overall, role-playing offers an opportunity for students to bring history to life—to engage in challenging issues and discover new perspectives on their lives and today’s world. At the same time I wonder, what is the limit? I do not know what people who are no longer alive today would say about society today, yet this is exactly what I encourage my students to do. I want them to make educated guesses using the past about the present and future. If students’ role-playing leaves the characters only in the past, then what have I accomplished? I want my students to gain a deeper understanding of their character in history while simultaneously inspiring them to transfer ideas from past into present—goals that can at times be at cross-purposes.

Most of role-playing today in history classes is about playing a character in history. The challenge should be to move students from playing the character in his or her historical context to bringing the character into the present, in dialogue with the student’s own thoughts and perspectives. The student must be forced to walk the fine line of representing history and representing oneself, but first we as educators need to hold and meet both goals at the same time. This is the great challenge for the student and more so for the teacher: how do you walk the line of creatively role-play history while maintaining historical accuracy?¿

David Fain is a Hebrew and Jewish studies teacher at Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School in Chicago. dfain@bzaeds.org

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