How to — and How Not to — Teach Role Plays

The Zinn Education Project features lessons that reveal key aspects of U.S. history — lessons that we hope elicit intense student engagement. Some of these activities are role plays — trials that urge students to reflect on ethical questions about responsibility for injustice; single-group role plays that pose critical strategic questions for those seeking a more just society; mixer role plays that surface diverse perspectives on key events, like the U.S. war with Mexico or the struggle for voting rights; multiple-group role plays that help students recognize the social foundations of conflicts around the U.S. Constitution, the Dakota-Access Pipeline, or the shaping of the New Deal; or role plays that allow students to discover commonalities and build solidarity, like the La Vía Campesina role play about food sovereignty.

As one high school teacher, Jonathan Guerra, from Lyndhurst, New Jersey, wrote about one of the Zinn Education Project trial role plays:

Perhaps the best thing about the lesson was that it made all parties involved, including myself, step out of our collective comfort zone and face uncomfortable truths in an academically honest and beneficial way.

However, like any classroom strategy, role plays can be misused and poorly designed, as a number of recent stories illustrate. An educator in Bronxville, New York, asked Black students to put on imaginary shackles while white students “bid” on them; a school in Tennessee invited students to dress as Nazis and give the Nazi salute in the hallways. These are awful activities, failing by every conceivable pedagogical and curricular measure, and we join those who have decried them.

The Zinn Education Project does not feature any activity that attempts to “recreate traumatic experiences,” in the words of Hasan Kwame Jeffries, professor at Ohio State University.

The Zinn Education Project strives to make sure that all the curriculum we share, including role plays, meets an ambitious set of goals. Role plays should:

  • Explain complex social phenomena like white supremacy, settler colonialism, social class divisions and wealth inequality, or environmental exploitation
  • Tell the truth about the past and present, including stories of events, groups, and individuals, too often erased, minimized, or oversimplified in corporate curricula
  • Increase students’ capacity to act for justice by
    • Growing their imaginative capabilities, the cornerstone of empathy and solidarity
    • Exploring how systems affect people’s choices, analysis necessary to solve seemingly intractable problems
    • Allowing time and space for democratic, participatory pedagogy
    • Thwarting cynicism and resignation by emphasizing activism and resistance

We believe role plays are pedagogically powerful, but their success in the classroom requires planning and care. Here, we offer five points to keep in mind when planning a lesson using a role play.

Context Matters

Role plays about structural racism, genocide, or exploitation and oppression, are not something to do “cold” with students during the first week of school nor something to leave with a substitute teacher while you are away from class. Your classroom should already have established norms and a burgeoning sense community before tackling a role play about such important and serious content. Students need to understand that any role play at the Zinn Education Project website is embedded in a broader curricular project to explain the origins and persistence of social inequality in the United States, and to equip students to see themselves as potential changemakers. A role play is not a one-off or stand-alone “enrichment” activity.

What Do We Mean When We Say “Role Play”?

The term “role play” can connote both that it is a performance, as in a play, as well as that it is playful, fun. These turn out to be unfortunate associations, especially when they are connected with classroom lessons that deal with genocide, enslavement, deportations, or other upsetting content. While it is true that students are asked to take on a “role” — that is, the position and interests of someone from another time or social location — it is an intellectual endeavor, not a performative one.

We encourage teachers to make this clear to students by cautioning them not to wear costumes, speak in accents, or adopt stereotypical mannerisms. The goal is not to “act” like a character as one would in a play, but to understand and surface the character’s thinking and motivations, as a kind of social and historical investigation.

Perpetrators and Victims

Our role plays sometimes include both perpetrators and victims of injustice. Some students may have reservations about “playing” the role of an enslaved person in the 1780s, a deportation officer in the 1930s, or a member of the Seminole tribe during the 1830s.

First, we would never advise teachers to force students to adopt a specific role; if a student says they don’t feel comfortable in one role, simply let them choose another.

Second, teachers should make it clear to students at the outset that if assigned the role of an oppressed group (an enslaved person, a deportee, an incarcerated Japanese American), they will not be asked to act out a traumatic experience. Rather they will be asked to imagine and give voice to oppressed peoples’ resistance, agency, and understanding of the systems and forces that defined their predicament. Our role plays do not rehash historical injustice or trauma. They provide a vehicle for students to reflect on, and to speak back to that injustice and trauma.

Third, teachers should clarify for students taking on oppressive roles that they are not being asked to sympathize with the oppressor. They are being asked to understand and articulate how and why individuals participate in oppressive practices. We hope students come to see that it doesn’t take being “evil,” “bad,” or even exceptionally bigoted to buy into the wages of whiteness or the class incentives of labor exploitation. When oppression is structural, it merely requires following the logic of a system. If we lead students to believe that only “bad” people are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, or destructive to the environment, it becomes easy to make oppression something other people do, not something of which we are all capable, and for which we all have a role in recognizing, disrupting, and resisting. These are take-aways we encourage all teachers to raise with their students as part of a thorough follow-up discussion.

Don’t Rush

Adequate reflection and processing of the experience of the role play is not incidental, but fundamental. Teachers should make sure to provide plenty of time and space for students to step out of their roles and reflect on their experience. What did they notice? What new understandings were gained? What new questions emerged? This step is perhaps most critical for students who take on roles of figures with whom they may disagree or whose positions they abhor. Students need a chance to distance themselves from the circumstances of a role play, to speak in their own voice, and against the very arguments their character surfaced in the activity. The post-role play debrief is also a time where students get a chance to hear each other’s “real” opinions and build powerful collective analyses of some of our world’s most intractable problems — racism, inequality, environmental destruction.

Share Your Experience, Build Our Community

We are at a moment in U.S. history when social movements are demanding that we examine every nook and cranny of our world to make sure that people are fully represented, that no one’s life is treated as disposable. We need a similar reckoning in our curriculum. This is very much an instance where, together, we “make the road by walking.” We depend on your feedback. More than 100,000 educators have signed up to access our materials, and thousands of teachers, in very different settings, have used our lessons. But the Zinn Education Project is not a curricular shopping mall. We seek to be a community — a place that we build together.

Please share your teaching stories. How have you adapted our lessons? When have you encountered difficulties? What alternatives have you created? Thank you for being a member of this essential work to remake our classrooms, to remake our society.

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