Students in The Tumultuous Reign of Henry VIII (History 150: Historical Investigations) this past semester were swept into the past when their classroom was transformed into sessions of England’s Reformation Parliament. With support from the Mellon Teaching and Learning Initiative at Ursinus, led by Dr. Meredith Goldsmith (Associate Professor of English and Assistant Dean), Dr. Susanna Throop, assistant professor of History, implemented a method of pedagogy called Reacting to the Past (RTTP), which was started in the 1990’s by Mark C. Carnes, a history professor from Barnard College. The method allowed each pupil to take on individualized, historically based roles, while Dr. Throop advised and guided them, as well as graded their oral and written work.
“Students were emotionally engaged in a way that they aren’t in their regular classes,” says Throop. “They had to react on the ground to changing circumstances. And the higher level of engagement correlated with deeper learning.”
History 150 was divided into four parts: historical context, preparing for Parliament, Parliament, and historical reflection. The centerpiece of the course was Parliament, when the young scholars transformed into members of the English Parliament (lords temporal, lords spiritual, and commoners) during the turbulent years of 1529-1536. In role, they debated and passed legislation on a number of issues related to politics, religion, and English society, including whether the King should be granted an annulment from his wife of 20 years, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn, with the hopes she will produce a male heir.
“This class was different from other classes because almost everything we did in the first part was needed in order to do well in the second half,” explains Breanna Knisely 2017, who played the part of Thomas Audley, Knight of the Shire for Essex. “We needed to know the history and the background of England’s monarchy before Henry VIII himself, and also the literature and writings that were popular during this time.”
The 16 students in the class weren’t given scripts for their roles, but they still worked off descriptions which explained what their person cared about, who they should make alliances with, and with whom they might strongly disagree. Essentially, the students were given big picture goals for each part, along with some suggested actions, but ultimately the students had to devise their own ways to reach those goals.
“Some of the given goals were even counter-factual,” explains Dr. Throop. “For instance in factual history, Sir Thomas More resigned his post and was executed. But, the goal for the student playing More wasn’t to get executed! Instead, his goal was to maintain his position and promote his own legislative agenda.”
Class discussions became fiery and emotional as students really embodied their characters. The roles became personal and students clearly cared deeply about Parliament, with the result that Parliament debates and meetings spilled over outside the classroom, even in the dorms. Despite the competitive nature of Parliament, the intensity of the experience meant there was a lot of support for each other and the whole class bonded on their historical journey.
“This class made history tangible,” says Mackenzie Kilgore, 2017, who played William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury.
“There is a big difference between sitting at a desk listening to a lecture about history and learning about history while you are immersed in it. The class enhanced my public speaking skills, leadership skills, and ability to empathize. I made good friends, and grew as both a student and a person.”
Dr. Throop is on a research leave this spring semester to break ground on a new book project, which will focus on the relationship between the crucifixion and the crusading movement. But, she plans to offer the Henry VIII course again in Spring 2015. It will most likely be listed as History 199, a new course the History Department is developing to cover different topics using the Reacting to the Past format.
“This way of teaching proved very effective, in terms of content and also skills” says Throop. “The students really became strong argumentative writers. After all, they didn’t just have to convince their professor about their position, they had to convince the whole class, if they truly wanted to get their legislation passed. Seeing such dramatic intellectual and personal growth in the students made this class truly the most rewarding experience of my teaching career thus far.”