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Can (Role-) Playing the French Revolution En Français Also Teach the Eighteenth Century?

Peggy Schaller

Introduction | Changing the Game with a Game | Roles | Readings | Rules | Results | Post-Mortem

The Results: Observing Outcomes

During the three weeks of actual game sessions, each student was required to give two prepared speeches, to contribute one article weekly to his or her factional journal, and to participate in daily debate sessions. Since this work was precipitated by the articles of the Constitution being debated on the floor of the National Assembly, it was essential that students receive the topics for upcoming sessions immediately after the closing of each day’s debate. This allowed them a minimum of two days to reflect on the new issues, on the developing national and international situations, and on their classmates’ already postulated positions. As a result, they could research both primary source documents and the work of their opponents more thoroughly. Having the time to research, assemble, and script their thoughts in appropriately structured French-language arguments also provided students the added benefit of a word / phrase bank from which to draw during the extemporaneous debates that followed the speeches on the floor of the National Assembly.

The formal speeches were to be given from the podium, following the protocol of the revolutionary National Assembly. Although students were asked to post copies of their speeches to the on-line discussion board at least 24 hours before the actual presentation, this guideline was almost universally ignored. Instead they most often distributed copies to the class just before taking the podium, claiming that they preferred to keep their strategies secret. This also represented a certain amount of last minute work on the part of the students, I suspect. In the end, however, all of them spoke and most of them spoke well. Nervousness gave way to competitiveness, even if the ultimate encouragement of a grade was also a motivating factor. One student, who began the game by taking me aside to explain that her anxiety regarding public speaking often caused her to become physically ill, not only gave her two speeches but also became so involved in the ensuing debates that she got herself elected to replace Lafayette when he was ousted as head of the National Guard. Others who had never spoken in the traditional classroom setting finished the game singing “Ah, ça ira” with the Sans Culottes and chastising Louis XVI in French on issues of state ineptitude. All of the student transformations were not this remarkable, but each student showed measurable improvement and a much clearer understanding of the time period and the voices that informed it.

Filming their speeches was a tool I adopted at the suggestion of a colleague also using Reacting to the Past in her classroom.10 It assisted the students in improving their oral production because they could review their performances online. Those who were unsure of their speaking abilities were initially a bit intimidated by the small camera rolling at the back of the room as they stood at our makeshift podium to address the assembly. The more proficient class members almost seemed to enjoy the filming, although several later seemed surprised to hear that their French did not sound as good in reality as it had in their heads. The number of hits on these YouTube postings assured me that they were watching each other and also watching themselves, a good way to improve on areas of weakness in oral communication.

The factional newspapers were tools for both the contributors and the readers. They were distributed in class once a week, and students had ten minutes at the beginning of that session to read the other factions’ journals, paying particular attention to any articles that might be pertinent to their own positions on the day’s debate topics. In one instance, the Feuillants used their last journal not only to position their group on the topic of slavery, but also to document their own version of the historical development of plantation culture in the French West Indies. They recalled Bertrand d’Ogeron, the first colonist to grow tobacco, the 1697 Treaty of Ryswick, and the actions of Finance Minister Colbert to introduce indigo plantations in Saint Domingue / Haiti, all giving weight to their arguments supporting plantation slavery as a political requirement for the sustenance of France’s fragile economy. By using this resource as a research platform for their topics, they were able to lay out strategies that would help organize their arguments during classroom debates.

As for those debates, they became more engaging with almost every class. The frustrations and hesitancies of the initial sessions were slowly replaced with grounded deliberations fueled by a desire to gain votes and impose political dominance. Knowing the subject matter in advance clearly helped, particularly on such topics as taxes, military service, and slavery. Students utilized a broader French vocabulary base along with more convincing rhetoric when they debated concepts that they had studied in the primary and secondary sources. Along with their expanding knowledge base, repeated use of the pertinent French lexicon—even the more complex and subject-specific words—clearly factored into this outcome. My C&C students became more comfortable with speaking when they were able to draw repeatedly on the vocabulary that corresponded with the debate topics on the issues of state and on the aspects of debate in general. Initially unfamiliar and specialized terms expressing dissention, referencing the working and rural classes, or describing church hierarchies and government agencies soon became regular references in classroom debates.

Through personal observation during the semester, a clear line of improvement in students’ ad hoc language performance was undeniable. As observed earlier, fluency of conversation was the most obvious area of growth. Students who initially interrupted discourse with a quick and decisive “Attendez,” soon advanced to the more opinionated “Vous avez tort,” “Laissez-moi vous expliquer la vérité,” and “A mon avis, Citoyen” [“Wait,” “You are wrong,” “Let me explain the truth to you,” “In my opinion, Citizen”]. However, equally significant were the advanced sentences that the students were able to link together in oral expression and the structural complexity of those sentences. The basic verb forms of “être” and “avoir” (“to be,” “to have”) and other beginner level vocabulary were increasingly replaced with more precise verb choices such as “compromettre, résoudre, impliquer” [“compromise, resolve, involve / implicate”] as linguistic and socio / historic knowledge bases increased, allowing persuasive skills to become an objective within reach. The complexity of issues requiring debate in the journals elicited equally complex vocabulary as the weeks went on. As student knowledge improved, their sense of confidence in their own verbal capabilities became equally apparent.

That newly found confidence in their language skills was clear in the overwhelmingly positive responses students gave to a post-mortem survey, and particularly to questions regarding the oral interaction that the class promoted (Addendum 7). Whether in the group / faction meetings or in the class debates, students felt that this was the biggest benefit of the game (“it was fun to speak so much French in class”). When asked about their least favorite activities, the factional newspapers or journals were the overall losers. Although for several this unpleasant activity was seen as augmenting language learning (“helped me practice my grammar”), most described the journals as useless or “of little help because I felt everyone said their views in class.” Apparently they did not take into account their own improved abilities to have that classroom debate because of the time they had spent organizing their thoughts in the journals, nor did they focus on the historical and cultural acquisitions they were making while doing the research and document prep work.

The other surprisingly common theme of the surveys focused on the interaction of the students themselves. Several were surprised that the entire class had so willingly played their roles and had cooperated so well in the factions. One entry I particularly appreciated noted “the cohesion of the class members” which surprised the student because she thought they “were going to hate each other at the beginning.” Although they all cited the confusion of the early classes as we tried to sort through the history, the rules, and the protocol, each student had at least one positive experience to report. So much interaction between the students was truly one of the highlights of the class. As the factions met on a regular basis in and often out of class, they began to understand that they could play off each other’s strengths to attain more power and influence. The speech given by Citoyen Danton / Will, who uses the words of Rousseau to admonish the members of the Assembly and rally his faction of Sans Culottes, is an excellent example of that student support.11 They began to rely on each other for specific roles (newspaper editor, email coordinator, speech reviewer), and ultimately even helped each other prepare debate platforms, research data, and assemble documents. As the film of the Sans Culottes revolt demonstrates, by the end of the game students had made the shift from the safety of the traditional classroom setting to the engaged learning process required by the game: They clearly demonstrated what Brooks and Preskill call hospitality, a term that implies “a mutual receptivity to new ideas and perspectives and a willingness to question even the most widely accepted assumptions” (9). Given such obvious triumphs, the concerns articulated by students doubtful of the game’s potential earlier in the semester were gradually overshadowed and ultimately almost entirely forgotten.

Next Section: My Own Post-Mortem . . .

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