Game Allows Students to React to the Past


Running late because the printers in the Raether Library were backlogged, the Emperor Constantine finally arrives in Clement 201. He quickly dons a tinsel tiara as his crown and a maroon tunic, and launches into an explosive speech about the role of women in the church and celibacy for priests in the Roman Empire. The emperor, one of Professor of Chemistry Dave Henderson’s students in a “Reacting to the Past” first-year seminar, delivers his opening remarks to his classmates, who today, with wooden crosses around their necks, are all bishops attending the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. Without any prodding or direction from their professor, the students stand up one by one, in a seamless flow, and argue these controversial issues in an attempt to sway the council’s looming vote—all in hopes of winning the final count and the game.

In Reacting to the Past seminars, created at Barnard College in 1995, students are assigned a role to play as part of a team, known as a “faction,” which engages students by creating a competitive atmosphere in the structure of a game. “Students tend to read more carefully, because they are reading it from a particular point of view,” explains Henderson. “They come to class having read Plato’s Republic, for example, ready to defend Socrates.”

As particularly powerful tools to learn for first-year students, persuasive writing and speech are the foundations of the class. Henderson says that the Reacting approach is so successful because the students, who may or may not agree with the positions they are defending, are playing a role and are therefore free to speak without worrying that they will be judged for their personal thoughts. “I’ll never teach a first-year seminar any other way,” says Henderson, who has incorporated parts of this model into his upper-level chemistry seminars.

Henderson, who began teaching the seminars four years ago, is the creator of “The Council of Nicaea: 325 CE” and “Kansas Board of Education 1999: Evolution and Creationism” Reacting games. Although a scientist at heart, he’s had a lifelong interest in the public debate “to resolve issues of science and religion,” which he says are clear in his own mind. Particularly intrigued by the first few hundred years of the church, from which few unbiased documents exist, and recently “pushed over the edge to find out more” by the best seller The DaVinci Code, Henderson has his students read primary sources such as the Bible and the Gospel of Mary Magdelene to “flesh out alternative points of view.”

Throughout the council’s session, the students, with surprising confidence for first-years, interject quotes and ideas from the primary sources they have read. At one point, as the debate gets heated, Constantine—who every once in a while relapses into student mode by tossing crumpled-paper basketballs into a waste bin—calls a faction meeting. Students furiously gather with like-minded bishops to hone their final arguments before the vote is taken.

“It’s amazing,” notes Henderson, “that they are really engaged and arguing fundamental theological debates. They are really trying to convince each other.” With the final tallies chalked onto the blackboard, the council's vote—both then and now—maintains the tradition: women should not become priests and priests should remain celibate. Amidst a chorus of cheers and jeers at the outcome, the foreman announces the council adjourned—for, after all, it is lunch time in Mather for these hard-working bishops.

With a $250,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the First-Year Focus Program will expand the First-Year Seminar Program to cover two full semesters, as well as to strengthen the Reacting to the Past pedagogical model. Other Reacting to the Past seminars that have been offered at Trinity include “The Threshold of Democracy: Athens 403 B.C.” and “The Trial of Anne Hutchinson, 1637.”

For further information or to view other games, please go to

Story contributed by Carlin Carr


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