On the afternoon of September 21, 2012, Upper School English Chair Erika Drezner burst into a classroom, slapped her knees for a while to approximate the clopping of horse hooves, and—when a junior said, “Speak, lad!”—she announced, voice atremble, the bloody news of the Battle of Lexington.
It’s been like this for the past two weeks in Berkeley Carroll’s American Studies classes, which are submerged in a deliciously high-stakes role-playing game with the objective of controlling 1775-era New York City. The juniors whisper and pass notes during class, but it’s all in character (“Deals were being made all the time in cloakrooms,” points out US History Chair Lorne Swarthout). Last Wednesday a backpack-wearing Congressman John Morin Scott discovered his own grave in a walking tour of Trinity Churchyard; on Thursday the Sons of Liberty leader Isaac Sears intelligently tore down Loyalist rhetoric while wearing a nametag covered in little doodled hearts.
In one particularly surreal moment, Director of Educational Design & Innovation Liz Perry found herself exclaiming “You can't talk; you’re on a ship!” to a rowdy Loyalist. “I’ve never said that to a student before,” she laughs.
Berkeley Carroll is the first high school to play the game, which was developed at Barnard College exclusively for college students and revolves around seminal texts by John Locke and Thomas Paine. The game’s creator, Pace University Professor Bill Offutt, visited Berkeley Carroll to train teachers, and explained that he designed the game to have some elements of chance. For example, the last day of the game is a no-holds-barred military battle in which violence is represented by dice-rolling. "So you can be very strategically canny and still lose," says Ms. Perry. "As in life." A worried look comes over her. "It's still an intellectual exercise for them; these students just don't think like they're in the army." She pauses, and laughs. "I know that's a funny thing to say."