“I had to live, breathe, and write my character”: Character Selection and Student Engagement in an Online Role-Play Simulation


Source: Journal of Jewish Education Volume 83, 2017 Issue 4, pages 280-309


This study explores the relationship between character selection and student engagement in the Jewish Court of All Time (JCAT), an online and classroom-based role-playing simulation of a current events court case with Jewish historical roots. Analyzing students’ responses to three questions posed in an out-of-character JCAT discussion forum, we tracked indications of their different types and styles of engagement and how they were associating this engagement with their character roles. The findings seek to augment the implementation of future JCAT simulations, as well as to inform research and practice of role-play simulations that involve assuming character personas.

Imagine 600 middle school students across North America engaging in an online role-play simulation. Hosni Mubarak and Gluckel of Hameln discuss the most important mentors in their lives. Rashi and Tzipi Livni debate matters of national identity. Forty university-based mentors, also in the role-play, ask evocative questions to help move the action forward. This is the Jewish Court of All Time (JCAT), an online and classroom-based role-playing simulation of a current events court case with Jewish historical roots, and the setting that inspired this study. As project directors and mentors in JCAT, we became curious about the relationship between the kinds of character roles students played and the nature of their engagement in the simulation. We found that the students’ connection to their character, as expressed through their thinking, feeling, and action, was of central importance to their engagement in the game. The findings seek to augment the implementation of future JCAT simulations, as well as to inform research and practice of role-play simulations that involve assuming character personas.

JCAT was created to develop students’ historical and contemporary knowledge (both Jewish and secular), historical empathy, ethical decision-making capacities, and active agency and engagement with learning. In addition, JCAT offers students the opportunity to build understandings of Jewish civilization as a people that has historically engaged in diverse societies, and has wrestled with its identity in those contexts. While these are the program’s broader purposes, the needs and curricular goals of individual schools largely dictate the specific outcome aims for their own students and contexts. To meet these purposes, students in JCAT extensively research their own characters, learn about the history and biographies of other characters, examine historical and contemporary documents and artifacts, are prompted to ponder and debate the nuances of the scenario at hand, and do so through the interactive online platform as well as classroom-based activities. The court case in which students in our 2015 study participated focused on the French law of Laïcité regarding religious adornment in public spheres. Two fictional public school students, one Jewish and one Muslim, had brought their case to “The Court” to challenge the law so they could be allowed to wear their traditional religious headwear (kippah and hijab, respectively) in school.

Through an online platform across two dozen Jewish day schools (approximately 600 students and 25 teachers) and four graduate schools of education (approximately 40 students), students assumed historical and current-day personas—from Moses to Madeleine Albright, to Emma Goldman, to Barack Obama. Located on a virtual Masada, they became speech-makers, respondents, witnesses, and justices, and actively shaped the direction of the simulation as they helped decide the case at hand. Graduate student “mentors” also took on character personas assigned by the project directors, and were tasked probing and encouraging conversation and debate between the middle school students with regard to their role-playing and critical thinking. Classroom teachers introduced students to content and facilitated character research, while encouraging and monitoring their students’ online participation in a variety of ways as they also took on character roles. University-based project directors developed the court scenarios, provided resources for teachers and students, oversaw the character selection process, and also participated in-character as facilitators. The majority of participants in the simulation were only known to one another as their JCAT characters/personas, with these exceptions: The characters acting as “hosts” were known to be adult participants; some teachers might have chosen to share their character identities with their students; or students might have been able to figure out on their own which characters were being portrayed by the adults. Otherwise, participants interacted on essentially anonymous and equal footing.

At the outset of the project, our research question was: How does character choice shape student engagement? We decided to turn to the students to ask them about their understandings of the character choice process. We formed our three open-ended questions accordingly, focusing on how students felt and thought about the process of choosing their top three character preferences (which was the first step in the character selection process), the character they were assigned, and then the impact of that character on their game play. Interestingly, the findings leaned much more specifically toward how the character they played shaped their engagement (i.e., how well or easily they could “become” their character), rather than the impact of the actual choice process on that engagement (i.e., whether they got the character they asked for in the selection process). So, this article focuses much more on how the actual character shaped engagement than on the choice and assignment process.

Many promises of educational role-play games and simulations like JCAT hinge on student engagement, and as we have shown, that engagement is highly influenced by the characters they play. As the channel of their experiential learning, students’ characters largely dictate their level of inter-action with the environment and continuity as they connect prior knowledge and experience with current and future learning. Likewise, an important synthesis of thinking, feeling, and acting through their characters is simultaneously shaping students’ engagement in the experience. Understanding the multi layered framework identified in this study that explicates how this engagement manifests through the chosen character can therefore help educators implement these kinds of activities more successfully.

Role-play is a common “activity” in educational environments, often aimed toward increasing engagement, getting students “out of their seats”, bringing a sense of theatricality to the classroom. Do we really know what we are asking of students when they take on a role? The findings in this study, rooted in a Jewish day school learning experience, can inform the larger field of educational role play in both theory and practice. Our findings illuminate that the character a student plays is a substantive factor supporting student engagement in their learning environments. In a sense, the intellectual, emotional, and behavioral demands of “serious” role-play games are com-plex, and the JCAT students help us see the intricacies of these demands. The triarchic understanding of engagement as comprised of feeling, thinking, and action instructs us to truly consider the “whole child” in these role-play settings. Similarly, by understanding the complex intellectual, emotional, and behavioral challenges and opportunities that students confront—such as in knowledge building, finding connections to self, navigating the in-game action, and the potential for embodiment—we can understand the depth of experience that role-plays offer.

Finally, this study illustrates possibilities that educational action research (also termed “practitioner research” or “practitioner inquiry”) can offer to Jewish educational research. By investigating our practice as project directors, university-level teachers, and teacher educators, we endeavor to improve our practice, to improve the quality of a Jewish educational curriculum/project, and make our work public in order to support/inform similar work in the field(Cochran-Smith & Lytle,2009;Raider-Roth,2017). The iterative process in which the game unfolded and as our research progressed offered us the opportunity to raise questions with and offer preliminary findings to the project directors, gain feedback from them, and participate in discussions of the design of the game. This study, a recursive process of research informing practice and practice informing research, offers one model for how educational action research can be integrated into and improve the quality of Jewish teaching and learning.

Updated: Nov. 15, 2017