History Alive: Engaging Students in Cosplaying

Weaving the fun of cosplaying with social studies gives history a life of its own.

By: Nefertari Yancie, Jeremiah Clabough


Every summer, thousands of comic book fans make the trip to Charlotte, North Carolina, for HeroesCon. During this three-day convention, hundreds of fans dress up like Batman, Stormtroopers, Spiderman, Iron Man, taking on the persona of their favorite superheroes.

The process of dressing up, creating props, and acting as a character from comic books, video games, or movies is referred to as cosplaying. Cosplaying interjects a great deal of energy into the comic book convention scene, and has the potential of doing the same for your middle grades social studies classes—the difference being that instead of posing as pop culture icons, students dress up and assume the roles of historical figures.

At its core, cosplaying is a form of role playing. People become one of their favorite fictional characters for a couple of days and do their best to act in that role. In adapting the components of cosplaying to social studies, students must complete meaningful research about a historical figure before being able to become that individual. This allows students to gain a deeper understanding of an historical figure's values.

Justinian and Theodora make a regal entrance as guests on the Let's Go Real talk show.
Cosplaying activities in social studies also have the potential to positively alter the classroom dynamic. Through the performance aspects of these activities, students become actively engaged in their learning.

Here are three cosplaying activities for the middle school social studies classroom, including the steps to implement each of the activities and an example script.

Abraham Lincoln Gets Some Couch Time

Every weekday, millions of people turn on their televisions to watch Dr. Phil cross-examine his guests and ask that iconic question, "Well, how's that working out for you?" Viewers are riveted as guests tell their darkest secrets, expose their deepest vulnerabilities, and boast about their greatest achievements.

What if historical figures were on Dr. Phil's proverbial couch? By the end of the hour, the historical figures likely would be more "human" and not just names in the pages of a textbook.

With this cosplaying activity, groups of students work together to produce a talk show featuring an historical figure. Using primary and secondary sources, students research their figure and then work together to develop questions and answers.

The students present their talk show to their classmates. The show has four hosts—each one is responsible for asking questions about a specific topic, such as culture, government, the military, or even gossip. Another student assumes the role of the historical figure.

The student playing the role of the historical figure should wear a costume that is representative of the time period and character. (This does not exclude the four hosts from wearing costumes as well.)

This activity provides students the opportunity to research their topics in depth, which leads to deeper analysis and engagement. As students dive into their topics, they become more invested in historical figures' lives and begin to empathize with them. This is especially true for the students who are acting the part of the historical figure. To "be" an historical figure, students must understand the person's character and values. It is not enough to know accomplishments and important dates; students should know what motivates the historical figure, making him or her three-dimensional.

Going to HistoryCon

San Diego ComicCon has become the comic book enthusiast's pilgrimage. Every summer, fans travel to meet the stars of the newest films and to see the newest merchandise from toy companies. Not only can fans dress up as their favorite superheroes and villains, but they have the opportunity to listen to panels of actors talk about what it's like to be their character.

In this activity, history meets San Diego ComicCon as students assume roles of historical figures and create their own panels where they discuss and debate historical issues.

Each panel consists of five historical figures and one moderator. Teachers might consider providing students with a list of people to choose from based on the particular topic of the panel, although they don't necessarily have to be from the same time period. For example, a panel discussing democracy could include the ancient Greek philosopher Plato and the U. S. Founding Father James Madison.

Each group chooses a topic and develops a script that reflects historical figures' perspectives on that topic. The script should include the moderator facilitating the conversation. Students work together to research how each person would have viewed the selected topic to ensure historical accuracy. All students on the panel should be dressed to represent their chosen historical figure.

When asked to think like historians, students must be able to acknowledge the importance of multiple perspectives. This activity allows students to create a script that shows their knowledge about issues from different viewpoints. Through research, they may find that factors such as social class, politics, religion, and culture influence how historical figures view certain issues.

This activity provides an opportunity for students to see there are multiple perspectives around a topic and that our perspectives influence how we interpret the world around us.

The Vikings: Looking for a Few Good Men and Women

Wander through a comic book convention and you'll see groups of costumed participants recruiting attendees to join their Klingon, Stormtrooper, or Ghostbuster team. Imagine historical groups holding their own conventions to persuade people to join them.

In this activity, students adopt the roles of members from historical groups and attempt to persuade the audience to join their cause. The teacher breaks students into five-member groups and assigns each an historic faction. For example, one group may be the Vikings and another may represent the Egyptian pharaohs. Students must research different aspects about their assigned group and develop a recruitment script.

Convincing others to "join" their group requires that students use persuasive writing to make convincing arguments on why their group has advantages over others. The ability to make persuasive arguments is a life skill that students must have to be successful in any career vocation.

History Alive!

The nature of social studies instruction has changed over the past couple of years. The recent education reform movements of the Common Core State Standards and the C3 Framework by the National Council for the Social Studies place a premium on student-centered instruction that promotes students using their higher-order thinking skills.

The three cosplaying activities presented here reflect this type of social studies instruction. Students do in-depth research about historical figures and have an opportunity to present their information in a way that is engaging and illustrates their understanding of people, places, and events. Students can use their creativity while becoming invested in the content, class activities, and learning process.

History Talk Show Script

Host 1 (Culture): Welcome to Let's Get Real, where History gets real!

Host 2 (Theodora's Contribution): We are honored to have as our guests the great rulers of the Byzantine Empire, Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora!

Host 3 (Gossip): Your majesties, we are so honored that you decided to bless us with your presence today.

Justinian: We are glad to be here. We are always willing to let our subjects know that we, their rulers, want to be a part of their lives.

Theodora: Yes, even if it is through this type of show. (Looks around disdainfully)

Host 1: Emperor, the writer Procopius describes you as a king who can be kind yet cruel. He says you take people's property and will give it to barbarians to bribe them in order to keep them away from the Byzantine borders. Emperor, what are your thoughts?

Justinian: Procopius is not the most trusted source. I have made decisions in the best interest of the empire. I may have paid barbarians, but it kept my subjects safe from their invasions and burning of villages. Did Procopius mention this? I will definitely not be questioned by the likes of Procopius!

Host 2: Emperor Justinian, please do not upset yourself! My queen, you have been known to calm the emperor down on some occasions, such as in the aftermath of the Nika Riots. Can you tell us about that?

Theodora: My husband just needed a reminder that, as royals, we were not going to run from our city. We would rather die in our royal robes than live in peasants' clothes. As a result of my timely speech, we stayed, fought, and took back our great city.

Host 3: Well … Empress Theodora, we know you have a … let's say, questionable background. I mean you were an actress, correct? Hmm …. Do you think your background makes it hard for your subjects to take you seriously?

Theodora: I prefer to look forward to the future. God has seen to forget my background and so has my beloved husband. I am most fit to rule and have done great things during my time on the throne. That is what matters.

Host 4 (Law): Well said. Emperor Justinian, what do you think people will say about you as a ruler when they look at the Justinian Code?

Justinian: They will say that I wanted an empire where justice would be the rule of law. I looked at my empire and saw there were conflicts. As the ruler, it was my job to fix the problems. I did this not only for my people but for all of the future generations to come.

Host 1: This is all the time we have today! Thank you so much for joining us, your majesties, on Let's Get Real, where history gets real!

Viking Recruitment Activity Script

Viking 1: You there! Come and let us tell you our story. Afterwards, there will be no doubt you will pick up the Viking shield and armor and join us on our many adventures!

Viking 2: If you seek adventures, riches, and to see new lands, this is the life for you.

Viking 3: If you enjoy having songs and stories written about your deeds, this is the life for you.

Viking 4: If you want kings and armies to cower and shudder in fear at the mere mention of your name, this is the life for you!

Viking 5: If you're scrawny, faint at the sight of blood, and have no adventurous spirit … (long pause) … who cares! You can man the oars on our great ships! This is still the life for you!

Viking 2: Vikings have been widely misrepresented in history as pillagers. Ok, maybe we earned some of that, but that's not all we are.

Viking 4: We have been called barbarians and uncivilized, but this is unfair. We were ahead of our time when it came to ship building. The ships that made nations shake in fear when seen on the horizons were works of art. Our boats were fast, light, and easy to navigate.

Viking 1: So true! When people were running around in horror trying to escape us, did anyone stop and appreciate the technology that got us to their lands so quickly? (Shakes head sadly) We have been so misjudged.

Viking 3: Also, to be called barbarians by the so-called civilized nations of Europe is ironic! In 840 A.C.E. Lothar, the son of the deceased emperor of Frankia, paid us to raid his brothers! Such in-fighting! He wanted us to weaken their defenses to make it easier for him to overpower them. We would never do this to our brothers. Who's really the barbarian?

Viking 5: Yes, these Frankish cowards, pretending to be rulers, began to pay us not to raid their lands. Real kings would fight! That is the Viking way! So of course, we took their money and raided them anyway! (Every Viking cheers.)

Viking 4: But best of all, we have the best funerals ever! We put our loved ones on a boat, set them on fire, and put them out to sea! Then, we spend the rest of eternity in Valhalla fighting evil with Thor. Yes, that Thor! The one with the cool hammer!

Viking 3: So come! Join us and live a life filled with adventure!!!

Nefertari Yancie is a middle school social studies teacher at William J. Christian K–8 School in Birmingham, Alabama.
mrsyancie@yahoo.com

Jeremiah Clabough is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
jclabou2@uab.edu

Published in AMLE Magazine, September 2016.

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