“Reenacting the Rosenbergs: Engaged Learning and Thinking Historically”
By Dr. Kelly Shannon, Assistant Professor
History Department, University of Alaska Anchorage
Reenacting the Rosenbergs: Engaged Learning and Thinking Historically

Context of the Inquiry

This inquiry took place in the following course, which I taught in the Spring 2013 semester:

HIST 453: America in the Cold War Era, 1945-1992

This is an upper-division course that fulfills upper-division elective credit requirements for History majors.  Students taking this course are have sophomore or higher standing (most are juniors and seniors).  The prerequisites for this course are HIST 132 and either ENGL A111 or ENG A211.  Completion of GER Tier I (Basic college level skills) courses is also required for students to enroll.  

Course Description:  

In 1941, Time magazine publisher Henry Luce famously dubbed the 20th century “the American Century.”  Although Luce intended for his concept to convince Americans to enter World War II, his notion of the “American Century” has come to signify U.S. global hegemony following 1945.  This course examines this “American Century,” a.k.a., 1945-1992, as the United States developed into a global superpower that vied for international influence with the communist Soviet Union.  This competition between the U.S. and USSR became the defining phenomenon of the age, affecting not only U.S. foreign policy but also American culture, society, economics, and politics.  As the country took on an increasingly international role during the Cold War, Americans at home worked to redefine citizenship rights, the role of the federal government, and U.S. culture.  This reading-, writing-, and discussion-intensive upper-division course will examine exactly how Americans grappled with their growing international power and the domestic changes that accompanied it.  We will examine, among other topics, how the Cold War began and what that meant for domestic rights and freedoms; how previously disenfranchised groups – from African Americans to women to homosexuals to Native peoples – fought for civil rights and a change in U.S. culture that had privileged white males; how young people sought to claim a voice by resisting the Vietnam War and adult culture; how Americans became disillusioned with government and began to face economic and international limits in the 1970s; the U.S. experience of globalization; how the Reagan Revolution reshaped American politics and culture; and how and why the Cold War ended.  We won’t simply be learning about what happened.  We will also discuss and analyze key scholarly debates about these events: why they happened, why they matter, and what’s at stake in studying each topic.  In exploring how Americans and historians have wrestled with important domestic and international questions from 1945-1992, we will deploy and sharpen our historical research, writing, and critical thinking skills to help uncover how the United States we know today took shape over the course of the “American Century.

History Department Student Learning Outcomes

The desired student learning outcomes for the Department of History, posted on the Department website and in the UAA catalogue, are:

  • Demonstrate the ability to write clear and precise English
  • Demonstrate advanced level historical research skills (proper use of historical citation style, critical use of primary and secondary sources, adequate research base, ability to frame a good historical question)
  • Demonstrate advanced historical skills (recognition of significance, cause and effect, continuity v. discontinuity, historiographical conversancy and perspective, critical and integrative thinking)

Department goals for 400-level classes are for such courses to foster learning for each one of these SLOs, and most 400-level courses include a research paper as the culminating assignment.

My goals for students in this particular course conform to the department SLOs, especially:

     -  to hone critical thinking, writing, and public speaking skills

     -  to sharpen acquisition of the skills that historians use to evaluate and interpret the past

     -  to analyze and evaluate the ways in which historians interpret the history of Cold War America

     -  to put primary sources and past events into historical context

     -  to acquire the ability to marshal relevant evidence to make their own arguments about U.S. history and to communicate those arguments verbally and in writing in a clear and effective manner

     -  to recognize key themes of Cold War U.S. history and to gain familiarity with the relevant narrative, key people, concepts, and events

     -  to deploy their knowledge of Cold War U.S. history and historical skills in a research paper

     -  to understand the viewpoints and motivations of a variety of historical actors


Course Artifacts

Focus of the Inquiry

The focus of this inquiry is the use of an engaged learning activity to promote students' acquisition of historical skills.  For this Spring 2013 course, which 21 enrolled students completed, I created an assignment on the 1951 espionage trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, which historically resulted in the conviction and execution of both of the Rosenbergs for having supplied atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.  The assignment required students to assume the roles of specific historical actors involved in the trial, reenact the trial over the course of three class periods (including a jury verdict), and engage in a post-mortem group discussion comparing the historical trial to the classroom reenactment.  Students then wrote an assigned paper on the historical trial which asked them to draw upon work they did for the reenactment.

I was inspired to create this assignment by Barnard College's Reacting to the Past (RTTP) initiative.  According to the RTTP website,

 Reacting to the Past (RTTP) consists of elaborate games, set in the past, in which students are assigned roles informed by classic texts  in the history of ideas. Class sessions are run entirely by students; instructors advise and guide students and grade their oral and written work. It seeks to draw students into the past, promote engagement with big ideas, and improve intellectual and academic skills.  Reacting to the Past was honored with the 2004 Theodore Hesburgh Award (TIAA-CREF) for outstanding innovation in higher education.[1]

Reacting to the Past's rationale and pedagogy is as follows:

 In most classes students learn by receiving ideas and information from instructors and texts, or they discuss such materials in seminars.  "Reacting to the Past" courses employ a different pedagogy.  Students learn by taking on roles, informed by classic texts, in elaborate games set in the past; they learn skills—speaking, writing, critical thinking, problem solving, leadership, and teamwork—in order to prevail in difficult and complicated situations.  That is because Reacting roles, unlike those in a play, do not have a fixed script and outcome. While students will be obliged to adhere to the philosophical and intellectual beliefs of the historical figures they have been assigned to play, they must devise their own means of expressing those ideas persuasively, in papers, speeches or other public presentations; and students must also pursue a course of action they think will help them win the game.[2]

Having attended a workshop on RTTP at the 2013 American Historical Association annual conference in New Orleans, and because several of my colleagues at other universities have used the RTTP system with positive results, I wished to implement this approach in my courses.  However, the RTTP games are still in development, and none were appropriate for the content of my upper-division courses at the time I taught this course.  Thus, I developed this assignment myself and used the RTTP program as a loose inspiration for the Rosenberg trial assignment.  Similarly, the RTTP website and the workshop I attended did not include any discussion of how to assess student performance or learning using their pedagogical techniques, so I devised my own assessment for grading student performance in the reenactment itself and paired the reenactment with a written paper as another way to gauge student learning.

My current inquiry seeks to answer whether or not the Rosenberg Trial reenactment activity fostered student learning and historical skills, specifically:

  • Did the trial reenactment help students gain a deep historical understanding of the Rosenberg trial and of the general period of the 1950s in the U.S.?

  • Did the trial reenactment foster students' ability to understand the motives of historical actors (that is, did it foster historical empathy and understanding of people who may have had very different motives and worldviews from themselves)?

  • Did the trial reenactment adequately prepare students to write a paper analyzing the trial, their historical actor's role in the trial, and the trial's historical significance?

  • Did the trial reenactment help improve student research skills and their ability to understand and evaluate primary source material?

  • Was the trial reenactment an effective way to engage students in learning about the early Cold War?

  • How do students perceive the effectiveness of this learning activity as compared to more traditional methods of learning, such as lectures and classroom discussion?

In order to assess the activity and answer these questions, I had the students complete the reenactment and related paper assignment.  We then discussed the assignment together as a group, and I asked them to fill out optional evaluations of the activity at the end of the semester.  I explained this inquiry to them, and they signed permission forms allowing me to use their reenactment performances, paper grades, and evaluation forms in my assessment of this teaching activity for the purposes of this Making Learning Visible teaching inquiry, which they understood I will ultimately publish on CAFÉ's MLV website.

[1] "The Concept," Reacting to the Past, Barnard College, http://reacting.barnard.edu/ (accessed 11/12/13).

[2] "Curriculum: The Basic Concept," Reacting to the Past, Barnard College, http://reacting.barnard.edu/curriculum (accessed 11-12-13).

Course Artifacts

Course Design and Implementation

The course met every week for the full 15-week semester.  Class periods were twice a week for 75 minutes each.  The course was an entirely in-person (as opposed to distance-based) course.  The typical class meetings involved a combination of lecture, group discussion, and music or video clips.  I placed my primary emphasis on discussion and only provided brief lectures to give students context or necessary background for the topic of each day’s discussion.  Assigned readings for each class provided students with additional historical context and information.  This course is reading-, writing-, and discussion-intensive.

I structured much of the course the way I typically structure my upper-division courses, based on thematic units that progress chronologically through U.S. history after 1945.  Course assignments progressed from shorter graded assignments that exercised different historical skill sets to a final research paper, which asked students to combine the various skills they deployed over the course of the semester.

I structured much of the course the way I typically structure my upper-division courses, based on thematic units that progress chronologically through U.S. history after 1945.  Course assignments progressed from shorter graded assignments that exercised different historical skill sets to a final research paper, which asked students to combine the various skills they deployed over the course of the semester.  

I consciously structured the first part of the course as a preparatory unit for the Rosenberg trial reenactment.  It provided students with necessary historical context on the development of the Cold War and the cultural and political atmosphere of the U.S. by the early 1950s that would help explain the trial, the motives of those involved with the trial, and the trial’s outcome and historical significance.  It also provided them – through the assigned readings and class lectures/discussions - with an overview of the historical trial so that they had adequate preparation for the trial reenactment.

Please see attached syllabus and assignment descriptions.

Course Artifacts


Study Design: My assessment of this learning activity is based on the following: student performance during the in-class trial reenactment; post-reenactment voluntary surveys completed by the students in April 2013; IDEA Course Evaluation Survey results given at the end of the semester.  Much of this involves qualitative data (i.e., surveys and student feedback), but I will also use quantitative data (student reenactment performance grades and written assignment grades) to confirm and explain the qualitative findings.

See attached survey questions.

Course Artifacts


I believe that this assignment worked quite well in fostering student engagement and learning.  However, next time, I need to address the main problem that students pointed out in their free responses, namely the fact that some students (especially the attorneys and judge) had significantly more work to do to prepare for the trial than others.  I would also seek to perfect a way to assess student learning through this activity vs. more traditional teaching techniques.


Course Artifacts

Faculty Contact

Dr. Kelly Shannon
Assistant Professor, History Department
University of Alaska Anchorage
3211 Providence Drive, ADM 147H
Anchorage, AK  99508

PH:  907.786.1692