History DNA

History DNA

hDNA James MadisonI think we learn more when we’re having fun. I don’t know whether or not we learn better through fun activities than through drudgery, but since we enjoy fun more than drudgery, I think we’re more inclined to spend our time doing the fun stuff – and spending the time on learning, has a big impact on how much we learn. Because of this – and because I like having fun – I like teaching with games. One of the great things about games – other than their funness – is that they give an immediate motivation to learn material that otherwise might only seem vaguely important. It might be difficult for a student to get very excited about James Madison, but if learning that Madison is known as “The Father of the Constitution,” and that he was the president of the United States during the War of 1812, helps her do well in a game, then it becomes more tangibly beneficial. I find that I’m much more inclined to want to learn information that will help me succeed in a game, than I am to want to learn something just to succeed on a test – and it seems most of my students feel that way too.

The first game of my own invention, that I began playing with my students, was History DNA. The idea for the game had been floating around in my head for a couple years, and I finally got around to suggesting it as a class several years ago when the Realm was just getting off the ground. In my preliminary vision, I thought of it as “The Ancestors Game”. The idea was that their would be a collection of historical figures that would become the players’ ancestors, and the players would inherit traits from them. These ancestors/historical figures would be depicted on cards, along with their listed trait rankings. Players would pit their ancestor cards against one another, dice would be rolled to determine the trait necessary to the circumstances, and the player who had inherited the given trait to the greatest degree would win the opportunity to answer a question, and if successful, claim the others’ cards.

Vicky almost immediately renamed it History DNA – I think she did that just as a way of abbreviating it as she listed it along with my other class ideas on a dry-erase board – but the name stuck. I swallowed my objection that it wasn’t quite accurate, acknowledging inwardly that what it might lack in science, it made up for in catchiness. It’s been History DNA ever since – and while the traits listed on the cards tend more towards temperament than physicality, who really knows to what extent these aspects of our personalities and character are inherited genetically rather than acquired through experience? Nature and nurture are always intricately intertwined, and our individual identities are certainly not blank at birth, so History DNA, it is.

Each semester in History DNA, we explore a theme. In the past we’ve looked at philosophers, mathematicians, poets, environmentalists, pacifists, authors, artists, and others. This semester we’ve been learning about the U.S. presidents. Each week we focus on one historical figure. We learn a little about them, and then we jump right in and play the game. Some of the students have been playing for years, and have a decided advantage over the others – at least at the beginning of each semester – their proficiency tends to urge new students on, and before too long the newcomers start learning answers, and the games become more closely contested.

Here are some of the questions from this semester, see how you do (scroll down for the answers):

  1. This 18th President of the United States served two terms from 1869-77. As the Commanding General of the United States Army he worked closely with President Abraham Lincoln to lead the Union Army to victory over the Confederacy in the American Civil War. Name this president, whose portrait appears on the U.S. $50 bill.
  2. This man was the 20th President of the United States. He was the second president to be assassinated, having been shot by Charles J. Guiteau, almost always described by the phrase, “a disgruntled office seeker,” on July 2, 1881, about 4 months after taking office. He lingered for eleven weeks before succumbing to his injuries on September 19th.
  3. This man won the popular vote for three presidential elections – in 1884, 1888, and 1892. He was both the 22nd and 24th President of the United States. He is the only person to have served two non-consecutive terms in office. Name him.
  4. This American politician and lawyer was the 25th President of the United States. He led the United States to victory in the Spanish-American War. He was the last president to have served in the American Civil War. He died in office, in September 1901, having been assassinated, six months into his second term, by an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz. Name him.
  5. This man was the 28th President of the United States. He was president during World War 1. He was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize for his sponsorship of the League of Nations. He was the second, of 4 presidents to receive the award. He endorsed the 19th amendment, which once ratified gave women the right to vote. Name him
  6. This man was the longest-running president in U.S. history. He won a record four presidential elections, and led the United States from the early days of the great depression through the late stages of WW2. His program for reinvigorating the economy during the 1930’s was known as the New Deal. Name him.
  7. The 33rd president of the United States took office upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt, less than a month before Germany’s surrender in WW2. A few months later, in August 1945, He ordered the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force Japan’s unconditional surrender and end the war. Name this president, who is known for the phrase, “The buck stops here”.
  8. The 34th President of the United States served two terms from 1953 until 1961. He was a five-star general during World War II and served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe. In 1951 he became the first Supreme Commander of NATO. He coined the term “military-industrial complex,” while expressing his concerns about the dangers of massive military spending through government contracts to private military manufacturers. Name him.
  9. This man served as president from January 1961 until his assassination in November 1963. He established the Peace Corps, and played a crucial role in the U.S. role in the Space Race. He presided over the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis –  the event, seen by many historians, as the closest the human race has ever come to multilateral nuclear war.
  10. This man became president following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He designed the “Great Society” domestic legislation which upheld civil rights, public broadcasting, Medicare, Medicaid, aid to education, the arts, urban and rural development, and other public services. His “War on Poverty” helped millions of Americans rise above the poverty line. Name this man, who is also remembered for having dramatically escalated America’s military involvement in the Vietnam War.
  11. This man was the 37th President of the United States from 1969 until 1974, when he became the only U.S. president to resign from office due to his apparent complicity in the Watergate break-in cover-up. While in office, he ended American involvement in the war in Vietnam. He famously visited China, opening diplomatic relations with them. He initiated détente and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union. Name this man who established the Environmental Protection Agency, and presided over the Apollo 11 moon landing in July 1969.
  12. This man served as the 40th President of the United States, from 1981 to 1989. Before his presidency, he had been Governor of California, from 1967 to 1975, after having already been known as a movie actor for many years. As president he advocated tax rate reduction to spur economic growth. He survived an assassination attempt, began the War on Drugs, and campaigned for reelection with the phrase “Morning in America”, winning by a landslide in 1984 with the largest electoral college victory in history. Name this president who is often credited with bringing the Cold War to an end.
  1. Ulysses S. Grant
  2. James A. Garfield
  3. Grover Cleveland
  4. William McKinley
  5. Woodrow Wilson
  6. Franklin D. Roosevelt
  7. Harry S. Truman
  8. Dwight D. Eisenhower
  9. John F. Kennedy
  10. Lyndon B. Johnson
  11. Richard M. Nixon
  12. Ronald Reagan


Here are some examples of History DNA cards from the past and present.

These are two of the original cards from the first semester we ever played History DNA. The original cards had 12 traits rather than the 6 that I almost immediately switched over to. You’ll probably notice my mistake, that while 12 categories seems to fit with the possibilities of rolling two dice, the actual probability of rolling a 1 with two dice is zero. Live and learn! I used to just print these cards myself, and then laminate them with clear contact paper – I’ve gotten higher-tech since then. I had forgotten that I used to include some essential facts on the cards – I kind of like that.

There were times back in the early days of History DNA, when I would fall behind on printing and laminating,and have to hand draw the weekly card. Here are two from a semester when we were learning about astro(and cosmo)nauts.

Eventually, I discovered that I could get the cards printed online for a fairly reasonable price – professionally printed color cards make the game seem much more legit! Here are the Yuri Gagarin and Sally Ride cards the way they look today!

While I’m at it, I might as well show you what the Frederick Douglass and Albert Einstein cards look like these days – they’ve come a long way!