Theater is one of my dearest loves, as is, of course, literature. Any time I can combine the two in my classroom, I do. Performance and role play help students embody the characters they read about in a unique, unforgettable way. I’ll often assign skits as summary, and I wouldn’t dream of teaching Shakespeare without a full cast of students at the front of the room, equipped with props, acting out every word. Not every text lends itself so readily to performance, though… but I appreciate an opportunity to step outside the box.

The past two years, I’ve been teaching A Tale of Two Cities as part of my AP Literature syllabus. Last year, I came up with a concept for a role-playing game that would help my students better understand what I like to call “The Jacques Effect” going on amongst the characters of the novel–secret names, a knit registry of those to be exectuted, plural identities, avowals of loyality, desperation, and greed. Dickens so clearly wanted his audience to feel the intensity and insistance of these historical realities surrounding the French Revolution, but it doesn’t always translate to the modern student, who can find herself simply confused about why the heck everybody is calling each other Jacques all the time, and why Charles Darnay would want to forsake his French inheritance and lay low in England.

Enter “The Jacques Experiment”–the now completed game, which I based off of similar theater games like “Mafia” or “Dinner Party” where an ensemble of actors in character greet one another, all the while trying to avoid a secret murderer. I took that format and specialized it to the historical setting of A Tale of Two Cities. I played the revised version with my students today and it was a huge hit. Not only that, but it really did reinforce their understanding of the novel. They are perfectly poised to read Chapter 16, “Still Knitting,” in which Madame Defarge sniffs out a spy posing as a fellow revolutionary.

Are you teaching this Dickens classic? Please enjoy and use the game, in .pdf form here:The Jacques Experiment . Educational. Hilarious. Challenging to the mind. And a way to see literature come to life before your eyes. (I had one student lurk in the corner, peering ominously over her “knitting” pencils… Guess what? She was a NOBLE!)