As teachers, we are constantly reflecting and looking for ways to improve our teaching. But in our search for new and exciting resources, it’s important to remember that not all resources are created equal! For example, some resources may be super fun, but do not have meaningful content. Other resources, while engaging and filled with rich content, are not appropriate to use in all contexts. Below, I will share my own experiences and explain why I removed some simulations out of my history units. I will also give you a checklist you can use to evaluate simulations before using them with your students.
A Little Background
Creating My First Unit
Have you ever wondered how The Clever Teacher came to be? It all started in 2014 when I was taking a “History of Creativity” class in college. The final assignment for the class was a creativity project. We were asked to put our time and heart into the project and create something that was truly creative.
Since I was an elementary education major, I decided to create a history unit about the events that led to the Declaration of Independence. In order to make it truly creative, I designed a simulation where students would adopt colonial identities and experience “taxation without representation.” For example, students:
- Take part in simulated classroom taxes (stamp act, townshend acts, tea act, intolerable acts, etc.). From being required to put an “official stamp” on all of their assignments, to paying for each piece of paper they use throughout the day, to sitting two to a desk, students can’t help but feel the pressure from “King George.”
- Participate in simulated congress meetings, debating from the perspective of their colonist identity.
- Use the Declaration of Independence as a model text for writing their own declaration.
The idea was that as the taxes got more and more cumbersome, the students would feel some of the frustration that colonists felt when they decided to declare independence from Great Britain.
In the end, the teacher gave my unit an A- (something I’m still annoyed about!). After graduating, I used the unit with my class of 5th graders. They loved it! Even my students who “hated school” would ask me when they could do more history lessons. I loved seeing them engaged!
I decided to put my unit up for sale on Teachers pay Teachers and create another unit for my students. This one was about the Civil War.
When creating my Civil War unit, I made sure to include a simulation. After all, that was my students’ favorite part of the previous unit!
In the Declaration of Independence Unit, students adopted the identity of a British colonist. In my new Civil War unit, they adopted the identity of an American right before the election of 1860. My learning objective was to show the different political views held by various groups and how that affected the outcome of the election of 1860. Essentially, I wanted students to see how the country was divided along sectional lines.
So I wrote articles for the following groups: Southern farmers, the Northern elite, Northern workers, and Western farmers. Each article gave facts about the group’s daily life and explained how they felt about the political issues of the time. Some of the relevant political issues in 1860 were slavery and building a transatlantic railroad.
Students were assigned a group and asked to explain how their group felt about a variety of political issues.
Do you see the problem? Some students were assigned the “Southern farmers” group and had to write why “they” thought slavery should exist in the South and expand to the Western territories.
I should not have written the articles in the second person (“you”) because it made it sound like students should agree with the proslavery views of the Southern farmers. It was not an appropriate way to teach the information.
I changed this activity so students list the majority political views of each region without asking them to identify with the groups. So instead of saying, “We Southern farmers think slavery should exist in the South and are against a transcontinental railroad,” they instead said, “In general, the Southern farmers were proslavery and against a transcontinental railroad.”
It’s a small but significant change.
Another mistake I made was with my 13 colonies unit. I created a simulation where students pretended to be the colonists at Jamestown. After a lot of reflection, I decided to take out the Jamestown simulation. I did so for the following reasons:
- I felt like it was prioritizing entertainment over learning.
- I realized that the lesson asks students to simulate a traumatic experience. After all, many of the early Jamestown settlers died. And some even participated in cannibalism!
- I felt that the lesson only presented the colonists’ point of view and not the point of view of the Indigenous people who were living in the area.
I replaced the lesson with a gallery walk where students explore primary and secondary sources to learn about life for Jamestown settlers and the Powhatan people.
Over the past 7 years, I’ve learned so much about designing simulations – which is why I removed a few simulations from my history units. I want to share what I’ve learned with you so that you will be able to confidently choose simulations for your students.
First, let’s review what a simulation is.
What is a Simulation?
According to Hasan Jeffries, host of the Teaching Hard History podcast, a simulation is “an attempt to re-create a situation or phenomenon from the past to put students in a re-created environment as much as possible.” The theory behind this type of activity is to “allow students to assume the roles of other people and act out scenarios in order to gain deeper insight into historical events.”
In my Declaration of Independence unit, students learn about the events that led to the Declaration of Independence by adopting the identity of a colonist.
In my Revolutionary War unit, students learn about the major battles of the Civil war by adopting the identity of a Continental soldier, officer, or spy.
In my Age of Exploration unit, students learn about the risks of sailing during this time by adopting the role of a sailor.
In my Westward Expansion unit, students learn about life on the Oregon trail by adopting the identity of an emigrant.
In my Constitution unit, students learn about the major compromises of the Constitutional Convention by adopting the role of a delegate.
Why I Love Using Simulations in the Classroom
Simulations can bring history to life in your classroom! In simulations, students can go back in time, take on a new identity, and feel what it was really like to live during past eras.
Through experiential practice, students gain a more concrete understanding of what is being taught.
And, the best part? Students are engaged and excited about history!
Some Cautions to Keep in Mind When Using Simulations
While simulations can be a fun way to engage students, they are not always the best resource to use in every context.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, simulations can:
- Trivialize the experience of victims and leave students with the impression at the conclusion of the activity that they truly know what it was like to experience the injustices.
- Stereotype group behavior and distort historical reality by reducing groups of people and their experiences to one-dimensional representations.
- Reinforce negative views of the victims.
- Put students in the position of defending and/or identifying with the oppressors.
- Impede critical analysis by oversimplifying complex historical events and human behavior – leaving students with a skewed view of history.
- Emotionally upset or damage students who are sensitive and/or who may identify with the victims.
The ADL recommends avoiding simulations for emotionally vulnerable topics, such as:
- Slavery and the Triangle Trade
- Indigenous people’s interactions with European conquerors
- The Holocaust
- Japanese American internment
- War crimes
- Racism and sexism
Checklist for Evaluating Your Simulations (Free PDF Download)
Use these guiding questions to evaluate your social studies simulation:
- What are the learning objectives? What educational value is the simulation providing?
- Is the simulation prioritizing entertainment over learning?
- Do students have enough prior knowledge and context for this simulation?
- What images and videos am I using and what messages do these portray? Are there sensitive primary sources that need further context/explanation?
- Is the simulation asking students to debate basic human rights in any way?
- Is the tone appropriate for the seriousness of the topic?
- Is the simulation age-appropriate?
- Does the simulation account for different perspectives (cultural, religious, racial, ethnic, etc.)?
- Is the simulation misrepresenting complex history?
- What impact might this simulation have on a student from a different background than mine?
- Is this simulation recreating a traumatic event?
- Is it asking students to take on the perspective of a victim?
- Could it be harmful to anyone? Could it cause a student to feel singled out?
If your answers to any of these questions cause you to doubt the appropriateness of the simulation, it is probably best to set it aside and find a different way to teach the content. Here are a few suggestions of other teaching methods you could try instead!
- Have students examine primary sources – photographs, artwork, diary entries, letters, government documents, etc.
- Invite the voices of survivors and other eyewitnesses to share their stories with students.
- Instead of asking students, “What would you do if you were this person?” Ask, “What did this person do?” “What were some of their options?” (Jeffries).
Click here to get a free printable version of this checklist.
Tips for Utilizing Simulations in the Classroom
As you use simulations to engage your students, keep these tips in mind:
Checklist adapted from Learning for Justice
- Clearly identify learning objectives.
- Allow students to opt-out of participating in this simulation.
- Notify parents ahead of time, giving them plenty of details regarding the simulation.
- Do not group students according to characteristics that represent real-life oppression (race, gender, etc.).
- Give plenty of time for debriefing after each simulation activity. Be sure to include journal/reflection writing for students that might be uncomfortable talking aloud about their experiences.
- During debriefing, ask open-ended questions (ex. “What happened in today’s simulation?”).
- Remind students to disengage from the role-play at the end of the activity.
- Connect student experiences to their real lives and help them apply what they have learned.
Resources to Keep Your Classroom Culturally Responsive
As you can see, there were a lot of reasons why I removed simulations from my history units. I hope sharing these suggestions brings clarity and guidance as you use simulations in your classroom! If you would like more information about creating a culturally responsive classroom, check out the following resources:
- Learning for Justice
- 8 Tips for Talking About Slavery with Middle School Students
- 8 Tips for Talking About Colonization with Middle School Students
More US History Resources
With all that you have on your plate as an educator, it can seem impossible to find high-quality, engaging, and culturally responsive resources for teaching US History. That is why I have created these interactive units. With high-quality content and engaging lesson plans and activities, these all-inclusive units will help you bring history to life in your classroom!
- Age of Exploration
- 13 Colonies
- Declaration of Independence
- American Revolutionary War
- US Constitution
- Westward Expansion
- Civil War
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