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Liz Sarles's picture
I fell in love with the subject of history when I was a sophomore in high school and that love has guided my professional development for the last 25 years. As much as I enjoy reading, researching...
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Why Simulations Matter in the History Classroom

One of my favorite parts of history class as a high school student was participating in simulations. Role-playing, mock trials, fake battles – replaying any moment in our nation’s past inspired me as a student and made history come alive. I remember once in AP US History being assigned roles as Confederate and Union leaders in the early 1860s and told to prepare for the oncoming war. We spent a week strategizing troop movements, building economic policy, writing speeches and organizing our governments. Certainly this method of teaching history helped entrench knowledge of the Civil War. But what has also stayed are memories of my class being bonded in purpose and laughter.

My goal as a teacher is to generate passion and excitement in my students. Of course I want them to learn the history itself and the skills necessary to be capable historians, but at the end of the day they can find much of this in a library or with an online search. They cannot Google passion or investment or engagement, at least in a way that is more than a definition. I want my students to care about history, to feel that it is interesting to them and that it matters in their lives. I firmly believe that simulations serve as a key element in hooking students into history and inspiring them to dig deeper and care more.

To be clear: when I say simulation, I mean any exercise where the students are replaying a moment in history using accurate background facts but with possible alternate results. Think of the above example about the Civil War. Other examples might include rewriting the Treaty of Versailles, placing Mao Zedong on trial or holding a debate for American social protest leaders from the 1960s.

For one, simulations are student-centered – they are activities that require students to participate and in many ways run the class, and push teachers to the background. This is exactly what we want as teachers, particularly teachers of high school students.

Two, simulations are engaging and exciting. They are fast-paced and constantly changing, and they require students to pay attention and be ready for new information and turns of events.

Three, simulations require that students know the history and so require attention to reading, writing and study skills. Students cannot accurately take on a character or make viable decisions if they do not have a firm platform upon which to stand.

Finally, the students often love the simulations. They feel joy about coming to class and they share this joy with me and with each other. There is humor, good-natured competition, enthusiasm and investment that undergirds any simulation held in class.

Tinkering with simulations and building new ones might be one of my favorite parts of curriculum construction, and I constantly add new activities to my teaching arsenal. Here are a couple of my favorites:

The Cuban Missile Crisis: In this simulation, we take on the role of JFK’s cabinet and replay the days of this tense standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. I assign my students specific roles from the cabinet (JFK, RFK, Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy) and tell them that they must really become this character for a few days, in terms of personality and desires.

For homework, I have them read the minutes of the real cabinet meetings over those thirteen days and return to class the following day with questions and concerns. We spend half the class going over the minutes, and then the second half prepping for the simulation – studying the geopolitical landscape, meeting with one another to understand the characters, focusing on the background to JFK’s presidency.

On the third day of class, the students are ready for the mock cabinet meeting. I announce the actions or movements of the Soviet Union, and then they must try to counsel JFK about the response of the United States. My role is to represent the Soviet Union and to respond to their decisions.

The crisis itself unfolds as a result of whatever the class (and JFK) decides. I have had classes where the warhawks influenced JFK to use nuclear weapons and classes where the cabinet pushes JFK to let the Soviets keep their weapons in Cuba. While the results vary, the consistent thread is how much my students love this activity.

The Council of Trent: I use this simulation at the end of my Modern European History unit on the Reformation. I begin by asking my students to suspend disbelief – meaning, the council we are holding did not actually occur the way we are playing it out. Imagine, I say, that all the pivotal individuals we studied met in 1555 as part of the Catholic Church’s conciliar movement and debated the various issues that divided the Protestants and Catholics in the 16th century.

I assign the students characters (think Martin Luther, Elizabeth I, Catherine of Aragon, Pope Leo X, John Calvin) on the first day of the simulation. They must research their characters and become familiar with their background and stances on church policy. They do this for approximately 20 minutes in class. Then we generate a list of concerns on the board: what are the issues that the leaders want to discuss? What are policies that divide the group?

The list includes things like sacraments, interpretation of the Bible, divorce, indulgences, etc. For homework that night, the students complete a worksheet that asks them to define the items on the list from class and explain how their character feels about that issue. They then must write a 1-2 page speech announcing their beliefs and desires for the council meeting. The focus question for the council itself: Can Europe be reunited under the banner of Catholicism or is it destined to be divided among different Christian faiths?

They come to class the next day prepared for a debate. Class begins with the students introducing themselves and reading parts of their speeches, and then we analyze each issue we listed on the board the prior day. We end the class with a vote on each concern and the overarching question about union or division. For homework that night, the students must write a personal response analyzing their role in the Council and comparing it to the actual events of the real Council of Trent. 

There are so many possibilities for simulations in the history classroom. Yes, they take considerable teacher planning and prep time. But constructing a working simulation is an interesting challenge for educators – we really need to think through major questions, characters, problems, and purpose. If you are up for the challenge and have the time to invest in curriculum construction, then try to write or implement a simulation. Your classes and students will be better for it.