If you've never put on a costume and acted out a historical event you're doing it wrong. I mean come on - look at these faces!
Today was the last of three major simulations in the last two weeks. It started with a 3-day simulation of the Constitutional Convention with my 8th graders, during which one student, seemingly out of nowhere, says to me "I love learning like this." The second was a Feudalism sim with my 7th graders where each played a different part in the class system culminating in an attack from the Vikings (me in a ridiculous beard and hat.) I considered doing write-ups of each but both are adaptations of existing simulations from History Alive. While I've made massive updates/changes I thought it would be more helpful to use one that we built from scratch on our own.
Enter the Crusades.
5 years ago two of my colleagues and I, along with two wonderful student teachers, sat down and discussed how to teach the Crusades to 7th graders. I don't remember how we got there but we ended up a lab unlike anything else we do all year. We decided what better way to teach it than to do it?
Simulation Design Step 1: Decide your key learning points
With the Crusades we wanted to hit a few major points. We wanted kids to understand why so many Europeans eagerly went. Then, we wanted them to understand the peril and difficulty of the journey. Next, we wanted them to understand how few of their expectations were actually met. Lastly, we wanted them to understand that, despite their overall failure, the Crusades contributed greatly to Europe. That's a ton to get into one simulation. That meant each of our steps would have to be short.
Simulation Design Step 2: Turn your learning points into actions
To excite the kids we decided we'd be the monks visiting their village with the pope's message. We all bought monk costumes (for about $20) and typed up the pope's message as a scroll. We rolled it up and put a string around it - anything we could to sell the authenticity. One of us, again I don't remember who but I think it was one of the student teachers, came up with the idea of using applause signs like you might with a live TV audience. This little addition amped up the excitement level a ton all by itself. By the end of the 2 minute speech the kids are pumped and ready to go - just like a medieval peasant would have been.
Ok, so what about the journey? At first we were making an Oregon Trail style in class game. It didn't take long for us to realize that if we doing that we might as well, you know, do that. We decided we'd actually take them on a pilgrimage around campus. We came up with little things we would do along the way to simulate historical challenges. We wander in circles at points to simulate bad maps, we avoid barbarians, and we have them carry swords (pencils) and shields (books) for protection.
Eventually we reach Jerusalem and then... nothing happens. For most crusaders there were no riches and rarely even battle. So, our kids sit and do map-based math problems for 10 minutes when they make it. Want to get disappointment across? Apparently maps and math together nail that feeling.
Lastly, we return to the classroom and each pilgrim is given an envelope with their ultimate fate inside. These were written with great flourish by one of our student teachers. He made them incredibly tragic to help sell the utter loss so many felt upon returning. Some include objects the crusaders brought back. Others highlight how different European groups finally worked together. They are short but the students can't wait to share them.
Bonus tip: Want a 7th grader's absolute focus? Give them something sealed and tell them they can't open it.
Simulation Design Step 3: Create the "work"
Simulations are fun bordering on crazy. You need to build in down-time moments. This took me awhile to learn but now, I feel, is the main reason my simulations work when others might not. After every high moment I make sure to have some sort of writing/reflection task to bring the students back to the learning goals (and to keep from going insane.) For us, the work took the form of a travel journal that students filled out at certain scripted points in the journey.
Simulation Design Step 4: Create the Debrief
This is the part that I admittedly do worst. I get so wrapped up in the excitement that I often don't leave sufficient time for the debrief. I make sure that there are debrief questions built into the student work so at least they are getting something but it is truly important to have those closing discussions. They often will miss a connection or two (or all of them...) between a simulated action and the historical analogue. For example, very few kids get why we do the math problems in Jerusalem. Most say we do it to learn how far we traveled. This probably means we need to redesign that particularly aspect of the sim but as we've yet to come up with something better we just make sure the debrief covers it.
Essentially, if you don't debrief they've just spent 45 minutes playing history. Now, I'm perfectly fine with that, but when a 5 minute debrief can turn that 45 minutes into a learning experience it just doesn't make sense to skip it.
Here are all the parts/files for the Crusades sim. I suggest you take a look and play around with them. I'm purposefully not giving an in-depth lesson plan here because I want to encourage people to try this themselves. We need more good simulations and I have no doubt that if people just try we can do it. I really believe the 4 steps I've outlined are the keys to making them work.
Bonus tip: Let your students design their own simulations.
As part of a lesson on how to teach others I asked my AVID students earlier this year how I could design a classroom simulation for the Boston Tea Party. I honestly couldn't think of a way to do it but what they came up with was awesome. They said we could move the desks into the shape of a boat, make headdress feathers out of construction paper, and toss small boxes out while yelling out insults to the British. Simple, quick, and best of all, a clear analogue to history. Maybe I should let them do my job more often...
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