Experiential Excercises

Post date: Dec 2, 2014 11:09:54 PM

When teaching the Reformation I often get students asking "Why would anyone buy indulgences? They obviously didn't work." I could explain it a hundred times in a hundred ways and the kids still wouldn't be able to empathize. So, why not make them experience it?

"Experiential Exercise" is a term from TCI's History Alive curriculum and one I quite like. Unlike many education terms it is exactly what it sounds like. It is an exercise where students experience a historical situation, truth or concept. It is not entirely unlike a simulation. I'd say the big difference is that a simulation is obviously a re-enactment whereas an EE is more of an analogous situation to "trick" students into a feeling of empathy. Additionally, during a simulation the analogs are usually fairly obvious. In an EE there may not be analogs to many of the historical concept instead it is some big historical truth or idea that will be revealed at the end.

Today I had the extreme joy of doing three!

My 7th graders did the Reformation Shock which includes EEs on the forced use of Latin in the church and one on indulgences. They watch a short movie clip in French then take a quiz on the material which is also in French. All the while I speak to them in my very broken French exclusively. At no point in the year previously have I used French or even indicated that I knew any of it. The students love it for a minute or two then start to realize they have no chance of passing this quiz.

Before we grade I switch back to English (often eliciting a series of relieved sighs around the room) and explain that though learning is important I'm not mean so I want to offer them a way to make up for the quiz before we even grade it. I offer to sell them "Free Quiz" certificates for 1 dollar each explaining that the money will go to a good cause (our annual district food drive) and a guarantee that the paper will really count for the quiz. I usually have no trouble selling 7 or so them per period.

We then take the quiz again, this time in English, and the students do a bit better. Lastly, we watch the clip in English and share answers as a class.

We debrief by discussing how this represented the problems in the church we learned about the previous day and have them explain why people living at the time would have felt driven to buy indulgences. I ask a few students who didn't buy indulgences why they did not and they always hit on the big historical reasons (didn't have money that day, didn't think they needed the points, etc.) tying it all together. I return the money and let the students keep the certificates to be used as they wish.

I close by explaining that tomorrow we'll be learning about Martin Luther who pushed the idea of grace - free forgiveness for all - and that I was going to show grace by not grading the quiz for any of them. In just 30 minutes my students have experienced two very foreign concepts and really get it. I love it and they remember it, what more could I ask for?

My 8th graders today also did an EE. We are learning about the sedition acts and have recently completed the Bill of Rights. They were instructed to use their rights today by writing a letter of protest to the principal about a problem at the school. As they were working on them I walked around with a black sharpie and "censored" their letters by crossing out words and sentences. Some were seriously offended! 8th graders have an intense sense of personal space and justice so intruding on that makes quite an impact. I explained that I was trying to keep things peaceful and ensure the principal would actually read the letters. By the time I had censored all of them I stopped class (they were working on an analysis of the Sedition Act) and shared their various protest letters. I explained again why I felt the need to edit them and asked "you're all okay with how I did that right?" Now, I have very sweet kids so many just said yes but a few brave souls spoke up (as I wanted them to) and explained how I was taking away their right to free speech. Yes! Exactly!

Again, I could have had them read about the Sedition Act a dozen times and most still would not have cared. However, when I put them through the experience of having their voice restricted right after telling them that they had the right to protest they got it - they understood. I suspect I will have little problem explaining the vitriol between the Federalists and Republicans going forward.

EEs are hard to design but in terms of "bang for the buck" (learning vs. time spent) they are, in my view, the most effective lessons possible.

Most of mine are ideas I've picked up from others along the way (quite a few from TCI).

My students have experienced:

the desire for an emperor in Rome,

social exclusion during the Black Death,

the frustration of being a scientist before the scientific revolution,

living in overly crowded Japan,

and the need for land claims in the Age of Exploration.

They are so powerful that this is something we should always be thinking about. Ask yourself, what is the feeling that this event should evoke in my students? How can I draw that out? What situation can I create to lead to that feeling? Can I then tie that back to the topic at hand?

One final thought, EEs are yet another lesson type that really only work if your classroom environment is strong. My classes could have turned to chaos today. My 7th graders could have just given in and done nothing. My 8th graders could have gone into full-on rebellion. Frankly, they would have been justified in doing so! They didn't though. They know why I do what do. They trust me to have their best interest at heart. I would not just show up in a class on the first day and start writing on their own personal papers in black sharpie! Build those environments and then trust your students to do great things within them.

Here's write-ups for a couple more from an e-mail request:

For the science one start off the presentation that day by explaining how the solar system works but I explain it from a geocentric perspective. I do not tell them that is what I am doing, I just act as if I am 100% sure I am right. After about 5 minutes of it, diagramming on the board, getting way into it, etc. I say "So, we're all good with that and we can get to the history right?" 99% of the time some brave student will shake their head no. I will call them out in front of everyone asking why they don't get it. They will usually say "my teacher said..." or "I saw on TV..." at which point I will shout them down, point out their ridiculous position of basing knowledge on what someone tells them. Then I will ask "if you're right, why can't I feel the earth moving right now?" This will usually get other students jumping in with all kinds of crazy answers (it's too slow, it's too fast, it's gravity, etc.) I continue to act like they are all completely nuts. I laugh, I mock, I demonstrably act out everything. Ultimately, I pretend I'm frustrated, tell them they are all middle schoolers and I went to college so I must know more than they do.

We then start the lecture and I point out I made the whole thing up.

Here's a video version of my lecture that has some it acted out by the animated host: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Y-svkL6zdo

For land claims I have 4 volunteers come up to play a game. I place a bunch of paperclips on a desk in front and tell them they will have 60 seconds to gain as many points as possible. In round 1 clips are worth 1 point. Any clips left on the board after round 1 will double in round 2. So, if they leave say 5 of the original number on the board then there will be 10 to start round 2. I do not point out that if they take them all in round 1 there will be none in round 2. Whoever grabs the most at the end of the game wins. I say go and 99% of the time 1 or 2 of the 4 will excitedly (and aggressively) grab them all. I ask the others to explain why they did that and they explain that if they just take it all now then the others couldn't win. There was no reason to wait for round 2.

I reward the winners, and get 4 more volunteers. This time I divide the desk into 4 squares with tape. I put clips into each square and assign each square to one student. We play by the same doubling rules. This time at least one of them will figure out that if they don't touch their clips in round 1 they will win the game by collecting the larger amount in round 2. This time it is much more peaceful, there is no need for aggression since they are guaranteed what comes from their own land.