Experiential Exercises II

Post date: Feb 2, 2015 10:44:32 PM

I lied to my students today. Again.

It’s okay though, they learned.

A few weeks ago I Googled upon an experiential exercise based on Jackson and the Indian Removal Act. It involved posting an official looking note on the door explaining to students that the room was unavailable because district officials needed it for the day. They’d be told to go to another room for the period.

I liked it.

I then found a new document analysis lesson from the Stanford History Education Group’s Reading like a Historian that covered some surprising perspectives on the Act. It looked like I had my lesson for the day.

A few weeks is a long, long time.

I continued to play around with the idea in my head and ended up making some significant, and may I say Next Level changes.

First, as I usually do, I cleaned up the SHEG activity. Their stuff is good as a starting point but is often really short and often not particularly deep. I added a 3rd reading passage (a statement by Davey Crockett opposing the Indian Removal policy) and tweaked the questions a bit. I felt better with these changes but my mind continued to play with the experience part.

I decided it would be way more effective if my kids kept getting removed from their settled space. 8th graders have an intense sense of justice… assuming they are the one being wronged. If I could get them to feel truly wronged I could help them make the connection. I spoke with the librarian and a couple teachers who had open classrooms during my classes and explained my plan. I’d come in with my class acting all flustered and apologetic. They’d let us use their space for awhile but then come up with a reason for us to leave. They were on board and proved to be a tremendous asset. I also decided to drop the letter on the door approach and instead have a phone call to the room interrupt us while the kids were already working.

Let’s play!

As my kids were working on their bellwork I picked up the phone and, loudly enough for them to hear, said “I saw your e-mail, what’s up?” I got progressively more annoyed as the one-side phone call went on. I threw out words like “unfair,” “district people,” and “why us?” I put the phone done, went to my desk, sighed loudly and continued on as if nothing was wrong (apart from my clearly annoyed demeanor.) We discussed the bellwork and I explained the situation (my room contains the network equipment for the entire wing so I said the district was coming in to discuss that and needed us out.) At this point the kids were quite accepting but a few definitely caught on to my feeling of annoyance.

We went to the library which, by a wonderful stroke of Providence, was very cold. I passed out the worksheet and explained that they had to be quiet since it was a library and had to stay away from the computers since another class was coming in. After 8ish minutes I made another fake phone call explaining that the other class was coming in so we had to go somewhere else. I was very fake angry this time.

We moved to another teacher’s room who acted surprised and very upset to see us. I begged for just 10 minutes of worktime while I tried to sort things out. I blamed the office for not contacting him. It was great and entirely uncomfortable for my students. It was at this point that many of them reached the question that required a textbook. Well, we didn't have the textbooks since they were back in my room. They really started to get annoyed. They started asking questions, challenging the district people and just generally feeling frustrated.

So far, so good.

When we left the room I said “I guess we’ll just go sit on the grass. Class is almost over anyway.” So, we walked to the grass area and sat down to continue. It was at this point that not one but two kids separately said to me “This is kind of like Indian Removal.” I just played the fool and said “well, yes, I guess it kind of is.” As soon as they all sat down I said “Let’s just go back, they’re probably done by now.” Plenty of sighs followed.

Back in the room I told them to hurry and finish. With about 10 minutes left I explained that sometimes to teach a lesson I have to have them experience a feeling. I revealed the whole ruse and let them enjoy feeling tricked for a moment. We debriefed by putting a T-chart on the board to compare our experience to history (with an explanation that our experience was not remotely close to the real thing).

Here were the analogues that they came up with:

Experience > historical analogue

-moving around > Indian removal

-Losing Yara > people dying on the trail (she left her backpack in a room)

-District meeting > settlers wanting land

-The Call > soldiers telling natives to leave

-Ms. Brown > other tribes being forced to share land (she was the upset teacher)

-Cold library > freezing in winter

-no books > left supplies behind

Obviously some of these weren’t planned (poor Yara…) but the fact that the kids were able to read so much into them shows how much they learned via the experience. I guarantee they have a deeper appreciation of the suffering of the native peoples. It is one thing to say “thousands of them died” and an entirely different thing to experience the hopelessness of being moved around unwillingly. We then went over the documents as well. Those discussions were far deeper than usual. Kids really were dumbfounded that any of the Cherokee would defend the policy (and moreso after having felt it themselves.) What would have been just about primary source analysis now meant something to them.

I am interested to see how this plays out when they write their final evaluative essay on Jackson later this week. Will a one-day experience be enough to overcome all the “good” actions of Jackson we’ve discussed? Will they fail to connect their experience to history? It remains to be seen but in any case, I again highly recommend experiential exercises!