The One Lesson I Remember From Jr. High


This lovely lithograph of the Boston Tea Party was made in 1846, 73 years after the actual Boston Tea Party.
Lithograph by Nathaniel Currier, courtesy Wikimedia. Public domain

When someone asks me about my junior high social studies classes, I can tell them very little. I just turned 40 this year, so junior high was quite some time ago. Also, most of my social studies classes consisted of lecture, reading the textbook, and answering the questions at the end of the section. Or worksheets.There was one lesson though that I can recall quite vividly!

There was one lesson, though, that I can recall quite vividly!

My 7th-grade social studies class was a U.S. History class that spanned precolonization up until Reconstruction. My teacher, Mrs. Lovell, was extremely knowledgeable and very nice, and her instructional methods were very traditional. She was straight-laced to a T, kind, but firm.

One day, she walked into class with a stack of letters on St. Cajetan stationary. She advised us that we needed to take this home to our parents tonight. Before we did, though, she wanted to share the letter’s content with us, as it pertained to new school rules that would be going into effect immediately. She started reading.

The new rules hit hard. There would be reduced recess time. Assigned seats during lunch. Random locker searches. A stricter dress code. Fines would be attached to rule infractions. As she read on, the class began moaning and groaning. By the time she was finished, my classmates and I were incensed. Students were talking about protests and storming down to the principal’s office to give her a piece of their minds.

Mrs. Lovell calmed us down and asked us what we could do to protest these rules. Students said they could stage marches, walkouts, or write letters—yes, this was before email—to the principal. They also said they could ask for a sit-down with the principal to negotiate the new rules as the students were not consulted ahead of time. After we had exhausted our ideas, Mrs. Lovell smiled and said, “great, now you know how the colonists felt after several new taxes and regulations from the British crown.”

The class looked confused. Someone piped up, “Wait, what do you mean by that Mrs. Lovell?” She smiled again and said, “there were no new rules.” The letter was a fake and she herself had typed it up. All of the other “letters” were just blank pieces of paper which she proudly displayed to the class. She went on to say that the new rules, which were not going into effect, were designed to mimic various rules that the British government imposed on the colonists. She also stated that she wanted to see how we would respond. Our responses as a class also were similar to the colonists. Feelings of outrage, “no taxation without representation”, and calls for action.

The lesson was so clever, and engaged us fully without us even knowing that we were learning!

We couldn’t wait to share this lesson with our friends and families. It was so clever and engaged us fully without us even knowing that we were learning as we went through it. That is the power of simulations. That is why I do as many as I can, and am constantly scouring for new ones. Here is a copy of the letter I used when I did this lesson. It could work whenever you are studying a place or period that is subject to new rule (or taxes!). For the remainder of this post, I will share another simulation that I have used in my class.

Survivor Island Challenge

The first simulation I do with my students each year was inspired by a lesson that Dave Burgess (@burgessdave) described in his book Teach Like A Pirate. I modified his DAY TWO Survivor Island Challenge. Dave explains in his description of the simulation that a plane crashed into the ocean. All of the passengers survived and swam to a lonely desert island. Dave talks about acting this out. Do this! My students laugh every year as I pretend to be an airplane and then swim using various strokes, including dog paddling to the desert island I have drawn on my dry-erase board. Just as the passengers were losing hope, they hear a helicopter. The helicopter lands on the island, but the helicopter’s GPS is broken and the pilot believes he will be unable to find this desert island ever again. To make matters worse, there is only room for 5 of the 15 survivors. It is up to the students to decide which 5 get to board the helicopter. Here is the list of my 15 survivors. Yes, Taylor Swift is on the list! 

I start by giving NO directions other than the task. It is CHAOS! Everyone is shouting at one another. There is no order. It is anarchy!

I let this play out for a few minutes, and then I have the students vote for 5 representatives. These representatives will vote for the 1st survivor. This is far more effective and results in my first survivor chosen. After the 1st survivor is selected, I advise that I was told by my principal that very morning that one of my students was royalty. I have this student come up and I place a plastic crown on the new king/queen’s head. I instruct that student to parade-wave to their classmates while the elected representatives decide on the second survivor. This is illustrating constitutional monarchy.

Then I whisper in the king/queens’s ear that they could do a much better job without the representatives. Also, I say, wouldn’t it be better if he or she got to make all of the decisions? Every student that plays the king or queen jumps at the chance. At my suggestion, our elected officials are banished to the dungeon while the king or queen assumes complete and total control. We now have absolute monarchy. Our third survivor is the selected by the king/queen.

Finally, I make a final proclamation. I advise that the king or queen had made a mistake. They named a student, usually one of my most boisterous students, their top general. This student has decided to overthrow the monarchy as they feel that they could rule more effectively. So they turned the military against the king/queen, toppled the monarchy, and banished the king or queen to the dungeon. Our dictator then makes the final 2 decisions.

When the simulations is over, the class is begging to know if they got the right answers. I tell them they did. The next question they ask is, “what is our prize?” I then advise that they already got their prize as they now have first-hand experience with anarchy, representative democracy, constitutional monarchy, absolute monarchy, and dictatorship. I then explain how each part of the simulation gave them a taste for each. This offers me something to constantly refer back to throughout the year. It also provides the students early on with an exciting and engaging lesson that I hope they will remember just as long as I remembered Mrs. Lovell’s letter lesson.

Here are my slides for this lesson.

If you are looking for more simulation resources be sure to check out Bill Chapman’s (@classroomtools) simulation resources here.

Also, check out this AMAZING list of simulations curated by the fine folks at #SSCHAT.

Ed is one of our #worldgeochat bloggers. #worldgeochat is a professional learning network at its finest—a community of learners who work with each other and for each other. Join us each Tuesday night at 9 Eastern/8 Central—click here for a list of upcoming topics!

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