Historical simulations bring real-life tension into classrooms

In social studies classrooms around the nation, students are assigned to participate in debates or simulation activities touching on sensitive subjects. 

Despite controversy, many teachers pursue simulations to help students understand the experience of living through historical atrocities and to impart knowledge in an engaging manner.

“Sometimes you just learn about numbers, but numbers become meaningless over time,” World Geography and AP World History teacher Mr. Julian Pont explained. He had conducted a simulation of the Middle Passage, the route by which slaves were transported across the Atlantic Ocean, in which students laid under desks in the dark while ocean sounds played and he read an enslaved person’s diary excerpt. 

“And then you just hear about one case, and that really impacts you more,” he added.  

However, while empathy is important, these simulations risk trivializing historical atrocities. This is largely because despite one’s best efforts, such simulation can’t possibly replicate what it was truly like to live through these situations. For example, the mild discomfort students feel lying on a classroom floor is incomparable to the Middle Passage’s horrific conditions, and when students are presented with this comparison, it’s easier for them to dismiss the lasting and far-reaching impacts of these events.

“Simulations that intend to recreate a traumatic experience are not a good idea,” World Geography and AP World History Mr. Evan Liddle said. “You run the risk of potentially minimizing real trauma and a real tragedy.”

Additionally, students often laugh off these simulations or joke around, and subsequently, the activity leaves them less aware of history, rather than more. Pont explained that at times during his Middle Passage simulation, students “get goofy, which kind of ruins it. They just can’t stop laughing and talking, and then it just kind of kills the whole thing.”

Perhaps the greatest risk of these simulations, however, is that they risk causing trauma for students that have personal connections to the event being simulated. For example, assigning African American students to role play as slaves is insensitive, considering that their own ancestors may have actually lived through those events and that the horrific effects of slavery still persist today.

“It was kind of awkward … it just belittles the experience,” Dougherty Valley junior Gabriel Sebhatu said about a Middle Passage simulation in which he was one of two students of African descent in the class. 

While he explained that his parents immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia and he thus does not fully speak for people whose ancestors experienced the slave trade, he added, “I think it’s a problem for a lot of history classes [in] what is considered to be okay to do as an activity.”

 History classes also occasionally conduct in-class debates on similarly sensitive historical subjects, such as what civil rights should be afforded to blacks during the Reconstruction Era, or whether the Trail of Tears was justified. Sometimes, students are asked to determine a winner.

These debates are carried out with the intent of informing students of the controversy and motivations behind these historical events. Teachers explain that they engage students with different opinions and viewpoints, which allows them to grow as thinkers. 

“Being devil’s advocate … is one of the best ways to learn because when you’re forced to defend your points and your arguments, that’s when you really fine-tune and make more connections. Then you’re ready for when you have to maybe meet somebody in the real world to counter that [argument],” Pont said.

This is true for some topics, like the benefits of the New Deal or whether the American colonists should have declared independence. However, at this point in our history, it’s widely recognized that situations like slavery and the Trail of Tears were immoral. A productive debate involves an equal division of ground on both sides, with defensible arguments for both; thus, stances in favor of historical atrocities often seem legitimized by the implicit presentation of both sides as seemingly equal, resulting in a reproduction of the same prejudices society has fought so hard to diminish. Furthermore, students end up being assigned to advance morally abhorrent views, making them feel unsafe, especially when they are students of color. 

“I just think it takes away from the integrity of the classroom when you ask students to have those lines of reasoning,” senior Lauren Ottley said.

To be clear, we aren’t arguing for the elimination of all simulations or debates in history classes, only those that cover potentially traumatic historical events in insensitive ways. We understand that many activities are often undertaken with the intention of making learning interesting beyond lectures or worksheets, and agree that a focus on interactive learning is beneficial. For example, simulations about federalism in AP U.S. Government or a reenactment of feudal Japan in AP World History both capture student attention while avoiding potentially offensive outcomes. 

However, students will still experience engaging learning overall, even if certain sensitive simulations are eliminated. 

There are also alternatives to the activities we are arguing against that still promote engagement in learning. Social studies teachers we interviewed offered alternatives such as reading firsthand accounts of historical events or watching documentaries or movies. Sebhatu also wondered if debates could be modified to discuss these historical events in a more nuanced way — for instance, debating the different impacts of the Trail of Tears on the Native American community, instead of whether it was justified.

Even if not all of these activities are eliminated, we believe they can be set up differently. Currently, these activities have logistical guidelines, such as how to prepare for them or how students will be graded, but these could be supplemented with guidelines and clear examples that specifically establish how to be respectful and sensitive when discussing such weighted historical events. Expectations and ground rules, as well as carefully choosing and monitoring such activities to make sure that no lines are crossed, can help prevent students from being inappropriate.

“Whether you are just replicating an event in history, or if you’re just putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes, it’s imperative that expectations are understood,” World History and AP U.S. Government teacher Mrs. Holly Herrington said. “I think there should also be some type of protocol … to keep people from going too far, and understanding that we are not ourselves right now — we’re playing the role of somebody else.”

For example, a discussion behind the reasons for slavery could be prefaced with an explicit statement that as an institution, it was and is morally reprehensible. Furthermore, it could be added prior to the start of the activity that clearly offensive statements and actions — even under the guise of a simulation or debate — will not be tolerated.

While some may believe that this violates potential standards of teacher conduct regarding not taking sides on political issues, this isn’t the case. At its core, making statements about slavery or racism being wrong is not a political stance, but one that supports basic human rights.

“That’s a moral civil rights issue, not a political issue,” Pont said. “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, put forth by Eleanor Roosevelt after World War II, lists 30. A lot of those rights may seem political, but they’re not; they’re rights that all humans are born with, and on those issues, you can definitely take sides.”

We understand that teachers have the best intentions in mind when designing their curriculum and appreciate the immense time and effort they put into crafting activities for their students’ benefit. At the same time, curriculum is always changing and teachers constantly revise assignments and activities; in line with that, these activities could be revised to more accurately reflect the learning and purpose of the activity. In the process of writing this article, as we spoke to Pont, he decided to discontinue the Middle Passage simulation for next year’s AP World History students. We hope teachers around the country, including at Dougherty, will take similar steps to create a safer learning environment for their students. 

 “Most of the time when teachers run those kinds of simulations, they have very noble plans,” Mrs. Courtney Konopacky, Stone Valley Middle School eighth grade core teacher and SRVUSD Teacher on Special Assignment for History Curriculum, said. “They just don’t realize the common negative effects that it can have on kids. So it’s not something to shame teachers for doing, but to make teachers more aware of avoiding in the future.”

Furthermore, considering that about 80% of American public school teachers are white, as are the majority of social science teachers here, “good intentions” do not guarantee that students of color aren’t harmed. While these activities may be perceived as harmless, they may not share the same perspectives with students of color, who are burdened by a history of racial oppression that lingers today. Good intentions shouldn’t invalidate these students’ concerns, and as students of color, we hope to encourage white teachers to consider how their intentions may be influenced by their perspective as a white American, as Konopacky has. 

“As a white woman, I’ve tried really hard to educate myself first. History teachers pretty much teach what they know. I know that I don’t know the whole story — that in many aspects of American history that I teach, I have to consciously seek out resources so that I can be more conscious in how I’m planning my curriculum for my kids,” Konopacky said. “You have to actively always be working on and extending your own content knowledge as an adult, not thinking you know everything already as a history teacher.”

When appropriate, simulations generally provide positive, engaging learning experiences for students. However, we would like to see schools across America reconsider the way they teach hard, sensitive history.

We can and want to have uncomfortable conversations about race and historical oppression. But there’s a clear distinction between challenging students in order to confront troubling parts of history and facilitating activities that make students feel unsafe in both their premise and execution, even inadvertently.

Ultimately, studying and understanding history is important, but we’d like to leave these activities in the past.