Tag Archives: Social Studies

Confessions of an ex-pilgrim

OK, so I’ll come clear straight off. No actual confessions here.

There, that feels better. Glad I got that off my chest.

This is the time of year when I recall with great fondness my days as a “colonial interpreter” at the living history museum of Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, MA. It’s a wonderful museum where Native Americans interpret the history and culture of the Wampanoag people (from a modern perspective, known in the business as “third person interpretation”) and other people dress as pilgrims and hang around in reproductions of early 17th century hovels pretending to be pilgrims living in 1627 Plymouth Colony (a method known as “first person interpretation,” though most people think of it as acting). During my time as a pilgrim, I hewed logs, planted corn, cared for cattle and chickens, spun tales from the 17th century to schoolchildren and tourists, sailed on the Mayflower II, and even got to meet a few celebrities (I’m sure Alan Alda, Geena Davis, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, and Ron Howard all remember every detail of my interactions with them). Some of my strongest friendships were forged there, and my wife and I met while working in the pilgrim village.

It was the fall of 1992. I had earned my MA in History, but had not managed to land a teaching job. Demoralized and dead broke, I landed back home with my parents and resigned myself to the reality that I needed to find a job, any job, to start earning some dough. I opened up the help wanted ads (what a concept these days!) and saw an eye-grabbing one. The ad said “Time Travelers Wanted.” How could a nerd like me not answer it? I was offered a job as an apprentice interpreter. It paid a little more than minimum wage and would end less than three months after I took it, when the museum closed for the season. I thought it would be a three-month gig and then I would resume my search for a teaching job. Eight years later, I finally bid adieu to my dear friends from “the plant” and moved to Maine with my lovely wife to start a new life.

I am convinced that my time as a pilgrim made me the teacher I am today.

It was there that I learned true patience, interrupting a physical task over and over to answer the same question. I often found myself interpreting to a group of people composed of a mix of families on vacation, massive groups of excited schoolchildren, foreign tourists who could speak little or no English, and elderly leaf peepers exhausted by the long walk from the visitor center. Talk about differentiation!

Another aspect of interpreting in the village that prepared me well for teaching was the amount of preparation that went into a character portrayal. Some years I played single men who left little mark on the historical record, building a credible character out of a mix of representative information and primary sources on Plymouth Colony. Other years I played some of the founding fathers of the colony, such as Edward Winslow and Governor William Bradford; these roles required memorizing lengthy passages from primary sources to voice a man whose words and thoughts are recorded in detail.

First person portrayal of historical figures also requires a delicate balancing act, especially when it comes to icons of American history who, as 17th century men, held some distinctly unpalatable views on topics such as the role of women, Native Americans, Catholics, and child-rearing practices. I had to be true to the world view the 17th century religious dissidents while also not offending visitors or condoning those beliefs. Teaching social studies often involves treading on thin ice as well, as teachers need to encourage questioning sources without giving the appearance of inciting students to blindly assault and tear down the values that parents and others have tried to instill in them.

A final lesson that my pilgrim days taught me was genuine humility. I watched amazing artisans make products out of rough clay, cloth, and wood, and knew that I could never hope to emulate them. I studied the lives of people who lived centuries ago and, despite their obvious imperfections, grew to admire their willingness to risk everything in a harrowing ocean crossing. I worked with women who roasted meat by smoking embers on a broiling summer day, while wearing several layers of wool, the whole time smiling and chatting with visitors who little comprehended the heroic endurance these women exhibited. And I learned that people thought I had something to say, something worth paying good money and traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles to hear. I think I actually got pretty good at public speaking, and this helped me recommit to the idea of teaching, of trying to make a difference in kids’ lives.

I was finally ready to begin my own pilgrimage.

Here’s an image of me (on the right) and a fellow interpreter named Bil getting paid to eat, drink, and chat with people. We were living the dream!


Simulations of Misery

I like games. Board games, simulations, video games, role playing games–as a kid, I spent countless hours in my parents’ basement playing them with friends, thinking about them, and designing them. The sound of rolling dice is music to my ears. Many of the games I’ve played are simulations of wars or battles. Fortunately, my understanding of history has grown beyond an adolescent boy’s love of playing “little wars,” but I feel like much of my interest in history stems from my days moving cardboard chits across a map of ancient Gaul or the Russian steppes. So naturally, I am drawn to the idea of using games to spark a similar interest in my students.

I’m not the most plugged in guy, but it seems to me that the buzz around the idea of gamification in the classroom is growing. The idea is that games engage students, provide opportunities to explore open-ended questions, and allow students to create solutions to problems rather than simply receiving and digesting information. Granted, this is not a new concept; many of us have fond memories of the old “Oregon Trail” game, which dates back to the 1970’s. But in education, of course, everything old is new again. In any case, with my love of games, this is an idea I can embrace without someone needing to back it up with data.

I’ve tried to integrate games, er, um, simulations into my lessons since I first set foot in my classroom. In my experience, some of the most successful games are low tech and relatively low preparation ones, such as having students assume the roles of historical figures and challenging them to interact is if they were those people. I have also designed a few card games and some that involve dice and boards. There are also some wonderful free online simulations out there that do a great job pulling in the kids (please let me know about any that work for you–I am always on the lookout for a new game or simulation to include in my social studies classes). Judging by the noise level in my room when I use simulations, the students seem to enjoy them.

Of course, there are pitfalls to avoid with games, just as with any teaching technique. It is very easy for kids to get really into the game without sparing any thought of actually trying to learn anything from it. I guess that’s where the teacher comes in, to make sure the students connect the game to the material they have just been exposed to or that the teacher will try to help them learn through the game or following the game. But this is true for any lesson that engages the kids to a high degree; we need to make sure that the students see the point in it all and don’t just see it as a day off from the drudgery of, you know, learning.

The real issue that trouble me, though, is an ethical one. I remember hearing a fellow student in one of my education classes (back in my college days in the famously liberal “happy valley” region of western Massachusetts) intoning solemnly that “war is not a game” and that any simulation related to warfare was disrespectful. I still have to struggle, a quarter century later, not to roll my eyes at the recollection of that pronouncement. But I will grudgingly admit that she had a point. Some historical events shouldn’t be “fun” to study. There are some red lines that I won’t cross. I can’t imagine running a simulation related to the Holocaust, for example, or of slavery or the Trail of Tears. But I am OK with running games to simulate World War One or the dark days of the early Industrial Revolution. I dunno, maybe this makes me a rank hypocrite. What qualifies as acceptable,and what trivializes human suffering?

I guess there are a few guidelines I have in mind when I think about using a game. Extreme caution should be used with a simulation that relates to a tragic event that may still persist in living memory, or that connects strongly to the experiences of a specific racial, ethnic, religious, or other minority group. So, no Rwandan Genocide game, no 9/11 simulation, no Iraq War simulation. Another unwritten rule would be that the game should not mock a specific individual or provide an easy opportunity for the class clown to find a way to mock an individual. Even poor Louis XVI doesn’t deserve some 16 year old Mainer parading around with a balloon with the unfortunate monarch’s face drawn on it representing his severed head. Finally, students needs to know that whatever they are doing, their experience in no way replicates the experience of actual human beings who lived through the events they are simulating. This is why I will never do a World War One simulation where students tip over their desks and throw wads of paper at each other. They can simulate the decision making process of the leaders who dragged the world into that maelstrom, but not the horror that the doughboys and tommies witnessed in the mud of Flanders.

We can’t, however, tiptoe around everything that could potentially offend. Heck, even chess is a simulation of warfare, and some would argue that many sports are ritualized warfare. Let’s face it, we read stories about human misery in part because we enjoy them; we are fascinated by the dark and macabre, and there are times when immersing ourselves in that can be instructive. Simulations and games hold too much potential to engage students, present opportunities for them to recognize connections, and provide springboards to deep and meaningful learning to dismiss them out of hand. Done carefully and thoughtfully, they can be used not only to teach the specific details of a given event, but also to help students make a sympathetic connection to those strangers who lived, and sometimes suffered, so long ago.

For those who may be interested, here are some free online simulations that I have found useful. If you have others to pass along, please do so in a comment!

Wall Street Journal’s Stock Market Simulation: Students set up a virtual portfolio that ties into real-time stock prices and compete to see who can make the most money in a set period. Be careful not to create little day trader fiends with this one!

Third World Farmer: This can be a powerful one that teaches students about the obstacles faced by farmers in the developing world. Some care must be taken that students do not use this game to mock the plight of those whose role they are assuming–students can “name” the people on their farm, and sometimes come up with inappropriate names. They also have the choice of schooling the character’s children, providing medicine (or not), or marrying them off. There’s a lot of potential for abuse here.

Against All Odds: A simulation in which students make choices as a refugee fleeing oppression and conflict. This one is very respectful of the plight of refugees.

World War One Simulation: This simple simulation of trench warfare from the BBC teaches students about the failure of technology and tactics to break the stalemate, and does a nice job remaining sensitive to the human suffering involved.

Battle of Waterloo Simulation: This is a very basic simulation that allows students a simple choice A/choice B series of decisions. It’s value is limited, in my experience, but it can be an opening activity to get students discussing the futility of Napoleon’s 100 days campaign and why Frenchmen still flocked to his banner.

Who Wants to be a Cotton Millionaire?: Another from the BBC. This one has students make a series of decisions as a factory owner at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.
Muck and Brass”: A follow-up to the cotton millionaire game. This time, students are the town elders in a Victorian city deciding what, if anything, to do about social and environmental challenges.

Image: “Senet.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Oct. 2014. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.