Posted in Miscellaneous

An Interesting Classroom Experience

For the past three weeks, I spent a great deal of time observing and teaching in a U.S. Government class at Jordan High School in Sandy. Unlike most pre-student teaching experiences, where students observe and then have a few short teaching experiences of their own, the high school teacher I worked with kept me busy running a ‘simulation’ activity that he has used for the past twelve years.  For this post, I want to explain this simulation experience and give my own observations on why I feel it is a highly effective tool for future teachers to use.First, a simulation is a learning activity that attempts to recreate events that occurred throughout history. Simulations help students actually ‘live through’ the same experiences that others have had to live through during similar events. For example, a teacher might make students stand in a confined space for an extended period of time so that students can relate to what concentration camp inmates felt during their time cramped into the confined living quarters.  Another teacher might have students act out the events of the Boston Massacre, with some students playing the roles of the angry colonists, and other students playing the roles of the soldiers. These experiences actually place the student in the situation, and afterwards, the teacher and students discuss their feelings and thoughts.

The teacher I am working with has created a three week simulation that aims toward helping students learn about the problems behind totalitarian governments—or governments where one person holds absolute power. On the first day of the simulation, the teacher explained the activity and had the students vote on a fellow class member who would act as the dictator for the following three weeks. The dictator choose a select number of his peers he could trust, and placed them into positions of power such as minister of propaganda (a student who promotes absolute obedience to the dictator through posters and music), secret police (students whose identities are unknown and look for any signs of disloyalty to the dictator), and national military (students who make sure everyone is obeying the classroom laws created by the dictator).

Within one day, I watched this class of independent high school seniors transform into mindless drones who did nothing but serve the dictator. A strict schedule was followed every day. Students would stand and salute the dictator as he entered the room. Students would then sing a state anthem, which contained verses that praised the dictator for his perfection. The dictator would then command the students to chant the state motto as loud as they could and in unison. Finally, the students would present the dictator with gifts—an assignment that was expected from all the students.

When these daily routines were completed, the dictator would give a ten minute speech about the importance of loyalty to the state, and then ask for the students to report any activity of disloyalty. If anyone was accused, the dictator would hold a trial in which he would be the judge, jury, and executioner. Any student found guilty of treason was banished from the simulation, and would be required to spend the rest of the day writing a two page paper on a totalitarian dicator from hisotry.

While rebellion during the class time was forbidden, it was encouraged after school, and many students tried their best to spread anti-totalitarian messages through underground newspapers, secret propaganda, and even a website for rebels. All these were organized and run by students who felt as if they were oppressed by the dictator.

Even though I was a simple observer of the simulation, I felt disturbed and even scared during the simulation. Watching thirty five students stand in unison and chant the state motto every day in complete unison brought to mind pictures of Nazi Germany and unfailing loyalty to the state. Watching the heated trials of treason students was also unsettling. These students, with their limited understanding of rhetoric, would try desperately to defend themselves as their classmates threw upon them accusation after accusation. Many of these were allegations were false, and only served to help the accuser gain favor in the eyes of the dictator. Nonetheless, the dictator often found favor in declaring people guilty.

On the final day of the simulation, the teacher declared the simulation over, and each student returned to their respective roles as learners. For the next eighty minutes, students spoken openly about their three week experience.  They shared their fears, anxieties, and frustrations of being subjected to an all-powerful dictator. Students who started secret underground rebellions felt like they learned the most about totalitarianism since they independently researched reasons why such a system of government was ineffective. Many of them cited philosophers such as John Locke and Thomas Jefferson to prove their points—knowledge that these students would have probably not enjoyed learning through simple classroom lectures.

Overall, I felt like this was an incredible experience for the students I worked with during my three week classroom experience. Not only did students learn—from first had experience—the dangers of totalitarianism, they could explain why dictators such as Hitler and Stalin were so effective at staying in power. Student could also explain the role of propaganda in pushing political agendas. It is important to note that there were several permission forms each student had to sign before participating in the simulation, as well as a stern lecture from the teacher before the activity about what was appropriate behavior during the activity. Additionally, like the students I worked with, I walked away from the experience with a greater appreciation for democracy–which, after all, is the goal of a U.S. Citizenship and Government class. I’d like to hear from any future teachers. Have you seen effective simulations used in your own practicum experiences? What made them effective, and how did the students learn from them?

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