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Classroom battlefields, recreating history, and emotional connections

It was a massacre. Bodies lying everywhere, draped over rocks and sprawled in the road. The cries and moans of the wounded loud in our ears. The smell of gun smoke wafting through the air. Other soldiers hiding in ditches and behind trees, yelling instructions at one another.

And then . . . the bell rang and we all went to lunch.

Welcome to my 3rd hour 8th grade American History class sometime in the early 1990s. Before standards or state assessments, and without a clear district curriculum, I could pretty much do whatever I wanted.

And one of the things I wanted was for my kids to understand a bit about how historical battles were fought and at least a little about battlefield conditions. So during our study of the American Revolution, we recreated the battle of Lexington and Concord.

Kids were assigned roles as British regulars or colonial militia. Tactics were discussed and practiced. We talked about historical context. And we carefully handed out the weapons – left over paper from the teachers’ lounge, wadded up into balls. Each soldier was allowed only so much, based on their role.

The colonial militia was allowed to turn over the desks to act as rocks and trees. British regulars, with red construction paper taped to the chests, had to march down the center of the classroom – surrounded on both sides by over-turned desks and angry Massachusetts farmers.

I would strike 10 or 15 old fashioned matches, blowing them out quickly so the room filled with smoke (pre-smoke alarm days) and the battle was on.

And, yes, it always quickly degenerated into a bit of a free for all as farmers dashed from behind their stone walls to pick up more paper wads and Regulars sought cover behind desks. Just about everyone refused to die and no one ever admitted to actually losing the battle.

But during the reflection activity that followed, it always became clear to students that the Revolution was not going to be easy – for either the British troops or the American colonists. And the Paper Wad War, as it came to be known, was a great hook activity that helped me lead kids into conversations about bigger ideas than why British soldiers would wear red uniforms in green forests.

These sorts of experiential learning activities – including current video games and simulations – can help kids connect to prior knowledge and construct new knowledge. They can help generate questions and create reasons for doing research.

Perhaps best of all? They provide a very strong emotional connection to foundation knowledge. Brain research is pretty clear. When we can connect content with emotion, kids learn more and retain it longer.

So simulations of actual events are good things.

But where to find these things?

One great place to start is at MrMatera’s Musings. Michael teaches in Wisconsin and uses a website called Junior General to create battlefield simulations. He gives a great description of how he organizes the sim and what pieces he uses from Junior General. Be sure to check out the video Michael created that highlights one of his Greek sims.

Other options:

And don’t be afraid to do a fast Google search – use terms like simulation, board game, interactive, online, history, etc. Good luck!

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