For the past month, my classes have doing history simulations. The 6th graders have become hunter-gatherers, early farmers and are now creating early civilizations. The 5th graders are learning what it felt like to be explorers in the time of Columbus and Vasco de Gama. I’ve always known that hands-on, real life experiences make the learning more relevant and interesting. What I forgot, though, is how much more fun they can be for everyone.
This week the 6th graders had a competition to start off their new early civilization unit. Each group was given the same directions, but different materials. The goal was to get the students to figure out how to trade for the correct materials, while creating laws, architecture, and a written language. Once a group had all of their materials, they were allowed to get the “secret plans” that would allow them to create their “weapon”, a catapult. Adults in each group stepped out of the action and just observed. The “winning” group made their catapult first. The other groups had to stop what they were doing as soon as any group had it made.
As adults it was very difficult to NOT get involved. We wanted to re-direct, remind them to read the directions more carefully or work better as a team. The reward of us staying out of it was seen in the class discussion afterwards. Teams figured out that the group that read ALL directions and split up into even smaller groups to accomplish their tasks was the only group to even come close to finishing. Many of the students were frustrated by the activity, not because they lost, but because they realized what they had done not so well as a team.
The 5th grade simulation was very exciting! Students were broken up into crewmates and were sailing to the New World from Spain or Portugal. They took their chances with supplies and navigation skills. Some of the ships even encountered diseases. Sadly one ship has already “lost” 4 out of 5 of it’s crew members due to disease. (Those who have lost their lives are now part of the Royal family and help the teacher!) Cheers and groans went around the room regularly as ships discovered their fates. I kind of felt sorry for the teacher next door who was testing her students, but not enough to stop the fun we were having. Students also got bored as they were waiting for others to determine what was happening next. While this is not a good goal normally, it helped to demonstrate what life on a ship would have been back before we had modern technology!
As we continued I noticed that some of the groups were starting to strategize more in deciding which child did what part of the action. This helped since each crewmember had different strengths and weaknesses. I look forward to see how they do with day 3 of our travels west.
Those of you who have read my previous posts know I am a big proponent of staying away from worksheets and textbooks. Using the simulations to learn history made it much more relevant to the class than if they had read a book about the topic or if the teacher did all the work. They are strengthening their communication, collaboration, and critical thinking skills while having a LOT of fun. Isn’t this what school should be about? I can’t wait to see where our simulations are going to take them for the rest of the year. I’m also betting the students are going to be just as curious.
20+ year teacher, mother of 2 kids and 2 dogs, wife, lover of all things M&M, interested in tech in the classroom, and changing up my teaching