Student Engagement

The Assassin Strikes and Other Hoaxes for Teaching Social Studies

September 19, 2012
Photo credit: 76074333@N00 via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Act One, Scene One

It's the first day of the sophomore World History class. The teacher is standing in the front of the class and has just gotten their attention. A short squat man with a nylon stocking over his face, a dark fedora on his head and wearing a dark trench coat, rushes through the door, screams "Sic semper tyrannis," and "stabs" the teacher twice. The teacher crumples to the ground while some students shriek, and the "assassin" rushes back out the door.

The teacher quickly jumps to his feet. He is clearly uninjured. He tells the students to write down as specific a description as possible of exactly what happened, including both the actions and appearance of the intruder. There is still buzzing, but they're all immediately busy. The descriptions are then shared with a partner.

A few students share their descriptions with the whole class. The class is then asked how these eyewitness descriptions could somehow be integrated to determine an accurate history of what happened. This leads into an exploration of the nature of history and the work of historians. The teacher notes that none of them had the whole truth, and shares with them exactly who the assassin was and exactly what he did.

The class is still buzzing about all of this as they leave, sworn to secrecy to not tell classmates about it until the end of the day so that the fifth period class can be equally surprised. There are no leaks. They want their classmates to be similarly fooled.

Act One, Scene Two

The focus of today's lesson in World History is the Carlsbad Decrees, a set of reactionary restrictions introduced in the states of the German Confederation in 1819. How the devil can you get students interested in that topic?!

As class begins, there is a knock at the door, and a courier from the principal's office delivers a notice for the students. It's directly from the principal announcing strict new controls on the school newspaper, with all issues subject to his advance reading and possible censorship. It also announces severe penalties for any student writings or speeches that are critical of the school or school personnel. The teacher gently restrains three students who want to immediately rush to the principal's office. The students share their anger and frustration, although some also defend the principal as having justifiable powers to do this. They are then told that this is a hoax that was designed to try to have them feel some of what the citizens in those German states felt in 1819. One student, while laughing, crumples up the notice and playfully tosses it at the teacher. An examination of the Carlsbad decrees commences. It should be noted that the principal was a willing participant and the courier was from his office.

Act Two, Scene One

It's a Friday afternoon, two weeks before finals. The teacher of the American History course begins the class by announcing a surprise new assignment: to write a ten-page report, due the following Monday, in which they provide a comprehensive examination of power and powerlessness in the U.S. Students write down the assignment, but there is also considerable grumbling. One student says, "I don't believe this! It's so unfair." The rest are quiet. They are then asked to share their feeling about the assignment. A few indicate that they think it will make it a hard weekend. Most are silent.

The teacher then tells them it was a hoax. There is relieved laughter. One student says, "I never believed it; you're never like that." This leads into a discussion of how they might have better handled this if it were true. "This was an unfair assignment. You should have protested. But how could you have done that effectively?" Over the next days, there is a probing examination of how we react to authority and how students can learn to become effective change agents, neither submissive nor rebellious.

An Exciting and Tricky Territory

Hoaxes are potentially a dramatic and effective educational tool. Every hoax I described, all from my own teaching experience, worked. Each one grabbed students' attention and created the emotional responses needed to fully connect them to the subject matter.

Note too that none of these was for sensationalistic purposes, each was terminated quickly, and each was carefully integrated into the subject matter curriculum. That rapid termination is particularly important. Emotional manipulation on this scale is a tricky territory. It's also important to create an environment in which students can freely share any resentment at being manipulated.

Additionally, and this is very important, very careful attention must be paid to the nature of the student group and the cultural context. The assassination hoax was totally effective in the 1960's in a very safe suburban school. It will work well in some schools today. But there is no way I'd use that hoax in a school in which guns might well be present, gang violence exists in the community, and/or days or even weeks after a real assassination or school violence had received front page coverage.

Even in less dramatic circumstances, hoaxes can be risky. In a teacher training class, as a lead-in to a lesson on classroom management, I had two students scripted to get into a verbal fight with me. They played their parts so well that one student, who was already chastising them for talking, was embarrassed and angry when she found out it was a hoax. I met with her the next day, told her that she was justified in her response, and apologized for inadvertently hurting her. We became closer through the experience, but I certainly don't recommend this as the way to connect with students!

The most prominent reminder of the risks of any type of extended hoax is "The Third Wave," a famous experiment that took place in a Palo Alto high school in 1967. A teacher turned his class into a simulated fascist society over the course of one week. Although on one level the experiment was very successful in teaching students about fascism, and most students thought it was a great experience, some students were emotionally hurt in the process, and the post-experiment debriefing was inadequate. This famous hoax is well-documented online. In addition, a very powerful German film, Die Welle (The Wave), presented a fictionalized and cautionary version based on the Palo Alto events. The movie is also available for streaming from Netflix.

In a different vein, students in a history course at George Mason University called Lying About the Past were engaged by the teacher in a fascinating participatory hoax in which they collaborated in creating a website that presented a totally fictitious piece of history.

Proceed with Inspiration and Caution

To effectively teach emotionally loaded issues, you have to generate some of that emotion in the classroom. Purely cognitive discussions of authoritarianism, racism, sexism and other issues with a large affective component are inadequate. Hoaxes are one of a number of ways to generate those emotions as a prelude to truly probing the subject. But emotional manipulation is always a tricky territory that must be approached with careful planning and a very responsible follow-up.

By the way, no student correctly identified the murder weapon in the assassination hoax; it was an Xacto knife blade buried in a soap eraser!

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  • Teaching Strategies
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  • Social Studies/History
  • 9-12 High School

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