George Lucas Educational Foundation
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I went to a Professional Development workshop several years ago with a master history teacher, Eric Rothschild, who spent his career teaching at Scarsdale High School. He was a brilliant workshop facilitator, and I learned more about teaching history in that workshop than in any other professional development experience I'd had up to that point in my career.

He ran a workshop on teaching AP U.S. History, and it was unlike anything I had seen before. He introduced me to the idea of using simulations to teach the AP course, and also to the principle of fostering student ownership, with a strong foundation in historical research.

After taking his workshop, I began to apply his approach to teaching AP European History and found it to be liberating and transformational as a teacher. And my students loved the approach as well.

With each unit of study, I made sure to incorporate an active simulation, ranging from mock press conferences and trials to murder mysteries and dinner parties, from spy dilemmas to mock Survivor games. Once I cracked the code to designing curriculum with Eric's approach in mind, the sky was the limit.

5 Tips for Bringing History to Life

Here are some tips to get started in transforming your history classroom into a simulation-driven, game-based learning environment:

1. Adopting a New (Actually Old) Identity

At the start of a unit, give each student the name of a historical character to portray and become. I would put names in a hat and have them each draw one at random. For high school students, the opportunity to "play" someone else opened them up to historical imagination and freed them from their high school selves. When a student adopted that character's thinking and point of view in one of the simulations, passion and purpose soared.

2. Setting the Scene

Set up the environment so that students will be speaking and debating with each other in the roles of their historical characters and around a framing problem or issue. Ideally, once the conversation begins, as the teacher you can step back and witness student-to-student dialogue and debate.

For example, in an AP European History class, five students can play the roles of artists applying for the position of court artist in a royal household. Other students can play the roles of the royal leadership councilmembers charged with listening to and challenging the arguments of the individual artists who are making their cases. The council can then deliberate and vote on who makes the most compelling argument to be the court artist, utilizing a well-developed set of criteria.

3. A Part for Everyone

Make a space for each student to play an active role. Even the quietest, most introverted student, given the opportunity to play a personality from history, can step up and into the opportunity to speak from that person's perspective.

4. Background Checks

Bring in a variety of sources for students to analyze and research. By taking on a personality from history, students are then more open to digging into primary sources to find actual quotes for their characters.

5. Historical Reenactment 2.0

Social media is a wonderful connector for these kinds of simulations, with students setting up Edmodo, Schoology, or Facebook pages for their characters in a simulation, figuring out friend groups, posting photos, and speaking from their character's point of view.

Student Engagement Pays Off

The first year I utilized this approach, I was blown away by the responses of my students after they took the AP European history exam. They recalled which of their classmates had played which historical figures and drew upon that knowledge to answer questions on the AP exam. Their recall was phenomenal, and they had internalized the different simulations we'd experienced over the course of the year.

Using game-based simulations can transform history classrooms and, more importantly for middle and high school students, the opportunity to play a historical character is liberating, transformative, and lasting.

Thank you, Eric Rothschild.

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Sandra Wozniak's picture
Sandra Wozniak
President, NJ Association for Middle Level Education

The SCAN tool, which is free and found at offers great scenarios that allows students to role play different perspectives on events both past and present. It is essentially an online discussion that is guided by a critical thinking strategy (SCAN - see the issues, clarify, ask what's important, name next steps). it is a great way to mix it up, integrate technology and offer students the opportunity to explore events from different perspectives. You can even write your own scenarios for the units you teach (or better yet, have students write their own perspectives from research). It is free and encourages students to think critically and develop arguments while playing a role.

Betsey's picture
Sixth grade math and social studies teacher with a heart for language art.

Sandra Wozniak, thanks for the link to SCAN!!!

Vance Nickelson's picture

I teach Middle School social studies and I'm very interested in incorporating more of this into my classes. Are there any ready to use how-to's on this? Does anyone have step by step methods in adapting this to other areas?

Dock916's picture

I have done the role play in the classroom, but I am really excited about the extension of the roles into Edmodo. This is something I will definitely have to try this year with my 8th graders! Thanks for the great idea!

Peter Paccone's picture
Peter Paccone
9-12th Grade Social Studies Teacher - San Marino High School

Nice article Matt. Simulations indeed engage students and make for great learning opportunities.

In my World History class I do something similar to what you're describing yet also vastly different.

In that class I give my students a chance to create a four-guest "talk show", each guest to be a different historical figure.

Yes, it takes time to do something like this, but as with your simulation, the "pay off" is great.

Shannon Swonger's picture

This would totally work in English class, too! I have noticed how students get really attached to their characters when we read plays, so why not assign characters for every novel/story we read? Great ideas!

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