George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teaching Strategies

Teens Create Their Own Nations: Conflicts, Lawsuits, and Hidden Agendas Encouraged

November 6, 2015 Updated October 30, 2015

I have been a seventh grade social studies teacher for fifteen years and a perfectionist for longer – a challenging combination. Always searching for activities that make social studies more relevant and exciting for my students while making sure these lessons tie directly to the Iowa Core Standards, last year I found a program called Civic Mirror that I felt could ignite students’ passion for learning. Upon implementation, this valuable tool invigorated my classroom environment, helping my students apply important Iowa Core Concepts into the classroom.  

My seventh grade curriculum focused on World History from the Stone Age to the Renaissance and easily connected to the historical standards but difficult to reach the economic and civics standards in the prescribed Iowa Core. I also observed that students could recall information for a unit assessment, but the lack of relevancy to their own lives made it easy for them to discard the lessons over time. My students’ scores in Social Studies on the annual Iowa Assessments were also dropping and I realized a change needed to be made.  

Enter: Civic Mirror. The program, developed by high school economics teacher Regan Ross, allows students to create their own countries and face real world challenges. In my classroom this program came to life in four main parts: Nation formation, legislation, trading, and courtroom trials.  

First, each class formed its own nation. Students generated their country’s name, geography, and slogans. As a citizen of this new country, each student was assigned a hidden agenda, such as a conservative or liberal that would dictate values and concerns in future decision-making. Finally, we held a class auction in which students purchased business, residential, or wilderness “hexes” that simulated land ownership in their nation.   

The legislation segment consisted of class elections, caucuses and a law making session in which students attempted to create laws that would reflect their hidden agenda as well as enable them to purchase the necessary goods they needed to provide for their eight member family. The government’s role in helping to meet these needs became a hot button topic as students posted their opinion on the discussion forum. Here is an example of one of these discussions:      

Sarah L:   

“My thoughts on the laws are there should be a price cap for necessities we need like food, water, and maybe a home because without these necessities people will die. “

Re: Lindsey S: 

“I personally think that some important businesses like the EI hex, healthcare, and security should be owned by the government because the government is very trustworthy and they know what is the best for the citizens. I also think that we should charge the rich higher taxes so then that money will be used to help the poor out.”

Re: Lori T 

“Everyone has different beliefs, but treating citizens like children that can’t make a simple decision is not the way to work towards a compromise. Citizens should be able to earn their money and distribute their goods without restraint from the government.”

These posts provide evidence of the critical thinking students engaged in while participating in the Civic Mirror program and writing from the perspective of their hidden agenda. The comments also provide evidence of students meeting the C3 standard in which students should be able to “distinguish the powers and responsibilities of citizens, political parties, interest groups, and the media in a variety of governmental and nongovernmental contexts” (College, Career & Civic Life C3 Framework For Social Studies State Standards). Students not only “distinguished” roles of interest groups, but also used the online forum as a media source to lobby for legislation. 

Once the laws were established for their nation, students began the trading segment of the program. The online trading allowed students to purchase shelter, food, and other “real world” necessities and luxuries for their families while using money that came with their hidden agenda. Students earned additional money as well from classroom incentives I set up such as homework completion, participation points (taking part in classroom discussions), and bringing all their needed supplies to class.

The cash incentive program served as a great motivational tool and the trading session required students to work together in an exciting classroom environment. One time in the middle of a trading session, a student announced across the room, “Who is James?” because he needed to make a trade with James, who was the owner of the nation’s healthcare facility. James and the other student had gone to school together the past two years, and there is a good chance this was the first time they talked to one another! 

This positive classroom environment carried over into the final segment of the Civic Mirror program-the court session. Students had the option of taking a case to court if they had problems that could not be solved in the scheduled town hall meetings. Several times I heard students repeat our classroom rule “attack the idea, not the person” as they took ownership in positively handling the conflicts built into the Civic Mirror program which was exemplified by two students spontaneously shaking hands with each other after a jury of their own classmates had decided the case.  

All throughout the Civic Mirror program students were able to make strong connections to our World History curriculum. For example, students became frustrated as laws failed to pass through the legislative branch and gained a deeper understanding of Caesar’s power grasp in the Roman Republic and the Senator’s murderous response. Hammurabi’s Law code and its clear consequences for law breakers in ancient Mesopotamia made more sense as government officials realized they must not only pass laws in our Civic Mirror nation but also have fair consequences that can be enforced. Finally, the court session allowed students to compare the quick justice of a king or dictator versus the Athenian jury system and increased their understanding of the foundations for our own legal system as well. 

By incorporating the Civic Mirror program into our curriculum, the Iowa Core Standards became more relevant to the students and they were able to make deeper connections to world history. Our Iowa Assessment Social Studies scores showed evidence of this learning with the level of students in the low proficiency decreasing by 8.3% and the number of students in the high proficiency increasing by 5.9% from the previous year.  

Civic Mirror was truly a turning point in my teaching career: It helped me to get closer to that goal of creating a classroom in which students can see the relevancy and are excited about what they are learning. I saw students take ownership in their learning, think critically from different perspectives and work out conflicts respectfully. The perfectionist in me will always be searching for ways to make my class more significant and engaging for my students, but for now Civic Mirror has moved me a step closer to that elusive “perfect” classroom. 

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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  • Social Studies/History
  • 6-8 Middle School

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