Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Some Thoughts on Class Participation, Role Play and How to Approach World War II in a U.S. History Class

At this point in the school year, it can be an uphill climb to impact any significant change in the culture of your classroom. You and your students have likely long settled into your roles. But there is still a good month and a half or more of school left to go, and it is our responsibility as the grownup in the room to keep fighting the good fight.

I am thinking specifically about classroom participation. We all would like a classroom environment in which every student's hand is waving in the air, every kid eager to participate. But the sad truth is that many classes have a handful of students who regularly participate and....well, and that can often be it. In my work evaluating student teachers, and currently I am teaching pre-student teachers in the methods class, I often harp about the need to pay attention to the kids. It is hard for beginning teachers to do that, I understand. They are so busy trying to figure out what they are going to do, that it is hard to really see what the students are doing. And they are so grateful when a student raises his or her hand, that they rarely use the power of "wait time" to see if anyone else is going to throw a hat in the ring.

I think about this often while looking back on my own middle school self: I was that quiet kid who NEVER wanted to raise her hand. There was a boy named Warren in lots of my classes who was an active class participant. For alphabetical reasons, I was often right behind him. And sometimes when the teacher would call, "Warren," I got a pit in my stomach feeling because "Warren" rhymes with "Lauren" and I was terrified thinking that the teacher had called on me.

So how do you get the Laurens to participate?

There has been a ton of research on this topic, which I'm not going to get into here. Suffice it to say that there are techniques that involve using classroom blogs, polls, or online discussions (See Edutopia's guide to online discussion) which allow students to participate without the "scariness" of having to speak out loud. Or techniques like the ones described by Doug Lemov (check out this excerpt about "cold-calling, wait time and other ideas) that can boost participation. (See also this interesting article about a university professor's success with small group discussions, fyi.)

In today's post, I'm going to offer another technique: role play. One of the advantages of a role play activity is that students are somewhat freed from having to be themselves. Sometimes the self is a tough role to play for adolescents. If you assign them the role of a historic figure, they don't have to worry as much about what other kids (or you) will think of their own ideas, as they are playing the role of someone else.

Hence my idea about role play. In a lesson on the U.S. and the world in the 1930s, what if students were each assigned a role, some fictional, some real, and then I had a list, so instead of calling on Lauren who is shy or Warren who may monopolize class discussions, I could call on Eleanor Roosevelt? Or an American World War I veteran? Or an Italian immigrant?

What I also like about this technique is that it forces students to grapple with the Problem of Presentism. We know there will be a World War II. We know the U.S. will join and that Nazi Germany will be defeated. But in 1933 or 1936 or 1939, nobody knew that. What they did know, our students forget because it was on the test from the last unit or two: World War I was terrible, with mixed results and the U.S. was in the midst of a terrible depression. So we need to remind students to think about the events of the 1930s from the perspective of those who lived through it.

One of the problems posed by World War II for U.S. history teachers is that the period 1935-1941 is an enormously complex time filled with lots of important and intersecting events. Take a look at this list of "vocab terms" from the end of a chapter of a typical U.S. history book:

Neutrality Acts of 1935, 1937 and 1939
cash and carry
Arsenal of Democracy
Ludlow Amendment
Panay incident
Selective Service Act

If you add to that key events from abroad...rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany, Mussolini and the invasion of Ethiopia, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the Spanish Civil War, the remilitarization of the Rhineland, the Sudetenland, the policy of appeasement, the Anschluss, Kristallnacht, Stalin and the Nazi-Soviet pact, etc., etc., etc....You will overwhelm your students and they will learn nothing.

There are two issues as I see it. First, is what should be covered in a United States history class vs. a world history class. And once we made the decision to focus on the war from an American perspective and save the rest for the world history teachers, how do we tame the content beast that remains?

My answer, as has hopefully become familiar to regular readers of this blog, is to focus on Essential Questions and recurring themes. If you read my earlier post on idealism and realism in U.S. foreign policy and the U.S. annexation of the Philippines, you probably already know where this lesson is going. That is my intention with my students as well. I want them to see the connections between the Spanish American War and World War I and World War II. Those connections center around these essential questions:
In what circumstances should the U.S. intervene in world affairs? When should we be isolationist? When should we intervene? And what are the criteria for deciding?  

So I begin my unit on World War II by setting the stage: the U.S. is still in the midst of the Great Depression, and FDR has key legislation he is trying to get through Congress. He will be up for reelection in 1936, and again in 1940. The infamous "Court Packing Plan" of 1937 has exposed Roosevelt to significant criticism. And meanwhile, there is very troubling news coming from Europe and Asia.

I then assign students each a role. I have created 25 different roles for students here. At the beginning of this document is your "cheat sheet." This is what you use to call on #16, Eleanor Roosevelt or the fictional #23, Raymond Hewitt. If you have more than 25 in a class, you can either double up or come up with a few more. You will note that some are fictional and some are real and I have noted that for the students. If you are on a 1:1 model, you can assign students roles through Google Doc or something like that. Otherwise, you will have to cut and paste the role from the previous handout onto this one for each student in your class, which is more of a pain, but certainly doable.

Class begins with my favorite Theodor Geisl (aka Dr. Seuss) political cartoon so we can review the concepts of "isolationism" and "interventionism" they learned when studying World War I. (Though point out that the cartoon is from 1941 and you are going to backtrack).

I handle the "troubling news from Europe and Asia" with this brief PowerPoint. Part of my reason for keeping it brief is to tame the content beast, but part of it is also deliberate: not all Americans are paying super close attention to what's going on abroad. Some are, some less so. Many would be familiar with at least the headlines. (And I am de-emphasizing European and World history in order to focus on U.S.). But again, they don't know as we do know what is going to happen and therefore how significant it is some of these events will be in hindsight.

Throughout class, you can conduct discussions, short or longer, where students play their role. Ask them how their character would feel about supporting various pieces of legislation (e.g. Neutrality Acts, Lend-Lease). They don't need to memorize all this legislation for the test; but they will get a sense of what kinds of things FDR is proposing to "bring the country" along with him. Ask students how they might react to the news from abroad, based on their character. Ask them how they would react to FDR's speeches such as the Quarantine speech in 1937. (Especially if you live in the Chicago area, check out the occasion for the speech as described in this Tribune article.) By the end of these discussions, students should have a better sense of the diversity of American public opinion, the importance of it and the need to respect it if you are president running for re-election and trying to pass your New Deal legislation. Take polls, either through a show of hands (low-tech) or on or, where you can sign up for free as a teacher. For more details, and links to additional primary sources, see my write up of this lesson.

And you can end your lesson with this quotation:

History never looks like history when you are living through it. It is always looks confusing and messy, and it always feels uncomfortable.
— John W. Gardner
One last point, I've been neglecting lately to explicitly connect my blogposts to specific Common Core standards. (I confess, I keep hoping that my motto of "high standards that meet any standards" will suffice, as I get tired of navigating the poorly designed CCSS website.) But my newest interest is the overlooked Common Core Speaking and Listening standards. Until the time when I can post my own ideas on these standards, check out this great blogpost about them from Erik Palmer, whose webpage is on my new must-read list and this one from Dave Stuart's blog,, and note that the above lesson ideas would meet the Speaking & Listening standards #1C. See here for more info on the 8th grade version of those standards.) Also, if students spend time looking at Roosevelt's speeches, they are meeting CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.2 or CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.2 or CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.2, depending on the grade level you teach.

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