What It Felt Like

If “living history” role-plays in the classroom can so easily go wrong, why do teachers keep assigning them?

History class.
Jupiterimages, Brand X Pictures

Ohio, 2011: A teacher assigned a 10-year-old black student to play an enslaved person in a slave-auction simulation. Georgia, 2017: A school asked fifth-graders to dress up as Civil War “characters” for a “Civil War Experiential Learning Day.” A black parent, Corrie Davis, reported that her 10-year-old’s white classmate dressed as a plantation owner and told her child, “You are my slave.” New York City, 2018: Officials fired a white teacher who reportedly made black students lie on the floor and then stepped on their backs to show them what slavery was “like.” And just last week, a Tennessee father tweeted about a “Living History” exercise at his daughter’s school where a fifth-grade student dressed up as Hitler and did the Nazi salute. Soon thereafter, students began giving each other Nazi salutes “in the hallways and at recess.”

How could any teacher think these historical games were good ideas? The short answer: Teachers with no sense of perspective tried to make history personal and ended up reinforcing white supremacy in the name of “learning.” (Though it’s not always clear what race the instructors in these stories are: In 2015–16, 80 percent of teachers in American public schools were white, serving a student population that was 51 percent minority.) The longer answer: These classroom incidents show how pedagogical ideas about the value of experience in learning about history, good intentions to teach “hard histories,” and vague liberal goals of multicultural understanding can all go terribly, terribly wrong.

The idea that “living through” history, in a controlled fashion, has educational value comes from the early-20th-century Progressive education movement. Researchers Hilary Dack, Stephanie van Hover, and David Hicks have traced the idea behind what they call “experiential learning” back to the theorist and educator John Dewey, who believed that you learn things more deeply when you experience them, rather than when somebody sits at the front of the class and tells you about them.

In a database search, I found that journals for history teachers began to feature articles about role-playing in the classroom in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That’s probably due to the influence of a few prominent role-playing projects. These pedagogical exercises were explicitly anti-racist in their intention, and they had dramatic outcomes that brought them media attention. In 1967, California history teacher and activist member of Students for a Democratic Society Ron Jones carried out a project called the Third Wave, which enlisted students in a quasi-fascist fictious social movement to illustrate how people could come to support Nazis during World War II. The students were far more enthusiastic about the movement than Jones had expected—an outcome that dismayed him.

In 1968, Jane Elliott, a white teacher in Iowa moved by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., devised an exercise called “Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes.” She divided her third-grade students by eye color and gave brown-eyed children favorable treatment. The blue-eyed children faded into the background and the brown-eyed children began to bully them, while excelling at the classroom tasks Elliot set for them. In 1970, Elliott’s simulation became the subject of an ABC documentary called The Eye of the Storm; in 1981, Jones’ experiment became a TV movie called The Wave.

The well-intentioned idea that teachers in a classroom can increase engagement by setting up a simulation seems to have trickled into history and social studies classrooms in all kinds of janky ways in the decades since then. Cory Wright-Maley, a professor of education at St. Mary’s University in Canada who studies simulations in social studies, writes that teachers and teacher educators don’t really have a collective language to identify what experiential learning is, or what it’s supposed to do. One result is the kinds of horror stories I listed above; another less-painful outcome is failed lessons that go nowhere.

In 2015, researchers Dack, van Hover, and Hicks analyzed 14 videotaped lessons, pulled from a larger corpus of videotapes made in third- through 12th- grade social studies classrooms, that involved experiential instructional techniques. The team found that 12 of the 14 had significant problems in execution. These problems weren’t always related to the infliction of emotional trauma—often, a game or simulation just didn’t work, such as in a sixth-grade lesson on 19th-century immigration that included an element where students pretended to be on a boat, bouncing and bobbing, before returning to their seats. Some of these lessons also transmitted factual inaccuracies—a problem, the trio of researchers observed, in all social studies instruction, but it seemed to get worse in experiential lessons, when teachers went “off-script.”

“I believe teachers need a higher level of content and pedagogical knowledge” to teach role-playing games in class, LaGarrett King, a professor of social studies education at the University of Missouri, said. “We’re talking about social studies teachers who are not trained in direction, or writing for dramas, or anything like that. … What I’ve found from college students who are training to be teachers is that they lack the content knowledge sufficient enough to even talk about race, or about tough historical issues, in the classroom.” I spoke to King on a day when he taught his last class of the semester, and by way of context for our conversation, he told me that in two sections of future teachers, 40 students total, he had one male student and one woman of color; the rest were white women.

A teacher may wish to teach students about the history of American slavery and may think that “feeling” their way through that history is the best way to do it. But historical empathy is much more complex than this idea assumes. In a critique of the common idea that students’ historical empathy might prompt them to adopt democratic habits and acquire an affinity for social justice, professor of education Megan Boler writes, “Passive empathy is not a sufficient educational practice. At stake is not only the ability to empathize with the very distant other, but to recognize oneself as implicated in the social forces that create the climate of obstacles the other must confront.”

This recognition of personal implication is an extremely significant intellectual and emotional leap, and one that many white adults—including teachers—have not, themselves, made. King pointed out that the teacher’s position in relationship to this history was important. Someone teaching a lesson about the Confederacy, for example, might have family members still sympathetic to the Confederacy—or she herself might be. Before teaching these lessons, he said, “Teachers need to really get in there, to understand themselves as a racialized human being.”

One danger of poorly executed simulations of the darkest parts of our history is that white or otherwise privileged students may revel in what they see as the dramatic aspects of these situations—they may actually enjoy themselves. Sociologist Sadhana Bery, whose children attended a school where the students were planning to put on a play about slavery, wrote a 2014 article for an education journal that described that situation in detail. According to Bery’s account, the leadership at the school emphasized the fact that the few black students in the school had not been pressured to act in the play at all; all students had been told they could take whichever parts in the play they liked. But the result was that the black parents and students boycotted the play altogether, and the white students all chose to “play” enslaved people, declining all of the roles of slave traders and slaveholders. Bery writes that “the white teachers had to persuade the Asian and Latino/a students to play the roles of perpetrators of slavery.”

She attended the play’s performance in order to see the results. The white students playing the role of enslaved people enthusiastically cried and yelled when they were “sold away” from their families. Although she didn’t use this language to describe it, it’s clear that she found this performance utterly grotesque. For Bery, the “replacement of critical thought with emotion” in the course of reenactment obliterated any historical lesson that might be learned about slavery. Instead, white students were learning to “consume” historical black trauma, and reveling in the catharsis it could bring.

King, too, wondered what pedagogical benefit could come from reenacting the misery of slavery. “With the kind of anti-blackness we have in this country,” King asked me, “why do we have to show black vulnerability in the classroom? Why is that so important for us to do? Why is it so important for us to show black pain, and black suffering? I believe it does stem from this notion, that what we know about black history is about black pain and suffering.

“History is about emotion,” King added, “but there are other ways of getting at that emotion.”

When students are invited to playact oppressors, as is sometimes the case in these stories that go viral, existing power dynamics in the classroom and school get exacerbated—to the detriment of all. In April of this year, an Arizona parent wrote on Facebook that her 9-year-old son was made to walk across the classroom as two teachers and his third-grade peers yelled at him, in order to simulate the gantlet of hateful white people that the Little Rock Nine walked through when they integrated Central High School in September 1957. For Cory Wright-Maley, this kind of situation traumatizes the child who’s playing the “victim,” but also does a disservice to the ones whose teacher asked them to do the yelling. “You can’t pit kids against kids,” Wright-Maley said in an interview. “The realization that ‘I’ have the innate capacity to harm others is deeply scarring and psychologically harmful,” he wrote about role-plays that enlist students as oppressors, suggesting that teachers give students “the permission to act in response to evil, rather than being forced to embody it.”

One solution can be for the teacher to assume the role of oppressor. In a 2003 article interrogating the claim, made by historian Samuel Totten and others, that the Holocaust should never be simulated, professor of education Simone Schweber described an extensive and well-planned Holocaust role-play carried out over seven weeks in the context of a class on World War II. In this simulation, the teacher set herself up as “the Gestapo,” while every student in the class played a Jew at risk of being killed by Nazis.

While Schweber was inherently skeptical of the idea behind this exercise, when she surveyed the students in the class before and after the class, she did find that they “improved greatly” in their knowledge of the information and concepts surrounding the Holocaust. Schweber thought that the four students she interviewed in depth had, besides knowing much more about the Holocaust than they had, become truly emotionally engaged with the simulation: “All four interviewed students had come to recognize the arbitrariness of who survived and who didn’t, and all had gained a sense of the magnitude of that tragedy in the fabric of individual lives.”

Some educators, like Schweber, still see value in simulations in the K–12 classroom—if done with a very high level of investment and care. Adam Sanchez, a social studies teacher at a public high school in New York City, told me that both Rethinking Schools and Zinn Education Project—organizations he’s been involved with as an editor and writer—do produce curricula that include role-play and simulations. As an example, Sanchez pointed me to a piece describing a role-play on Reconstruction that he taught to a 12th-grade government class in Queens. The class, mostly students of color, role-played as freedpeople living on the Sea Islands of Georgia during and immediately after the Civil War, with the game tracing the course of the actual community’s history. The students experienced emancipation, the brief hope for the future made possible by freedpeople’s land ownership right after the war, and the thwarting of that hope when Andrew Johnson became president, pardoned the slaveholders, and restored their land. “Obviously students aren’t going to be able to feel the feeling” that formerly enslaved landowners felt when the government decided to take their acres back, Sanchez said. But through the role-play, they put time into decisions that affected the community—“Are we going to spend money to build a school or are we going to create a militia?”—and so, when the news of Johnson’s decision hit them in the game, they had some investment in the situation.

In an article for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s magazine Teaching Tolerance, Ingrid Drake collected a list of recommendations for how to run an educational simulation or role-play: “Avoid simulations that can trigger emotional traumas”; “Don’t group students according to characteristics that represent real-life oppression”; “Build in ample time for debriefing”; “Remind students to disengage from the role-play at the activity’s conclusion.” Sanchez’s Reconstruction simulation illustrates some of these practices. Sanchez said that he made sure to talk about the emotions that students experienced and to draw connections between those feelings and what the freedpeople might have gone through. It helped, too, to have a metaconversation with students about the pedagogical value of the simulation. “I always try to have time when debriefing the role-play when you acknowledge with students some of the limitations in role-play and simulation,” Sanchez said. “Any activity like that is going to necessarily simplify certain things, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Most histories, if you read them out of a textbook, simplify the true version of what actually happened—and that’s how most schools teach things.”

The viral role-play horror stories illustrate how far we have to go when it comes to teaching the history of slavery and the Holocaust. But LaGarrett King hopes teachers don’t get the wrong message. “What I fear is that with all the attention that these particular simulations and problematic caricatures are getting in the classroom, is that you’re going to have teachers say, ‘Well, forget it. I’m not going to teach any kind of hard history then,’ ” King said. “I like to think of it as a problem of professional development—like, ‘Hey, this is problematic! How can we fix it?’ ”