Magazine Feature

Classroom Simulations: Proceed With Caution

Some educators think these widely-used teaching activities may do as much harm as good — at least in anti-bias learning.
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Illustration by Chris Silas Neal

When Maya Saakvitne's parents sent her for a three-day school field trip two years ago at Nature's Classroom, a camp in western Massachusetts, they didn't expect her to come home with a tale of her feet falling asleep after counselors asked her to kneel in the hold of a make-believe slave ship. And keep her head down even though some of the other 5th-grade classmates from Jefferson Street Elementary School were crying. Nor that the same class later would sneak through the woods at night in a simulation of an escape along the Underground Railroad.

When Maya's parents, Karen Saakvitne and Denise Elliott, asked the Nature's Classroom staff to explain, they didn't like the response. Representatives of the Charlton, Mass.-based nonprofit, which for 32 years has run experiential learning camps for school groups along the East Coast, said the simulations had good intentions.

According to the curriculum for the Underground Railroad activity, the goal is "to encourage students to think and act in ways that Africans trying to escape slavery thought and acted," and to "create a physically and emotionally safe, yet challenging experience." This included a pursuit to freedom, where students encountered a bounty hunter to "reinforce feelings of helplessness and frustration," and a freed slave who asked them, "Who among the group will be the next to return south to liberate others?"

Since these induced feelings were sometimes contradictory, Maya's parents weren't the only ones concerned by the three-day trip, which included numerous environmental and team-building activities for the 50-60 students. But they had added authority: Both are psychologists with expertise in psychological trauma. Soon the Underground Railroad activity became a hot topic of debate in the Northampton, Mass., community, with many letters published in the local newspaper. "This activity is designed to manipulate children's emotions (fear, shame, betrayal, helplessness) to teach empathy," wrote Elliott in a letter to the editor.

Saakvitne strongly agreed, in part because 10-year-old Maya is African American, and the counselors facilitating the activity were all white, and also because parents were not told in advance about the activity. Saakvitne remembers how distressful it was to learn about the Holocaust in her own 6th-grade history class in Lexington, Mass. That evening, she mapped out all of the hiding places in her home, in case the Nazis came for her. "Kids don't have a concept of time and history, so they feel it can happen to them," she says.

Stefan Sage, associate director of the Nature's Classroom New England branch, says that a lot of time is spent prepping the kids for the activity. Also, the curriculum sets up rules for role-playing by the use of hats. When adults are wearing hats, for example, they are role-playing, and when the hats come off, the role-play stops.

"Kids aren't given enough credit for what they can handle," he says. "I haven't heard a lot about kids saying that it's horrible. Schools see it as important and ask for it year after year. Very few ask to drop it. A lot of schools do follow-up activities with the Underground Railroad."

Holly Ghazey, a 5th-grade teacher from Maya's school, who has woven the Underground Railroad activity into her students' American history curriculum and study of slavery, says she likes it "as a way to pique people's interest." At least 50 percent of graduating 6th graders cite their Nature's Classroom trip, specifically the Underground Railroad activity, as one of their favorite school experiences, according to Gwen Agna, principal of Jefferson Street School. "One of the positives," says Agna, is that "students of color say they felt very affirmed, that kids of European descent are able to understand what people of color go through."

While a majority of parents support the simulation, others do not. Until the controversy is resolved, the school has decided not to participate in the Underground Railroad activity during its annual trip to Nature's Classroom. The school, and the wider district, are in the process of considering other hands-on activities to teach students about the Underground Railroad, says Agna.

The clash between Nature's Classroom and Maya's parents represents a vigorous national debate about the use of simulations — the recreating of historical and fictional events — as anti-bias teaching tools. According to Karen McKinney, who is researching simulations as a doctoral student at the University of St. Thomas, anti-oppression experiential activities became more popular in the 1980s as teachers tried to apply in the classroom new research in critical instruction, much of it indebted to Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Some educators claim simulations have unparalleled power in sensitizing young people to oppression. But others, including prominent diversity education groups, say it's time to stop. Simulations, they say, are both dangerous and unnecessary.


Teaching tools or trauma traps?

Teaching Tolerance illustration of   a girl with eyes close thinking about bombs, guns and cannons

The basic theory behind simulations is to allow students to assume the roles of other people and act out scenarios in order to gain deeper insight into historical events or phenomena. Several national companies specialize in designing simulations, but teachers can and do create their own. At any give time, simulations may be playing out in thousands of pre-K through 12 and college classrooms throughout the country. Topics are virtually unlimited, from slave ship experiences to the stock market before the Crash of 1929 to life under authoritarian regimes. Not all topics are controversial — the signing of the Declaration of Independence, for example. But other simulations are laden with inherent emotion and conflict, especially as they relate to race and ethnic identity.

So far, there is little evidence to prove or disprove possible adverse effects of simulations on children. "What we found is such a dearth of information," Saakvitne says of her literature search. The evidence that does exist is primarily anecdotal. But there is fuel for an emerging opposition. Educators who oppose the use of simulations for emotionally vulnerable subjects generally point to three main concerns: the effects of simulations on children's psychological development, the ability of simulations to oversimplify history and oppression, and the fact that few teachers possess the appropriate training to facilitate simulations successfully.

They can also point to Max Fischer, a veteran teacher who has written World History Simulations, and several other books of simulations. One of his classroom activities had students rotate the roles of tribal chief, slave trader and slave — the latter of whom carried books and sharpened pencils for other students.

A few years ago, Fischer decided to stop the simulations of slavery. "The students did (to a small degree) begin to appreciate the indignities to which slaves were subjected," said Fischer in a 2002 interview with Education World. "The tradeoff was that some students found it very difficult to handle the role of being a slave. I decided at that point that the simulation would be overly sensitive to a number of students in any given classroom."

Psychological impact was Saakvitne's concern, professionally and as a parent. "Children have different vulnerabilities to such experiences — vulnerabilities teachers cannot and should not be expected to know," she says. Other critics of simulations say that playing the role of an oppressed person can be unnecessarily traumatic for someone from the targeted group. "You are just revisiting additional pain, or being asked to behave in ways that are not building community," says Phredd Matthews Wall, a former junior high school teacher. He now works with Facing History and Ourselves, a national organization that has chosen not to include simulations in its curriculum against racism and anti-Semitism, which reaches 1.6 million students annually.

Also opposing emotionally-laden simulations is the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which has reached more than 375,000 teachers with its A Classroom of Difference curriculum. During the 2007 Holocaust Remembrance Week, the ADL posted a message on its Web site warning educators that simulations "can reinforce negative views of the victims." The ADL cited the example of a Florida 8th-grader whose class participated in a Holocaust simulation. Students were split into the "privileged" and the "persecuted." Members of the persecuted group wore gold stars, were forced to stand at the back of the class, and were prevented from using drinking fountains. After the simulation, the boy told his parents, "The only thing I found out today is that I don't want to be Jewish."

Matthews Wall says that perpetuating stereotypes and oversimplifying history can be easy byproducts of simulations if teachers aren't careful. "The unfortunate message is, 'Now you know what it feels like to be — fill-in-the-blank, African American, a Holocaust survivor.'"

Michael Wotorson, the NAACP's national education director, says simulations often focus on the horrors of African American history rather than achievements. "This is not to deny or ignore the past," Wotorson says, "but we're talking about impressionable and malleable minds. If all you're doing is focusing on Nat Turner and runaway slaves, that becomes the biggest impression left on kids' minds." Wotorson believes that simulations should be limited to students in college settings.

Madeline Choppa, a senior and diversity trainer at Saratoga Springs High School in New York, says there's yet another objection: simulating historical events deflects attention from current oppressions. "[Pretending] you're going through something like slavery, the Holocaust, it separates you more from present time and makes you think, 'Oh, wow, it was terrible back then,' and that discrimination doesn't happen anymore."


A Limited Defense

Teaching Tolerance illustration of child surrounding by images of hate and war, but that think about colorful balls and only see colorful balls.

But there is support for simulations, too. The critical factors for success involve teacher expertise and careful balance of diversity factors such as race. Karen McKinney, who has compiled qualitative research that largely supports simulations as an anti-bias teaching tool among high school and college students at the University of St. Thomas, worked several years at a Minnesota camp that facilitated an intensive simulation to teach African-American high school students "where our ancestors had been [and] provide an impetus and motivation for them going forward."

The set-up for that mock event, says McKinney, was that students were studying art and history in a recreated African village when adults playing slave catchers kidnapped them, using real chains, knives and guns. For two days, the "abducted" students re-enacted the Middle Passage in a dark, cramped boat, followed the Underground Railroad, and participated in a simulation of the Civil Rights Movement, including staging a lunch counter sit-in.

The difference, McKinney says, was that most of the adult facilitators, like herself, were African American. "I wouldn't do it with just a white team of educators," she says. "It's important to be more inclusive."

One of the most well-known simulations remains the Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes exercise, promoted, among other places, on The Oprah Winfrey Show. In Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes, students are split based on eye color. Each group is granted different rules and privileges. The next day, the groups switch sides, with the disempowered gaining privileges, and the powerful losing them. At the conclusion, participants talk about their experience of being treated, and treating, others unfairly.

"For some, it is the first time they see how their behavior impacts a person who is a victim," says Jane Elliott, who designed and still facilitates the exercise around the world. It is very controversial, but Elliott says it can be empowering for African-American students, who find out discrimination is "not in their imagination, it's really happening to them. It is a system, and they are not paranoid."

But those who use Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes offer qualified endorsement. For training purposes, the ADL sometimes screens "The Eye of the Storm," a 1970 film showing Elliott conducting Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes in her classroom. "Often, teachers say, 'Wow, it's so powerful, we want to do that,'" says Lindsay Friedman, ADL's education director. "But, we say, 'Don't try this at home. You need a highly experienced facilitator, extensive debriefing. It's such a risk.'"

Even Elliott doesn't think every teacher should try it. "Simulations can go awry and have ungodly implications," she warns. For example, when a junior high school librarian put some of her own changes in Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes, it started a fight that required parents to be called in.

Elliott advises that teachers must have at least five years of classroom experience, children of their own, and have read every book in her bibliography before conducting the emotionally sensitive exercise.

"The research community is highly divided on the ethics of [Elliott's] project," says Melanie Killen, Professor of Human Development and the Associate Director for the Center for Children, Relationships and Culture at the University of Maryland. "The children who were in it experienced stress and disengagement for a long time afterwards." Killen, who co-edited Handbook on Moral Development, worries the basis of many anti-bias simulations "stems from the old-fashioned, Freudian notion that fairy tales have to be scary to teach kids — there is no evidence this is the case."

She has what she says is a better idea: Instead of simulations, simply infuse all curricula — history, English, biology — with anti-bias segments.

The National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI) doubts that students even need to create pretend worlds at school to learn about bigotry and discrimination. In fact, they experience prejudice every day in real life based on differences such as their race, gender, or learning disabilities, says Ira Baumgarten, who works with NCBI as co-director for Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) Partnership for Education and Training.

"Young people are dying to talk about these things," Baumgarten says. In NCBI's workshops, students don't enact simulations — they play themselves. With help from trained facilitators, ground rules and a structured environment, students from all grades are guided to openly express how they are teased, discriminated against or harassed. The results are easily seen. "When a person experiencing racism speaks out, it is very emotional — it can be life-changing and healing," Baumgarten says.


The test of time

The controversy following Nature's Classroom's Underground Railroad simulation in Northampton was not unlike the reaction to an exercise during the 1970s in a small, Connecticut town after a 7th-grade teacher staged a simulated take-over of the school to teach his students about the dangers of fascism.

Karen Bernstein was part of that class as students followed the daily orders of their teacher, who became increasingly authoritarian and eventually dressed in military garb. Putting up flags and emblems all over the school, the 100 students wearing armbands followed their teacher's commands to challenge the authority of the school's principal. Twenty-six years later at a class reunion, the activity was still being discussed.

Intrigued, Bernstein interviewed classmates for an audio story produced in 2000 for Chicago Public Radio's "This American Life," broadcast on hundreds of public radio stations.

"It didn't scar me for life," said one woman interviewed for the documentary. Another woman felt that the experience helped her see her own "dark side." But one man, now a therapist, warned: "Not all of us are as durable as everybody else."

Some had never spoken out about how traumatic the experience was. That it was the most talked-about topic during a school reunion decades later signals the power of simulations to engage students. When Bernstein interviewed her teacher, he said if he had it to do all over again, he wouldn't.


Lessons Learned

When Katy Crawford-Garrett started teaching 5th grade at Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. — a school almost equally mixed among African Americans, Latinos and Anglos — she wanted students to "grasp how important their rights are, on a visceral level."

Crawford-Garrett considered using the Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes exercise, but after discussing the idea with parents, decided it wasn't right. "One parent's son had gone through a colored dot activity where people were treated differently," she says. "He had a really bad experience."

Instead, with input from the principal, other teachers and parents, Crawford-Garrett designed her own simulation, "A Day Without Rights," which she's conducted for the past four years. Using a lesson on the Bill of Rights as her instructional base, Crawford-Garrett asks students to brainstorm the rights they use in the classroom, such as a fair trial, or listening to both sides of a dispute. Then, she asks who is willing to sacrifice their rights for a day.

Almost every student decides to participate. "Really neat things have happened," Crawford-Garrett says, such as a spontaneous protest march. For many students, it becomes one of the most memorable experiences of the year. In a writing assignment following the activity last year, one boy reflected: "The hardest right to give up is peaceful assembly, because lunch is a time to speak with friends." A female classmate observed, "I was in a cage without a door."

Students are told they can't quit in the middle of the day, and Crawford-Garrett requires parental permission. Usually, one student decides not to participate and instead helps document the day, through photographs and written observations.

"If it had been forced on them, it might have been more powerful in a certain sense," Crawford-Garrett says. "But I think for me, that it was voluntary was key, especially as a white teacher."

Crawford-Garrett's precautions mirror the advice from other education experts for teachers who want to attempt simulations in their classrooms:

  • Prior to facilitation, clearly identify the learning objectives.
  • Avoid simulations that can trigger emotional traumas.
  • Allow students to opt out.
  • Notify parents in advance, especially with younger students.
  • Don't group students according to characteristics that represent real-life oppression (racial or gender lines, for example).
  • Strive for a diverse facilitation team.
  • Build in ample time for debriefing; include journal writing for students uncomfortable talking aloud about their experiences.
  • During debriefing, avoid telling students what happened, and instead ask open-ended questions, e.g., "What happened in today's simulation?"
  • Remind students to disengage from the role-play at the activity's conclusion.
  • Connect to real-life experiences and ways to apply what's been learned.

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