Sunday, December 14, 2014

Stimulation by Simulation

I recently wrote about how I have used video games in my high school history classes. This post will describe how I've used simulations in place of quizzes and tests in one of my most challenging history electives. Over the past decade I have had the chance to create a series of trimester-long (10-12 weeks) history classes covering various aspects of American life in the years between 1945-1995 called "The American Century". The American Century courses have included ones on politics, popular culture, sports, foreign policy, and Supreme Court cases. These courses are aimed at students in grades 11-PG and are designed to build on previous survey courses while exposing them to the types of sources they wouldn't otherwise get in "normal classes".  

Students in the pop culture course, for instance, students listen extensively to popular music and watch old tv shows; in the politics classes they watch old news footage of major events in the late 20th century; in the Supreme Court class they read the full texts of significant Court opinions. Besides making students grapple with non-traditional source material these courses also have alternative assessments; in the pop culture course, for instance, the students create a blog and they are required to post twice weekly for the whole term. But I think that the most interesting and challenging assessments are the simulated Court cases in the Supreme Court course.

During the 12 weeks of the term, the students in the Supreme Court class study over a dozen cases. This school year, they read the following (links are to the Wikipedia page for each case):

My main criteria when choosing cases to study is to find ones with manageable amounts of reading and ones that will appeal to teenagers.  In the past I included cases like US v. Nixon and Bush v. Gore, but kids seemed to respond better to cases that more obviously touch on issues that seem to be related to issues of fairness and freedoms that are more relatable to young people. Just to be clear, I am not a lawyer (though I did take a summer-long copyright law class back in the '90s); Constitutional law is a hobby of mine and I read about it all the time, but I don't think it is necessary to have a legal background to teach a class like this. 

Instead of quizzes and tests, the students are evaluated based on multiple short written assignments, class participation and on their performance in several simulated cases that are loosely derived from real-life cases and that will demonstrate their mastery of the material we have studied. This past year I had 18 students (which is the largest number I've taught in this class) and we did three simulations; each student had a chance to be an appellant's lawyer, a respondent's lawyer and a judge. The three simulations were:
If you click the links for each simulation you will see the instructions and related readings that I gave to my students.
SIMULATION #1 JJ and CC v. Kirby Academy :

Prior to our first simulation the students had read cases about flag burning as free speech (Eichman), 14th amendment cases about school desegregation (Brown, Brown II and Swann), and three cases about student freedom of speech in school (Tinker, Hazelwood, Morse).  In my simulations, I like to take a "ripped from the headlines" approach, so I built this one on rising awareness of school dress codes being unfairly censorious toward girls, combined with the "I Heart Boobies" case from nearby Easton, Pa. As a further educational tool, the dress code of fictional Kirby Academy is nearly word for word that of my school; students were encouraged to speak with our school Deans to get their viewpoints on why our dress code is the way it is.

Students had seven days of class (plus two weekends) to prepare for the simulation.  During that time they had a lot of reading to do, and for the first few days they were mostly sitting with their groups reading and discussing. For the final few days the groups worked diligently on preparing their remarks (or in the case of the judges, preparing questions to ask the lawyers). Because it was the first simulation I gave the students more time than I would have liked, but it was necessary.  Following the simulation, students were asked to write a reaction, and it was quite positive.  One of the lawyers wrote:
"This last week and a half of Constitutional Issues has, in my opinion, been even more interesting than the normal every-day routine. Although I do enjoy reading and briefing the cases, actually creating our own arguments and presentations was more interesting and allowed for a new level of involvement and understanding. It’s one thing to talk about the court system and the cases that circulate through it, but to reenact one of these cases put what we’ve been learning into a totally new light that allowed for the application of this newly acquired knowledge. 
I felt as though we were given the perfect amount of time to complete this assignment and the class time that we were given in the library helped a lot with the team-effort aspect of the project. Although at first the sources seemed biased in favor of the girls, my group and I found ways to make them work in our favor much of the time. I felt as though this specific detail gave all of us a sense of what it may feel like to be defending someone in a court of law in real life. "

One of the judges observed:
"Overall I really enjoyed this simulation. It was interesting because it is very relatable to the dress code values our school stands by. Being a judge was exciting because it was really interesting to study both sides and be able to understand where both sides are coming from. Also, the simulation itself was fascinating because walking into the “court room” today, I thought I already knew what side I stood for, but after hearing the arguments my outlook on the case completely changed. The time allotted to work on these projects was just enough to not feel overwhelmed and to not have all the time in the world. Being a judge, it was slightly difficult to come up with questions but I think the members of my group and myself included did good job of formulating difficult questions for both parties. I look forward to further simulations."


SIMULATION #2: ACLU v. Luzerne County:

Our second simulation was based on a real-life event that happened in our county several years ago. In 2009 a local atheist (supported by the American Civil Liberties Union) threatened to sue Luzerne County for a seasonal display on the courthouse lawn that featured a creche and a menorah, as well as plastic snowmen, Santa and Mrs. Claus, and reindeer. The argument he made relied very strongly on the case County of Allegheny v. ACLU; the students needed to apply the doctrine of that case (as well as the key precedents built into it) to the circumstances of our case. 

Because this case required less preparation time, students were given less time; it was nine days, but that included a four-day weekend and PSATs. As a special inducement to quality work, the simulation was presented on Parents' Weekend in front of an audience that included actual lawyers! The guests were pretty impressed by the work the kids did, and I have to say that they really upped their game in front of their parents; I have never been prouder of students than I was that day.

The kids enjoyed this simulation, and their feedback was quite positive.  In her response, one of the lawyers noted:
"Compared to the first simulation, my experience throughout the second was completely different. In the first simulation I was a judge but this time around, I was a lawyer. Being a lawyer clearly involves more work but I felt it was more interesting than being a judge. It was more interesting because it was more challenging. It was more challenging because I had to dig a little deeper in the case to create a strong argument. As a judge all I had to do was read all the documents, get an understanding of the case, and formulate some questions. Being a lawyer that is just the beginning! I think to support a case well one has to really believe in their side of the argument. Finding supporting evidence was much harder but still intriguing because I learned more about the Constitution and the county than I would have as a judge. It was awesome working on a case that was involved with something super close and personal to the people of this area. The case almost meant more to me and hit closer to home than the first assignment. Now during the holiday season I am going to be so curious seeing displays put out and trying to determine if they pass the Lemon Test or violate the Establishment Clause, two things I never even heard of before last week. 
This class provides an element of knowledge that no other class does. Doing court case simulations gives a real sense of understanding of what we talk about in class on a day to day basis. The preparation and deep thinking of the case makes me really feel like I’m in a lawyers shoes. I enjoy going over cases in class but being able to just get that even better understanding of an argument is what I most enjoy. I really enjoy the simulation process and can’t wait for our next one."

SIMULATION #3: Adam and Steve v. North Dakota :

The third simulation was the final project for the class, and built on our study of landmark cases relating to reproductive and sexual freedom, including ones that gave married couples access to contraception (Griswold), ended bans on interracial marriage (Loving), established rules about abortion (Roe, Webster, Casey), and the case that outlawed consensual same-sex relations (Bowers) as well as the case that overturned it (Lawrence), culminating in a study of the case that overturned the federal Defense of Marriage Act (Windsor). 

In previous years this case was called Adam and Steve v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, but since Pennsylvania legalized gay marriage earlier this year I had to find another state; I ultimately settled on North Dakota, which has a state law AND a provision in their constitution that bans same sex marriages. For this case, the students had nine days to read the Windsor case and the other links. Coincidentally, just as the kids started work on the case, the Sixth Circuit issued a ruling upholding several state bans on gay marriage, and the students were able to use that opinion in the simulation. For this case, each team had two lawyers who presented their case to the judges, and the other lawyers wrote amicus curiae briefs.  Some of them got extremely excited by the process, and even formatted their briefs to look like the real thing!  

The arguments went well, though the judges in this example did not really tie their opinions to the Constitutional principles we had learned in class. But if you think about it, sometimes that happens in real life, too! I was very impressed with the dissenting opinion written by one of the judges:
"Adam Smith and Steve Jones married in Iowa, two years prior, while on vacation in Des Moines. After returning home to Bismarck, North Dakota, they wanted their marriage recognized and to file their income taxes as a married couple, jointly. Smith has also, sadly, been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and due his self-employment as a writer, currently lacks health insurance. Jones wishes to use his health insurance plan to give Smith the medical care he so desperately needs, and to be able to visit Smith in the hospital, citing his spousal rights and next of kin status. However, North Dakota's constitution defines marriage as "only the legal union between a man and a woman," and their marriage could not be recognized, leaving Jones in dire need of help. The couple stated that this section of the state's constitution, and related laws it has passed, violated their Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection of the laws, as well as their Ninth Amendment right to privacy. 
Previously in Skinner v. Oklahoma, we ruled that marriage was one of the "basic civil rights", that denying it on the basis of skin color was an implausible and highly unfounded argument. I concur with that decision, but I take it further and state that someone's sexual orientation is also an implausible argument for denying marriage. I cannot join the majority opinion of the Court, stating that North Dakota has the right to maltreat all gay or lesbian couples wishing to simply be married. The lawyers for North Dakota argued that the state has the right to define it's own marriage laws, and in that, there is no issue with their state laws banning gay marriage. Indeed, North Dakota has the right to define its own marriage laws, however, we should not allow a majority with malicious intentions to harm the minority. I concur with the argument Adam and Steve's lawyers made in saying that if a law violates the constitution, it should not matter if states believe they have the right to make these laws. 
And I do strongly believe that these laws violate the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. The state can not deny someone basic rights without due process of law. The role of the government, in the most simplest of terms, is to protect and support the people of "We the People". However, these laws clearly infringe upon the rights of homosexuals. The state, so eager to tar homosexuals and feather them with malicious laws, treat homosexuals unfairly as second class citizens in regards to marriage, which is both immoral and erroneous thinking. One of the Amicus Curiae briefs of the North Dakota team states that "The Fourteenth Amendment should not be able to decide what the state classifies as something." I do not believe I need to argue in detail with this, as it is so simply untrue. The Amendment, when it was first created, was meant to address citizenship rights and equal protection of the law, nullifying all laws that impair the privileges and immunities of the citizens of the United States. Laws that violate the principle of such basic protection so clearly as the North Dakota laws have no place in our democratic society. 
I would like to take the time to address how this case may resemble the Loving v. Virginia case. As we all remember, Loving v. Virginia was the landmark case where we unanimously decided to invalidate laws prohibiting interracial marriage. The North Dakota lawyers argued that the Loving case was not relatable to our more current case because race and gender are two separate issues when dealing with marriage. I concur that they are two separate issues, as one was decided, and if they were the same gay marriage would have been legalized already, the issues that were discussed in that case were very much relevant in our current case. Like our case, the Loving case was heavily affected by the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process and Equal Protection statute. It was decided that "There is patently no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination which justifies this classification. The fact that Virginia prohibits only interracial marriages involving white persons demonstrates that the racial classifications must stand on their own justification, as measures deigned to maintain white supremacy." There is nothing short of stark similarities with this statement and the issue of gay marriage. I too, do not see any legitimate purpose outside of blatant bigotry that would justify North Dakota's laws, and because North Dakota only prohibits a man and a woman may get married upon the grounds on which the state lay, the state therein maintain supremacy over the gay minority. 
With all respect, I dissent. 
Now that that's out of the way... I believe our third case shows how far we have come as a class since the start of the year. It is so clearly different from how we handled our first case that it was jaw-dropping, and it was a nice change of pace to be a judge instead of the lawyer, particularly with this case. I hope everyone had a great time with this case, as well as enjoyed a class as great as this one!"


I've taught this course four times now, and I am always impressed by how much the students learn. To quote one of my 11th graders from this year, "Throughout the 58 days of class, I have learned more about the Constitution and lawyers then I have in all my past years. I feel as though more teachers should adopt the simulation method for their classes."  I am fortunate to work at an open-minded private school, so there is nothing risky about teaching "controversial" cases (such as those having to do with reproductive rights, sexuality, and the rights of students); but I think that the method will work even with less risky topics. 

This class doesn't require the purchase of expensive texts or other materials; the opinions are public record, and as government documents they can be reproduced without asking permission.  Other than that, I've also shared this article with my students to introduce how to read a legal opinion. Supreme Court Justice Thomas has said that his goal is "to write opinions that some busy person or someone at their kitchen table can read and say, 'I don't agree with a word he said, but I understand what he said'". Few Justices live up to this ideal, but I like to think that my students are better prepared to understand even the more complex opinions now.  Once students become familiar with the style and structure of legal opinions, I find that they come to feel much more empowered as citizens. As one of my students said this year:
"[My friends and I agreed that] this was our favorite class in all of our schedules and how we’re so sad to have it end. We also discussed that we’ve learned the most in this class than in so many other history classes combined and how if more teachers knew how effective simulations were as opposed to tests, they would probably feel really dumb for using them so often to test students’ knowledge on a certain topic."
I hope that other teachers will embrace the simulation method as a way of assessing their students.  It is challenging for everyone involved, but students seem to appreciate being held to high standards, and in my experience they always work hard to meet their teachers' expectations. Please feel free to leave your comments below.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Play Time: Video Games in the High School History Curriculum

As I've mentioned before, in my day job I am a high school history teacher (the commentaries on this blog about pro wrestling, guitar playing, rock music, movies and ridiculous letters to the editor are merely hobbies). I teach American history to students grades 10-PG at an independent school in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Throughout my two decades in the profession I've worked to find constructive uses of technology in and out of the classroom, and in the past year or so I have found that my students have derived a lot of "edutainment" from playing video games during class. I've used games in a year-long survey class on U.S. History as well as in an advanced elective on the Constitution and Supreme Court. The following is a brief summary of the games we played and how they were received by the students. 

In my U.S. History class I have had great success with the games from a company called Mission-US. These games are like super high-tech versions of the "choose-your-own-adventure" books I used to read in elementary school in the 1980s. Mission-US is a joint effort from New York City's public television channel, game designers and academic experts. As I write this in December 2014 they have produced three games so far:
  • Mission One: For Crown or Colony?: in which you play a young boy who is an apprentice in 1770 Massachusetts, who observes the Boston Massacre and has to choose between the Patriots and the Loyalists. 
  • Mission Two: Flight to Freedom: in which you play a young girl who is a slave in Kentucky in 1848. During your attempt to escape to the north you encounter fearsome slave catchers and seek out the mysterious Underground Railroad.
  • Mission Three: A Cheyenne Odyssey: in which you play a Cheyenne warrior who grows to manhood and leadership of his band. You have to help your group survive through the years and based on your choices will play different roles in the Battle of Little Bighorn. 
They will be releasing a new game early in 2014 called Mission 4: City of Immigrants  in which you would play a young Russian immigrant living on the Lower East Side of New York a century ago who gets caught up in the labor movement. I have been very impressed with the scope of these games and the effort they make to be inclusive of race, gender and economic statuses.

The games are a wonderful mix of action and information.  While I think it helps to have some background in the material, the games do a good job of getting the player up to speed. The students in my classes are quite varied, ranging in age from 15-19 and coming from many different backgrounds (our school has students from over 22 countries) but none of them have ever felt that the game was too hard to figure out, and no one complained that it pandered to them either. 

The way I like to use the games is as a supplement to our standard sequence of reading and discussion.  For Mission One, the students play the game after we've finished reading about the turbulent 1760's and 1770's.  After they play I ask them to compare the game experience to what they read in their textbooks.  The consensus seems to be that playing the role of a person around their own age was a good way of absorbing the key concepts. For Mission Two the students play the game after we finish reading "The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass"; in the book he is disdainful of the boastfulness of the "underground railroad" (which he fears is becoming an "upperground railroad") and the game gives students a better point of view with which to judge this assessment. Last year I did Mission Three as part of a three-week long module between Thanksgiving and Christmas that covered the Indian Removal Act, the Indian Wars of the 1860s and 1870s and the American Indian Movement of the 1970s, culminating in a debate over whether sports teams should have nicknames derived from Native Americans. 

I am fortunate to work at a school where I can reserve an individual laptop computer for each of my students (and where most of them have their own, anyway), so I typically play these games over the course of a 50 minute long class period. If I had shorter periods, or if computers weren't as available I could see the game being played as a homework assignment.  The teachers' guides are very good at listing the estimated time required to play each game, and they also have very useful worksheets and downloadable handouts to share with students. I can't recommend these games enough, and I hope that they continue to develop new ones. 

In addition to my survey class I also teach trimester length elective classes covering the time period between 1945 and the present. One of the most popular is called "Constitutional Issues", in which students learn through the study of major Supreme Court cases of the period. Instead of a textbook, students read the unabridged opinions of the Court.  It is a very challenging, but rewarding experience for the students, who are essentially doing graduate school level work as high school juniors and seniors. To buttress the readings, and also to provide a fun way of assessing their knowledge of the Constitution and important cases, I have them play several video games from  iCivics was founded by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and they have a wide variety of games that fit under the "civics" umbrella, all of which feature entertaining graphics and several of which are quite challenging. In my class, we play the following games:
  • Argument Wars: in which you represent one of the sides in an actual Supreme Court case. Your task is to recognize the difference between strong and weak Constitutional arguments. 
  • Do I Have A Right?: a turn based game in which you create a law firm and earn points by taking and winning cases based on your knowledge of the Bill of Rights. The more cases you win the more money you have to hire associated, decorate the office, purchase advertisements and reinvest in the business. 
  • We The Jury: a turn based game in which you have to persuade the other members of a jury to agree with you in a variety of civil cases. 
The games feature clever animations and are fast moving and engrossing.  One of my students this year absolutely LOVED "Do I Have A Right" and has played it over and over trying to raise her score.  While this may be slightly aberrant behavior, the games do reward replaying. As I mentioned above, the games fit it perfectly during a class period for me, but they could also be done for homework. When the term was over the students ranked the games very highly, praising them as a fun alternative to quizzes as ways of making sure that they learned about the key Constitutional issues in these cases. 

While I doubt that I would ever be able to completely replace reading with edutaining game-play, I am glad to be able to use games as supplements to my regular routine.  When kids see on the weekly syllabus that there will be "video games" they get very excited.  While the games described in this post are not as visually stunning as, say, Assassin's Creed, they are probably more historically accurate and I have found that my students find them to be sufficiently engaging to be very focused for the entire class period. The games also stick in their memories as well as (or better) than a textbook; I can remind them months later of the games and they often have very vivid recall of scenarios from the games. I am so glad that I have these resources for my classroom and I can't wait to see what new games will continue to be developed.  Thanks for reading, and please leave a comment below with your thoughts about video games in the classroom.