HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Using Simulations to Play With Jewish History

by Meredith Katz Issue: Teaching Jewish History

A JTS professor who joined as a JCAT partner last year, Katz draws lessons from this ambitious program for teachers to create their own simulations with student role-playing.

Hosts, Ms. Magistrate, and People of JCAT,

I, Claus von Stauffenberg, have reached the amount of 12 VOCs [Votes of Confidence] and I am ready to make my decision. However, there is still one thing I want resolved before I make my ruling and that is why I am posting this speech. I am calling out to you all to tell you that I will give JCAT until 9 PM on the 26th to make a decision whether or not to make the “third option” viable to all. To those justices who have already ruled, I will give you an opportunity to keep your first decision or change to the third option… We must choose quickly. Before you make a decision, consider this. The third option will help both sides. Israel would let in some refugees, but not a great amount, and it would not stretch their resources to give them background checks to make sure they are not terrorists. It will be good for not only the Eissas, but for all of the refugees, who will all be accepted into new countries away from the genocide in Sudan. And to those of you who believe it is a dream and would never work, look around. We have the power to do this! But we must do it soon! Do what is right!

Thank you,

Claus von Stauffenberg

What is going on here? What is Colonel von Stauffenberg (of the 1944 plot to overthrow Hitler) talking about and whom is he addressing?

This speech took place as part of RAVSAK’s Jewish Court of All Time (JCAT) online Jewish history simulation game that culminates in a virtual trial. JCAT is the brainchild of the Interactive Communications and Simulations group at the University of Michigan School of Education and is run as a partnership with RAVSAK, the University of Cincinnati’s Center for Studies in Jewish Education and Culture and with JTS’s Davidson School of Jewish Education. Sixteen RAVSAK schools have participated in JCAT over the last 4 years.

In this speech, Claus, portrayed by a middle school student, is urging the court to consider a “third option” in the case of the “Eissas,” a Darfuri refugee family seeking political asylum in Israel. Rather than choose between allowing them to stay in Israel and ordering their return to Sudan, Claus has researched and designed an alternative that would help to disperse the refugees among several countries. In the process of gaining feedback on his plan, Claus has interacted with Maimonides, Heschel, Emma Lazarus, Benjamin Netanyahu and Natan Sharansky, as well as the sanction of President Obama. Ultimately Claus’ campaign was denied and his fellow student justices ruled in favor of the Darfuri family’s right to asylum in Israel.

JCAT is an exciting and complex endeavor involving middle school students, teachers, undergraduate and graduate students and professors participating as characters from across time. JCAT helps to illuminate important questions when considering simulations as a learning activity. Why use simulations to teach Jewish history? Where exactly is the Jewish history in the simulation? What are some steps to take in scaffolding a simulation in your setting?

Thinking about goals

Like any curricular decision, the choice of a specific learning activity needs to be made in conjunction with overall goals. Although there are many possible definitions, in essence, a simulation is a game that requires role-playing and a flexible outcome around a particular subset of content. How do these elements fit into your purposes for teaching history?

Do you want engagement with Jewish history to help students build their Jewish identity, to deepen their feelings of connection, or to help them tackle contemporary challenges in the Jewish community today? Perhaps you want to use Jewish history to catalyze a moral, social justice response? Jacobs and Shem Tov (“History: Issues in the Teaching and Learning of Jewish History”) suggest these “orientations” and others as common purposes for Jewish history education in day schools. Although these orientations have distinctive and overlapping interpretations in different settings, they are useful in framing the choices educators make around content, skill development, learning activities and assessments. In this year’s JCAT case, for example, the moral response orientation was prominent as characters referenced modern and ancient examples of Jewish exile and victimization as evidence in support of the plaintiff. Shaping the simulation to support a broader goal will help you structure student participation, provide a framework for assessment, and link the simulation to the extant curriculum.

The role of role playing

Underlying all of these orientations is a need for students to build historical empathy, a “cognitive and affective engagement with historical figures to better understand and contextualize their lived experiences, decisions, or actions” (Endacott and Brooks, “An Updated Theoretical and Practical Model for Promoting Historical Empathy”). Students who develop historical empathy can identify how the past is different from the present, articulate multiple perspectives held by people in the past, and can use historical evidence to support their explanations (Jensen, “Developing Historical Empathy Through Debate: An Action Research Study”). As a result students have a stronger understanding of history for its own sake and can more meaningfully apply its lessons to new situations. Building historical empathy requires intentional scaffolding, modeling and practice that can and should start in the upper elementary grades.

One approach to teaching for historical empathy is through the role playing inherent in simulations. Representing a character requires students to transfer the information they read about a historical figure to a first-person narrative, an important step in “thinking like they did back then.” Having that character interact with others from his own time or different times, as they do in JCAT, in both rehearsed and impromptu dialogue, offers multiple opportunities to practice this thinking. The curve may be nonlinear: as my JCAT colleagues comment, “Giving a seventh grader with a shaky grasp of world history the task of imagining what, for example, Ptolemy would say to Edgar Allen Poe is, on the face of it absurd” (Kupperman et. al, “It Matters Because It’s a Game: Serious Games for Serious Players”), yet a simulation can provide a safe space in which students can experiment with this type of historical thinking, taking a break from right v. wrong in order to make more lasting and individualized connections as they build critical thinking skills.

In this example from JCAT, “Rosa Rosenstein,” a Holocaust survivor played by a middle school student, introduces herself to Queen Isabella of Spain, played by a graduate student.

Hi Queen Isabella,

I can not believe that I am talking to you. This is not a positive remark. I disagree so much with how you hate the Jewish people and helped to kill them. This is devastating to me as I am Jewish and survived the Holocaust. People like you make me feel sick. How could you hate people just to hate them? Some people are not good and those are the people you should not like, not the people who mean well but believe differently from you. I do know that you did have a few accomplishments, like helping to finance Christopher Columbus, but that means nothing to me when I think of the innocent Jews you kicked out of Spain or killed. I am very curious about the response you have to this message.

Rosa Rosenstein

Here, the student playing Rosa is demonstrating strong historical empathy for her character, a Holocaust survivor. She also references accurate evidence from Isabella’s experiences. Rosa’s prompt to Isabella provoked a response that continued for several exchanges as the Queen explained how her thinking was guided by a different set of beliefs and standards in the Middle Ages. Ultimately “Rosa” did not accept Isabella’s justification for the expulsion, and she may not yet have a full understanding of medieval social forces, but she has been pushed to consider and experiment with a variety of perspectives.

Tachlis: some guidelines for getting started

A simulation can be very rewarding for students and teachers, but starting from scratch can also be overwhelming. It pays to keep the scale small initially. Some key points to consider:

Choose a content focus.

Thinking about the overall purposes and general ebb and flow of your course, what content holds potential for investigation through a simulation? Do you want to limit the time period to a specific case, i.e., a reenactment of the Dreyfus Affair or the First Zionist Congress? Or do you want students to apply historical content to a current situation, as we do in JCAT? Think about how you will introduce the content to the students. What common background should they have to level the playing field for meaningful interaction? What can they discover about the topic through their own research? If the students had to write a brief position paper after the simulation, what is the central question you hope they would be able to answer? What information would you hope they could include?

Set parameters for character selection.

What characters need to be represented? What choice can you allow students? If this is a Jewish history course, do the optional characters have to be Jewish? Thomas Arnold (“Make Your History Class Hop with Excitement (At Least Once a Semester): Designing and Using Classroom Simulations”), a college professor who designs “one session” simulations, makes sure to provide roles for all of his students, even for those who are shy or initially uninterested in the topic. In middle school we call this differentiation.

An important first part of the simulation, and where students can be exposed to a great deal of content, is through the research they do in order to represent their characters. In JCAT, each participant posts a brief narrative “resume” by way of introduction to the group, and teachers often instruct their students to read each others’ resumes as they begin their interactions.

Decide on a structure.

Think about adapting an established format such as a debate or a trial. In a debate, for example, student characters can prepare position papers and present them to each other through pro speeches, con speeches and rebuttals. Alternatively, you may choose to incorporate more alliance building and strategizing into your simulation. In JCAT, characters who wish to act as justices have to secure a certain number of “Votes of Confidence” from the group. They do this through formal speeches declaring their qualifications and through private emails. This year Claus von Stauffenberg went beyond this process and literally tried to “change the game” by offering an alternative resolution not in consideration from the outset. He precipitated some emergency meetings of the simulation faculty back at headquarters as we had to decide how to respond to his request!

Some students will take the ball and run with it and some will need more scaffolding. The challenge is to define the rules of the game clearly enough to facilitate maximum participation AND to allow enough space for student initiative and flexible historical interpretations. If you are planning for an in-class simulation, one way to make time for unrehearsed character interaction might be through a class blog or Facebook type page with appropriate parameters for participation.

Plan for debriefing.

Just as students need guidance in taking on a role, they need guidance in taking it off. An important follow up to a simulation is giving students a chance to articulate how their own opinions might be similar or different to the characters they portrayed (especially if they were assigned a character with whom they disagreed from the outset)! Debriefing is a chance to helps students think metacognitively about the kind of learning they did during the simulation and about how it may have been easy or challenging for them.

If necessary, debriefing can be a time to gently correct historical inaccuracies that may have been showcased, and perhaps most importantly, it is time for an affective check-in. Students-in-character may have exchanged sharply worded comments, and in the end there will be simulation winners and losers (significant engagement factors for students). As students take off their characters and resume business as usual, it’s useful to remind students of your normative classroom culture.

Celebrate the experiment and learn for next time.

As a new high school social studies teacher, I remember my surprised and somewhat horrified reaction when “Syria” declared war on “Israel” in a United Nations peace conference simulation in the early 1990s (in both my 8th and 9th period classes)! I had worked with the students on the content for weeks and critiqued their prepared speeches. How could they end up so far from the reality of the time? In retrospect, I wish I had asked them this question more intentionally, rather than only testing to see if they could write an essay on “the role of religion in the Middle East.”

In retrospect I can also take pride in this activity that allowed the students to take on roles, experiment with the language and mannerisms of diplomacy and “try out” content. I started out with historical accuracy and concluded with a messy ending. For the teacher this can be a powerful reminder of how complicated the learning process can and should be as students internalize new information and then develop the ability to transfer meaningfully to other contexts. ¿

Dr. Meredith Katz is the senior research scholar at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at JTS. mekatz@jtsa.edu

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