In honor of Super Tuesday several weeks ago, I held an impromptu mock election in my U.S. History survey. The topic was Woodrow Wilson’s World War I diplomacy and the election between Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, whose foreign policy we had discussed the week prior.
Maybe it was simply a product of the emotionalism that often comes with voting (for anything), but I was surprised at how invested my students were in this activity. The election sparked a good debate regarding Wilson’s background, a president’s ability to shape foreign policy, and the United States’ role in the world. Aside from the benefit of encouraging student participation, the discussion also allowed me to gauge who had both completed and fully understood the reading and who hadn’t. I’d also like to think that the mock election – informal as it was – reaffirmed the value of voting in real elections for at least a few students.
No sooner had I congratulated myself on a job well done, however, than several colleagues offered suggestions about how to strengthen the activity in the future. The most retrospectively obvious point was to widen the number of prospective candidates to include other contemporary figures, like Eugene Debs for instance, who offered viewpoints outside the realm of the two major parties at the time. Some also wondered if it’d be possible to have students vote as the member of a prototypical voting bloc; others more ambitiously stated that the idea made them want to simulate a presidential convention.
Regardless of these particulars, the activity got me thinking about the broader benefits of using role-playing activities in history classes. Before running this activity with my class, I had a bit of a bias against these sorts of activities, viewing them more as a relic from my high school experience and a time-killer that sacrifices content coverage. Even my limited and hastily-cobbled-together mock election, however, sparked a more complex discussion of content than would have occurred otherwise. This particular mock election encouraged my students to apply their knowledge to a specific situation and made them more active learners. The activity also reminded me that sometimes the structure of an activity – and not necessarily an assignment and/or a slice of content itself – can help students develop more critical thinking skills. The information my students used to vote in the mock election consisted of 15 pages of reading from a standard college-level American history survey textbook. However by simply changing the way students engaged with this material (not necessarily the material itself), my students were able to gain a deeper and more nuanced understanding of a historical topic. Whether it be as a voter, a specific voter, a convention delegate, or a political candidate, having students understand and explain the viewpoints of others, even those with which they disagree, is not only a necessary component of good historical analysis, but also a transferable skill vital for other fields.
While many factors will influence when and how I utilize these activities, my Wilson-Roosevelt contest made me realize that having students act out certain roles within a given time period can be a highly effective way to get students to understand history. I plan to run another mock election before the end of the semester. Has anyone had a successful experience utilizing a similar activity in his/her classroom?