For the last several weeks, the 5th-8th graders of Summers-Knoll have been participating in an online simulation called Place Out of Time. The project asks the question, what if we could bring the wisdom of history to address an issue of today? Participation has required the synthesis of numerous skills, including research, writing, improvisation, and acting, and has covered a variety of content areas; history, politics, society, and more. Eclipsing all of this has been how very fun and engaging it's been.
To begin with, each student selected a famous (or, in some cases, infamous) person that they wanted to research and portray. This yielded a motley assortment of luminaries, including a few fictional characters. We then portrayed these characters in the first person during in-school exercises. Gone were Margaret, Lee, and Alexandra, and in their places were Pocahontas, Socrates, and Nancy Drew.
After writing and posting an autobiography of their character, students began posting online on the Place Out of Time message board. There, they interacted with each other, students from around Michigan (and beyond!), and student facilitators from the University of Michigan, who made the whole thing possible.
The issue that the students considered and debated was a complex one: The French law banning conspicuous religious symbols in schools. It's a controversial topic, and the simulation requires that students debate it in character, representing their character's views. For example, Matthew not only had to understand the issue at hand, but he had to make educated guesses about how Leonardo da Vinci might react to it.
Of course, the complexities of this case are a lot for fifth-graders to wrap their minds around, so we've had numerous classroom and online discussions about much smaller, but related issues to ease into it. One line of conversation asked about the wisdom of school dress codes in general. Another found people arguing about whether children should have a voice in such matters at all. It has been fun and challenging for the students to portray the views of their characters, rather than their own.
Watching them rise to the occasion has been a delight, and it all culminated with a field trip to the University of Michigan for the Place Out of Time banquet on Monday.
For an hour-and-a-half, our students conversed, argued, and commiserated in character with other participants in the project. (One group of students drove all the way from Columbus, Ohio to participate!)
|The assembled group was an impressive sight to behold.|
|Our own Victoria Woodhull, Angela Davis, Mr. Spock, Francis Scott Key, and Kim Jong-il, bookended by Mohammed and "Pretty Boy" Floyd.|
|Conversation and debate began in a large group, aided in part by some pre-planned drama played out by the University of Michigan student facilitators.|
|Here we see a UM student facilitator leading a small group discussion while playing the role of former President of Turkey Kemal Ataturk. Our own Michael Jordan (Evan), Harry Potter (Henry), Nancy Drew (Alexandra), and Marcus Aurelius (Lev) look on.|
Later, we dropped character and had pizza as we reflected on our experiences with the project. To wrap up, we were given a tour of the University of Michigan campus by one of the student facilitators.
The entire project has been an enriching adventure, and I've hardly scratched the surface of the scope of it. Ask your student to tell you about it! They can even log into the website and give you a tour of some of the discussions they've been taking part in. We still have another week or so to go with the simulation, but I've already had a few students clamoring to get started with it for next year!
|The Great Minds of History|
A huge THANK YOU to the fine folks at the University of Michigan who invited us to participate, particularly Jeff Stanzler and his team of student facilitators!