Re-inventing My Social Studies Teaching: Hail Freedonia!

Mitchell Map - A map of the British and French...
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve decided to do something different.

No, not that.

I’m still going to be teaching where and what I am doing presently. I’m just going to do one thing different.

It is a big thing, though.

Last spring I took training in designing project-based learning units. They’re really cool for studying things like marine biology, algebra and techno-stuff (an all-encompassing category of “things despised by Luddites.).

I spent a lot of the summer trying to think of how to apply the project-based approach to social studies. I had a lot of ideas, none of which really captivated or excited me.

If they don’t excite me they’re not going to excite 7th grade boys and girls.

My new plan excites me.

I’m going to ask my students to invent a country.

In New York, 7th grade American history starts in what will eventually become the Americas a couple of hundred years before Europeans arrive bearing trinkets and syphilis.

Eventually colonists arrived and, as time passed, they invented a country.

Inventing a country is a much bigger process than telling a nutty king that he’s been abusive and you’re not going to take it anymore, then proving it even though he has the world’s most powerful navy and a large and well-trained army on his side.

Betsy Ross Flag Painted on a Barn

Image by myoldpostcards via Flickr

Okay, that’s a big process, but they had to beat that same Army again 35 years later and in-between they developed a government and a rule book to run it by, unified – more or less – 13 independent colonies, had elections, and started exploring the rest of the continent.

They had to create maps, flags, and a national story.

time to proselytize

Image by 7-how-7 via Flickr

My students will have to do all that in the year-long process of creating their country. And to make it more interesting, they will not each invent their own country. No, that is too easy.

Instead, they will have to work in groups of five or six to invent a country. That will involve negotiation, compromise, deal making and, without doubt, conflict.

And every time one of those things happens will be a teachable moment about the forming of this country.

They’ll have to write a Constitution, provide for succession of leadership, and all the rest as I keep asking questions and contributing situations that will arise more-or-less on the same schedule as they did in this country.

I think this could be a lot of fun, something most 7th graders think social studies can’t possibly be.

So now I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me tonight and tomorrow.

I’ve got to come up with the groups of students I want to work together.

And I’ve got to figure out how to start a civil war.

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13 Responses to Re-inventing My Social Studies Teaching: Hail Freedonia!

  1. Please keep us updated. Sounds cool.

  2. baconpirates says:

    Great idea!

  3. Ira Socol says:

    I love this idea so much. How nations are created is such a complex thing, and the mythology developed controls national decision-making. See The Island at the Center of the World (especially the introduction) or Inventing Ireland.

    If our students learn this process they will begin to see the manipulation around them. Why is “Plymouth Rock” our founding? Why are we obsessed with the Madison of 1787 but not the Madison of 1791? Why do we cling to just certain quotes from Paine but not his philosophies? Why do we draw maps as we do?

    Fabulous stuff.

  4. Bill Gx says:

    You might have a look at Michael Wesch’s World Simulation for further inspiration. His students create different countries and interact with/exploit/conquer each other.

    You should video record & share some of your student’s interactions (assuming you can get parental & school approval.)

    What a cool project!

    • Deven Black says:

      Very interesting! I think a project like Michael’s would be great for high school students, perhaps in a NY 12th grade global studies program.

  5. Ben Glover says:

    I love how this idea can scale from a small day or two long project to someone that could take all year if you wished.

    • Deven Black says:

      Actually, I think I may have these same students next year. The 7th grade curriculum goes up to the Civil War. 8th grade starts with reconstruction. This could evolve into a two year project.

  6. I wonder if we introduced the Founding Fathers writings to our students without showing their names and had them design a country around those writings what would change with their perception of this country.

  7. Sounds very cool. You might like the book, “The Lonely Planet Guide to Home-Made Nations”. There’s also an online sim http://www.cybernations.net/ – haven’t actually played it, so can’t comment on the quality or appropriateness! It may take more time than it’s worth, but it might also create a lot of conversation about what the assumptions are behind the simulation.

  8. Josie says:

    Sounds great. And maybe the class can resolve internal dissension without a civil war! Looking forward to updates.. – Josie

  9. I love ideas like this. I have found simulations to be by far the most effective means of teaching students in history classes.

    The past few years, I started my 11th grade US course doing a simulation of the Constitutional Convention from this book. It was always a highlight of the year, and might give you some ideas. This year I’m teaching Global, and have run a simulation these past few weeks where students end up on a deserted planet with no memory of earth and need to create civilizations. I’ll post the whole unit on my blog once we finish writing it.

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