Social Education 57(2), 1993, pp. 90
1993 National Council for the Social Studies
Bringing History Home
To help my students grasp the significance of the Manifest Destiny period of history, I invented a simulation exercise designed to mimic the conflict between Mexican Americans and European Americans living in Texas prior to the Mexican War of 1846-1848. Faced with a similar territorial dispute, students quickly realize exactly why that war, and so many others like it, began.
In 1825, the Mexican government agreed to allow some 350 European families to settle in Texas, then a part of Mexico. Within ten years, however, 30,000 European settlers had moved to Texas, far outnumbering the Mexicans living there. Mexico forbade further immigration, but the settlers kept coming. Eventually the situation escalated into war.
My simulation of the Mexican-Texan conflict involves two classes: the visiting class and the host class. The visiting group's teacher begins the experiment by telling the students their classroom must be evacuated (because of maintenance work, construction, or some other reason), and they will have to share a room with another class. The students are instructed to go to the other room and find a seat. If all the seats are taken, they are instructed to ask, cajole, beg, share, or take whatever civilized action is necessary to get a seat-even if students from the host class end up without one. Further, the students are instructed not to laugh or joke, but to approach the task of finding a seat seriously.
Simultaneously, the host group's teacher explains to the students in that class that an unforeseen problem has occurred in the other classroom and asks if a few of the displaced students can come into their class. The teacher emphasizes that no one knows how many students are coming or how long they will stay, but suggests that inviting them would be an admirable gesture of generosity. (In most cases, the majority of the class will vote to help the other students. If not, the teacher plays up the minority's opinion and then "gives in" to their wishes.)
Once the visiting class is invited to join the host class, the first teacher begins sending a few students over. Eventually, everyone is crammed together in the host group's room. As the visiting students struggle to find seats, the classroom becomes noisy and chaotic. Nevertheless, the teachers explain that the class will proceed, with each teacher instructing his or her own group. As the lesson begins, students react, usually complaining that they cannot hear or learn in such a noisy, crowded environment.
Reactions and Feedback
After a few minutes (or as soon as chaos ensues) the teachers call everyone to attention and ask for specific complaints. Typically, the host class voices the loudest objections over losing their seats, their privacy, and their freedom. Often, they become quite militant and angry toward the intruding students. When the teachers point out that the newcomers were invited, they usually respond: "But not to take over!"
When students in the host group have vented their opinions and emotions, the teachers ask for responses from the visiting group. Typically, these students are content with the situation, arguing that they are entitled to keep their new seats since the host students invited them into the room and agreed to give up their places. By this time, members of the host group generally become enraged and may even ask the teacher to evict the visiting students.
At this point, the teachers explain the experiment, drawing parallels between the situation in their classroom and the Mexican-Texan situation in the 1820s and 1830s. They ask students to consider how the Mexican people felt when the European settlers began taking over their land. Students then begin to relax, talk, and laugh about their experience. Because this activity is highly emotional, at least twenty minutes of class time should be reserved for a thorough follow-up and calming down period. To conclude the project, the teachers instruct the students to write an essay describing their feelings during the experiment and comparing them to the Mexican-Texan conflict from the perspective of either the Mexicans or the Europeans.
Student responses to this simulation have reflected genuine empathy, profound insights, and poignant personal connections. Most students express a sensitivity for the displaced parties. "This experiment was powerful," wrote one student in the visiting group, "I really felt sorry for the other class, and I really feel sorry for people who lose their land."
"Amazing!" said a student from the host class, "I have never been so mad. No wonder they fought. I would have joined them also." Another student agreed: "It made me mad. I kept having to move, and what made me mad the most was that they thought they had a right to do that. Now I know what Native Americans, Mexicans, and other minorities must have felt. I always thought of the Americans as the good guys, but maybe they are really not."
Some students applied their experience to broader issues. "This idea and experiment should be given to President Bush so that he can better understand what it means to be homeless," one student suggested. Another wrote, "I wonder if people such as the Ku Klux Klan have ever experienced discrimination. If they have, they would probably get out of it."
At least one student revealed a personal knowledge of displacement that surpassed the class exercise. "I'm Palestinian-American," she wrote, "so I know how it would feel for someone to just come over to your land and take it."
Overall, student feedback on this simulation activity has indicated an understanding of the Manifest Destiny period that far exceeds typical outcomes of the traditional book and lecture approach. Further, the experience stimulates students to compare and contrast, to relate personal experiences to past historical events, to question government policy both past and present, and to suggest recommendations for the future. All of these activities challenge their critical-thinking skills and promote a feeling of caring for others-appreciable results for any educational activity.
Michael D. Evans is cohead of the social studies department at Francis C. Hammond Junior High School in Alexandria, Virginia 22311.