Making history come alive is one of my favorite parts about teaching social studies. If the kids can see a historic location in real life or speak to someone who lived through a world changing event, the topic becomes so much more interesting and meaningful to them rather than reading about it and answering worksheet questions. One of my most popular ways of making history come alive is to re-create trench warfare during our World War 1 unit. I have done this for 3 years now, and each year it is a smidge different based on the personality of my students, the size of my classroom, and the time available. What I describe below are the general guidelines for this to work well in any classroom. The great thing about this activity is you can totally customize it to each group of students. Since you’re in charge, there’s really no “script” to follow. If you decide to stop early so the students can write a reflection paragraph, go for it. If you want to have booming and crashing war type sounds in the background the kids would definitely feel more in the historical moment.
DISCLAIMER: you should only do this with students you can trust (there was one period last year I did not do this with because I couldn’t trust them to completely lose control). Your kids WILL get rowdy, it WILL be really loud, and paper balls WILL be thrown, but they will LOVE it!
The Prep Work
1. I start prepping the “ammunition” a week or two ahead of time. I had students help me the last few minutes of each class ball up scrap paper to use as the ammunition that they’d be throwing at each other (they didn’t know what it was for though). I had 2 huge garbage bags full and that seemed to work well with classes ranging from 32-38 kids. Before the kids came in the room I emptied one bag of ammo evenly in each trench.
2. The day before the re-creation, I tell my kids them that the room will look very different the next day because we will be re-creating trench warfare. They immediately get excited and start asking questions but all I do is divide them up into the two alliances so we can start right away the next day. I then tell them to come to class ready to listen to the instructions tomorrow.
3. Before school starts the day of the re-creation, divide the desks in your classroom lengthwise on opposite sides of the room, this will be your “barbed wire” and the empty floor in the middle of the room will be no-man’s land. The desks can be sitting up normally or with the legs in the air, it will depend on what you’ll be doing the next period. The “trench” the students will be in is the space between the chairs and the wall.
4. I hang images of real signs that were in the trenches of WWI and images of a re-created trench on each side’s wall (I took these pictures at the Imperial War Museum in London).
5. I write a list of 15 actions I call out to the students. Depending on how it went the first time, I add or take some away for the next period. If it’s an action where the “ammo” is being thrown I let that happen for about 10 seconds.
6. In the last 5 minutes of class, I have the students gather up the “ammo” and put an even amount in each bag.
When the students come into the room, they immediately go to their respective trenches and I tell them to get down in the trench for safety.
Once each trench is settled you can say something like, “It’s November 1914, the war is in full swing…let’s see what’s happening in Battle X between Britain and Germany.”
I then give the kids the following sorts of action prompts and they follow through on them (these are just samples):
–5 British troops try crossing no-man’s land to kill the German captain, the Germans use gas against them, 3 British soldiers die. (After trying to cross no-man’s land, the “dead” soldiers come stand or sit with me at the front of the room)
–Britain sends supplies to the front lines, you all get a machine gun, “fire” your guns for 10 seconds at the Germans
–a tank comes rolling at the German trench, you don’t know what to do so you shoot at it and waste a lot of bullets
–it rains for a week, the trench is half flooded, rats eat any food you leave out
–2 soldiers from each trench get their legs amputated due to gangrene….they come off the front lines
–the Germans try storming the British trench with cavalry, it fails, the British shoot 3 horses and kill one soldier
–it’s December 1914, the Christmas Truce happens, meet in no-man’s land and sing Christmas Carols, play soccer, and exchange presents –an airplane flies overhead and drops bricks on your trench because it has run out of ammunition
–5 British soldiers attempt a night raid on the German line, one gets stuck in barbed wire, another is bayonetted, one is taken POW, and two are killed by friendly fire trying to make it back to their own trench
–10 German troops try storming the British trench, they are all gunned down by machine fire
–10 British troops try storming the German trench, they are all gunned down by machine gun fire
–the Germans get word that their comrades sank the Lusitania and the British are ecstatic that the Americans are finally entering the war
–both sides take a last ditch effort to win the battle, all the soldiers stand up and shoot their machine guns at the other trench I hope you have the opportunity to try this at least once, it really is a LOT of fun, and in my “end of year feedback” form this is always mentioned as a favorite activity.
|Logo Credit to RebeccaB Design|
Stephanie has been a high school history teacher for 4 years and this year will be working with middle school students. She loves reading, traveling, and of course all things history and teaching. Head to her store for history and geography resources or her blog for tips and tricks on classroom organization, getting students engaged and excited about the material, and general stories about teaching history and incorporating travel experiences in the classroom.