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Trench Warfare

Posted by Angelica Radjenovic
30 Mars 2016 - 9:08am

It’s 8:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning and both my students and I know what is coming! Having explained today’s activity in yesterday’s class, the students prepare for the ‘worst experience’ one must endure. As I prepped my rambunctious class for ‘Life in the Trenches’ I hoped this activity would be everything I wished it to be!

What were their tasks and my objectives? To recreate life in the trenches! Trench warfare! All or Nothing! Everything was planned and ready to go!

The desks acted as trenches in which students had to stay low, the lights would flicker to illuminate the environmental conditions that the soldiers faced, and ‘rationed’ Melba toast was provided to mimic food supply. All the while, mock paper bombs were thrown into the trenches and a ‘no-mans-land’ was created out of a makeshift jumble of desks.

At the beginning, the students had a blast (no pun intended). But then I was struck with a thought:  “Was this the experience I wanted to create? Were students supposed to be excited and happy to experience trench warfare?”

A short time after, admittedly, 10-15 minutes later, I felt the morale slowly decline. Some soldiers were uncomfortable with their working conditions while others refused to eat the rationed Melba toast. Some protested while others stood up in defeat (not truly understanding the real implications of stepping into ‘no mans land).’ This is exactly what I wanted the students to experience!

This unique role play, this social experiment, is something so valuable (and interdisciplinary) that it should not be removed from the classroom or curriculum.

During our consolidation phase, students expressed interest in not only ‘the trenches’ but also their fighting (war) conditions, fatigue, boredom, laziness, hunger and emotional stress.

History can and has been an interdisciplinary, and engaging course that acts as a gateway for social, political, economic, holistic, emotional, and mental education. Not only did my class do a wonderful job working as a team to ‘win the war’ but they understood different factors that contributed to trench warfare! What better way to learn than to be engaged?

As Chadwick & Wendling (2006) argue, “It's difficult to imagine studying historical content without examining the roles of persons (sociology), their motivations (psychology), where they lived (geography), the influences of spiritual beliefs (religion), rules that govern behavior (political science and anthropology), or how people negotiate for their needs and wants (economics). Outside the field of social studies, vital connections can also be made to language arts, mathematics, science and the arts that yield a deeper understanding of concepts and ideas.” (para. 1).

I can say with confidence that my students gained a greater insight into the real-world experiences that their forefathers (and mothers) experienced. They demonstrated a heightened sense of individuality, courage and initiative and also showed an interest, enthusiasm and motivation to learn history and all that it entails.

What role playing have you used to help your students to understand history? What worked well? What did not?


By Moore, William E.; Russell, James C. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Chadwick, F.,& Wendling, L. (2006). Social Studies: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Social Studies Review. 45(2).