voice for democracy

Putting students in the shoes of historical figures at ORHS – Oak Ridger

Rather than just studying the decisions historical figures made, students at Oak Ridge High School are making them.
Richard Alexander “Alex” Shaffer, an ORHS social studies teacher, explained about this method of teaching history, which he said he said was developed at Harvard University, originally for business school students. He spoke during a Zoom meeting of the League of Women Voters of Oak Ridge. He said the new method prevents students from getting bored, while also encouraging them to get more involved in deciding how to participate in present-day democracy.
He described a situation which put the students in the place of Martin Luther King Jr. as he was deciding whether to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the Selma to Montgomery (Alabama) march in 1965. President Lyndon B. Johnson at the time had requested King and his followers not cross the bridge, but some of King’s followers wanted to cross.
The class then had to read background information prepared by Harvard, which he said is about 12 pages in length. Next, the class members decided what decision they would make as King, in this case, whether they would cross the bridge and confront the authorities or wait for help from Johnson.
Then, Shaffer said, he asked the students why they made the decision they did. After that discussion, he told the students what happened. In this particular case, nicknamed as “Turnaround Tuesday,” King decided not to cross the bridge at that time, although a later march did occur.
“They have to make their decision as if they were a part of that historic event,” Shaffer said of his students. His words echoed David Moss, a professor of business administration at Harvard, who helped develop the program. 
“Students start to engage with the cases and they see themselves as potential decision makers,” Moss said in a video clip Shaffer shared.
In response to a questions from The Oak Ridger about values of the present being different from those of the past and influencing how people make decisions, the ORHS teacher said he embraces talking about those changes. 
When students bring different values to the classroom, he said, “we can compare those to what the actual historical figure did back then.”
“Why did you choose to do something different based on the values you have today?” he said. He said it’s also a chance to dig deeper into why the historical figure made the decision they did.
Shaffer said there are various benefits to this method of teaching history. He said it prevents them from getting bored. In his presentation for the League, he showed a clip from the film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” in which a teacher played by Ben Stein lectures and tries to ask questions to his class. The film clip shows students asleep, drooling or blowing bubble gum bubbles.
He contrasted that with television host Bill Nye whose style involved engaging viewers in hands-on experiments on his show, “Bill Nye the Science Guy.”
“I loved to get my hands on with the experiments he was doing,” Shaffer said. “If you saw the TV in the classroom and you saw Bill Nye you knew it was going to be a good day.
“Boring is the enemy of the classroom,” he said.
He said the classes can’t always be flashy. Still, “getting students’ attention is what we want,” Shaffer said.  He added that while students have had some trouble with the reading, they are “more engaged with the discussions.”
“That’s when I felt more like Bill Nye the Science Guy than Ben Stein the Drool Guy,” he said.
Shaffer also said the exercises encourage civic engagement. He said looking at decisions of the past encourages decision making and critical thinking about the decisions the students will face as adults with elections and protests.
“It’s not really ideal for students to be disconnected from civics and democracy because that’s how America continues,” he said. “The case method is great for engaging students and bringing civics and democracy to them.”
Ben Pounds is a staff reporter for The Oak Ridger. Call him at (865) 441-2317, follow him on Twitter @Bpoundsjournal and email him at [email protected]