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Elizabeth Schaefer's Vocabulary in Motion!

Mar 14 2011 Photo, Final Game of the Season, Mar. 13, 2010, timlauer, Flickr

My middle school students contain tremendous physical energy and can struggle with the transition into the adult world of sitting still. Meanwhile, real kinesthetic learning is one of the most difficult areas to incorporate effectively into your history classroom. Last year, to meet my goal of getting the students moving in a relevant and productive manner, I created Policy Pull-Out—a fun and interactive game related to the key concepts of American Expansion.

Background Information

Picture students moving around, excited about history vocabulary, with all learning levels engaged. Welcome to Policy Pull-Out! As the winter months drag on, allowing the students to be active will be extra important to their moods and their excitement about learning. This game will also reinforce and add a dimension to ideas vital to American history class.

Picture students moving around, excited about history vocabulary, with all learning levels engaged.

Policy Pull-Out was created to specifically support and review for DC's 8.5.2: Explain and identify on a map the territorial expansion during the terms of the first four presidents. The game has been played with 8th grade in American History but I feel could be age-appropriate from 4th through 10th depending on your students and your spin on it. Although a teacher hopes that students always picture history in 3-D, that concept seems especially important in this unit. The students should be able to reflect on what expansionism means, what Manifest Destiny looks like, and what isolationism feels like. Once the students have a deeper understanding of these political concepts, they can begin putting themselves in the position of 1800s decision makers imagining the benefits and foreshadowing the issues that will arise.

The Concept

Policy Pull-Out stemmed from a game that I had played as an after-school coordinator, called “Huggie Bear.” In Huggie Bear, the students mingle around until the teacher calls out a number. Whether the number is seven or two, the students have to gather in a group of that number of students. If students do not find a group that size or cannot find a group fast enough, they are out.

In Policy Pull-Out, we use history-related calls demanding different numbers of people group together or do a specific action. The motions they use in these calls directly relate to understanding the meaning of the words.

The Calls

As mentioned, the students mingle in place until they receive one of the following calls:

  • “Diplomacy” – (ALL) Everyone continues moving around but has to shake hands with everyone.
  • “Isolationism” – (one person) Stand in place alone and cover your eyes.
  • “Negotiate” – (two people) Find a partner and shake hands.
  • “Expansionism” – (three people) Three people need to hold hands (with the ends unbound and spread out as far as they can).

Once the students have those four calls, I then add on three more rules:

  • “Manifest Destiny” – (ALL) Everyone runs out to the borders (basketball court lines) to show we are spreading our territory to the coasts.
  • “Expansionism + number” – (Teacher picks) Same except the number expanding changes.
  • “George Washington” – (Representing his farewell address – three people) One person shakes a finger at the other two who stand back to back.
The Process

First, you need to secure an adequate space. For teachers whose weather permits, I recommend trying this outside. For other teachers, a gym or large classroom would be appropriate. A basketball court is a useful playing field because it allows definite borders.

The students love this game and are always very excited to be doing an activity out of the norm.

Before leaving the classroom, I recommend reviewing the first four calls and having a volunteer demonstrate each one. The students should have already been introduced to the key concepts and vocabulary but this would be a good time to discuss why certain words represent certain motions and allow them to make the connections for themselves. Perhaps they could even add to the game with their own ideas! You can give students the option of a cheat sheet depending on the situation.

After the class has arrived at the chosen location, the games can begin! The students love this game and are always very excited to be doing an activity out of the norm, but it is important to anticipate problems and set up ground rules about student-to-student contact, referee absolutes, and what to do when you are out. In the past, the students have been very invested in playing the game and are afraid to be taken out as long as you define clear borders. I limit the first round to four calls and then add as we go by gathering the group back together.

At the end of the game, debriefing is necessary in order to reinforce the purposefulness of the game: Did anyone feel safe when they were isolated? Did anyone prefer expansionism? How did you like running to the borders for Manifest Destiny? Do you think that our early presidents may have experienced some of these feelings? As the individuals within a class will form different opinions of their favorite motions, there are mixed opinions about the policies that would be best for our country.

Policy Pull-Out will reinforce the connection between human history and geography to help your students remember and understand why our 50 states exist today!

This conversation should be a jumping-off point for more directly connected historical thinking activities. As the following step in scaffolding, I recommend using a collection of primary sources including documents that supported expansion and ones that warned against it. As another logical step, several research assignments could stem from this. For example, the students could compare George Washington to the later presidents that preferred expansionism, or research the motivations of different presidents who did expand (e.g., Thomas Jefferson’s motivations compared to James Monroe’s). Policy Pull-Out should be viewed as an early scaffold to more critical thinking about these concepts.

I hope that you and your students enjoy this game! It has been a highlight of my teaching. When spun correctly, Policy Pull-Out will reinforce the connection between human history and geography to help your students remember and understand why our 50 states exist today!

For more information 

For more suggested activities for secondary-level classrooms, read Schaefer's blog entries on teaching 9/11, the Declaration of Independence, and mental mapping.

One of the most notable developments in early American expansionism was the Louisiana Purchase. Listen to historian Leah Glaser analyze a letter from Thomas Jefferson to Congress, asking for funding for the Corps of Discovery, or search our Website Reviews for materials on the Purchase and the Corps. Digital collections such as the Library of Congress's George Washington Papers, Thomas Jefferson Papers, and James Madison Papers can also provide insight into early presidents' policies and thoughts.

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