The hallway was crowded before period 4B. Lunch was finishing and students were filtering back to their lockers to grab their things for the last two periods. Laughter, yelling, and the banging of metallic doors filled the hallway. Then silence, except for the voices of Erika and Janice. As the yelling escalated so did the size of the crowd around the two girls. The foes then reached for each other as the students stood in a circle around them. The bystanders were stunned that this long-standing rivalry had finally come to blows. What happened that made Erika throw the first punch? Why would Janice attempt to rip out Erika’s hair extensions?
This didn’t really happen; it only happened in the minds of my students. In a recent history lesson, I asked them to come up with the following scenario: A fight occurs in the hallway in front of a set of lockers between two students. What were the long-term and short-term causes of the fight?
I had boy fights and girl fights. I had fists flying and hair pulling. The kids were completely engaged in the writing of their scenario. (Some kids might have created an all too true scenario.)
After they created their list of causes, I polled each group for long-term causes. Each group had their own unique scenario, but the causes could be summed up in following list.
- Boyfriend/Girlfriend stolen from the other
- Jealousy over wealth, grades, accomplishments, other person’s friends or relationships
- Long time dislike of one another
- Repeated one-uping of the other’s accomplishments.
- Each one likes a rival sports team
- Constant aggressive behavior toward the other
- Constant bragging about accomplishments
- Destroying the reputation of the other
- Constant struggle to be taken seriously and not be ignored.
Their short-term causes were much more similar:
- One of the parties was pushed to far and they couldn’t take it anymore
- An Accident
So you are thinking, what has this got to do with History?
Come on…don’t you see it? What were the long-term causes of World War I?
- Germany & France had a long time rivalry and dislike for each other.
- Germany was jealous of Great Britain’s power and colonial holdings.
- All the countries had taken sides before a conflict had even started, each promising the other “I’ve got your back.”
- Germany hoped to take advantage of the faltering reputation of Russia.
- Austria-Hungary and Russia were both seeking to control the Balkans.
- Germany attempted to build up their navy and empire to get some respect from the world and England.
And what were the short-term causes of World War I?
- An assassination
- Austria-Hungary couldn’t wait any longer to start a war with Russia.
This assassination in a way could be called an accident. After all, this event probably wouldn’t have caused a war years earlier. The Austria-Hungarian leadership took this “accident” as an act of war. It was the “last straw” that then pulled the rest of Europe along with them into the current of conflict.
I opened the floor to my students. “So what do you all think? What does this have to do with history? ” Those students who already had back ground on World War I could begin to make the connections. Another of my students felt that this was also true of World War II. He asked, “Wasn’t Hitler also overly aggressive because he wanted his country and the world to take him as a serious threat?” Why yes! I followed up the discussion with a reading assignment that outlined the main concerns and ambitions for the Central Powers and Triple Entente. And then they made a t-chart to link “the fight” discussion to their reading.
Some historians may not agree with this kind of lesson. They don’t like it when teachers simplify complicated events into a relatable occurrence. But I have found that if I can get the students emotionally involved in a topic, they are more likely to be interested in the complexities of the event as we study it more in-depth. They will see that this is much more than a school yard fight, even though at first it looks like simple rivalry.
How do you engage your students in dry and complicated topics?