Put students in the driver seat of history with this super engaging activity for history class. The best thing about this engaging history lesson is that it can be applied to nearly all units and topics at all ages. We know that history was made by people making pivotal decisions and actions that changed the course of history. So, lets make history class exciting by having students take on the roll of historical figures (real or fictional) and make important decisions from real events.
I think all of us history teachers sometimes ask students, “What would you do in X situation?” to have students wrestle with some key decision. Maybe they write about it or you discuss as a class. And while this can be a worthwhile little activity, it is generally a little shallow because any major decisions actually have to carry the stress that individuals in history would have faced or felt during such decisions.
But turning that into a full lesson really can make history come alive. When students take on the roles of people in history- presidents, activists or reformers, kings or queens, or just ordinary folks faced with a dilemma, and really weigh out the consequences and think all the way through a decision and come up with an action plan to ‘solve’ or handle some crisis really makes history come alive.
The best thing about these ‘decision making’ activities is that the critical thinking comes pretty naturally to students. Sometime critical thinking activities for history class can be kind of forced on students, but these activities get kids to really feel the historical context more and therefore, they more easily can do the heavy lifting of critical thinking without much prodding from the teacher. If you set up the context well (ensuring they understand whats happening, adding the stress that the historical figures faced at the time) students will be able to weigh pros and cons, think through unintended consequences, before coming to a decision and then can develop an action plan to move forward.
This is not only a really fun history activity but it check off so many of the boxes for engagement and rigorous instruction that we seek to provide- students have to think critically, communicate cooperatively, and develop problem solving skills, all the while they are thinking deeply about history. They have really changed the game in my classroom and made learning come so much more alive!
Some examples of when you can use "history decisions"
- You’re a caravan on the Silk Road- should you travel across a more dangerous route that leads to a richer market or take the safer route?
- You’re members of SNCC during the Civil Rights Movement - You want to get African Americans registered to vote in the deep south. How do you do this knowing the dangers that you face?
- President Washington: With his advisors, Washington has to develop a plan to solve the Whiskey Rebellion
- President Theodore Roosevelt: With advisors develop a plan to resolve the coal strike as winter is setting in
- You’re a Member of the National Assembly in Revolutionary France and there seems to be threats that the King’s supporters are working to restore a monarchy and return to the old regime. How do you ensure the liberties you have won are not lost forever?
- You are Mahatma Gandhi- how do you gain the independence of your nation from the British empire without using violence?
- You are John Smith and the Jamestown colony is on the verge of collapse due to poor management, terrible planning, and diseases. How will you turn this colony around and get the settlement stable and prosperous?
If you get creative, you can apply this to nearly any unit to get history class exciting and engaging! Just make sure you set students up for success with some kind of template that supports their critical thinking and problem solving. It won’t happen on its own but with the right resources, you’ll see students engaging with history with ease and thinking deeply because this really brings history to life.
And trust me, students will be more interested in the outcome or what really happened anytime they do these activities. It gets students actually invested in the past, invested in the figures of history and the weight of the moment! So, at the end of any 'presidential decision' activity I always review what really happened and students fill out a sheet recording the outcome, the effects, and also reflecting on if they agree with the president's decision or understand why the president came to that decision- even if they disagree.