Thursday, January 24, 2013

What Happens in the Trench Stays in the Trench -- Experiencing Trench Warfare



One of the things that I always try to include when developing lesson plans is an interactive element.  This can be achieved many different ways: students can interact with the teacher, with each other, with the content, or even be physically active as an experiential aspect of the lesson.  Whenever possible, I try to incorporate multiple forms of interactivity.  Including these elements in a lesson helps to better engage students in the material, addresses multiple learning styles, and promotes improved retention of content.  This week I did this as I developed a lesson idea to study World War I.  

My U.S. History class has studied the causes and the beginning of World War I and was ready to begin looking at the actual fighting that took place.  Before developing this lesson idea, I determined the outcomes that I want my students to know about the fighting in World War I; primarily that trench warfare was the chief battle tactic, that new technologies affected the course and conduct of battles, and that conditions greatly contributed to the number of deaths in World War I.  As I pondered various lesson ideas to achieve these objectives, I kept coming back to the fact that students needed to recognize what it was like for soldiers involved in trench warfare.  To help students recognize various aspects of trench warfare while incorporating interactive elements, I determined that students needed to get into the trenches. 

Creating trenches within my classroom allowed for an experiential aspect of my lesson, but students also needed to interact with information related to life in the trenches.  This conclusion led me to develop a lesson idea where students would analyze various documents related to trench warfare while they were in the trenches.

I began the lesson by having students read The Trenches-What They Were Really Like by Paul Fussell on PBS’s The Great War site.  After this initial exposure to trench warfare, I clarified key aspects of this battle tactic for students.  My explanation included a description of the layout of the battlefield and some of the military technologies that played an important role in World War I (most notably poisonous gas and the machine gun).  This inevitably leads students to question the wisdom of such a style of warfare, which we follow up with a discussion of the benefits of a defensive battle strategy.  This creates an opportunity to briefly discuss what it takes to win a war where both sides are playing defense.  It is within this discussion that I introduce the concept of a war of attrition and the significance of the U.S. entry in these terms.

After ensuring that students have a basic understanding of trench warfare, I ask them what they think it would be like to be a soldier in the trenches.  I then explain to students that they will get a chance to experience life in the trenches.  At this point I divide the class into two teams and create trenches out of desks on opposite sides of the room.  Soldiers who entered “no man’s land” or raised up above the top of the trenches risked being shot, so students are advised that they may not engage in this risky behavior.  For our purposes, I explain that the top of the desks represents the top of the trenches and that students must remain below trench level throughout this activity. This can be incentivized by offering candy or some other reward to the side that best meets this expectation.

Getting students onto the floor to simulate the trenches met my requirement for physical activity, but I still wanted students to interact with the content.  To this end, I created three activities that students would complete in each trench.  The first activity requires students to analyze various photographs of trench warfare (there are many pictures available by conducting a simple image search).  Students were to choose the three pictures that they found the most interesting and then write a brief explanation of what they see and what that particular photo can tell us about trench warfare.  The second activity involves analysis of a firsthand account of a gas attack.  Students are instructed to read Gas Attack, 1916 from Eyewitness to History.com.  After skimming through this account, students are to write a 2 paragraph diary entry as if they have just survived a gas attack.  For the third station, I give each student an index card with which they are to create a postcard.  One side of the postcard must include an illustration depicting the trench system (I found several diagrams of the trench system for students to reference by conducting an image search).  The other side of the postcard is to be a message from a soldier explaining life in the trenches to their family back home.

There are also a number of videos on YouTube and other online sources that can be played as students are experiencing trench life.  Many of these videos offer historical footage of trench warfare that can help students to understand the experience of life in the trenches.

Students are allowed 10-15 minutes to complete their assigned activity before they are instructed to rotate to the next station.  I stress to students that they must remain below trench level at all times, even during the rotation. We continue this process until students have been to each of the three stations.


After students have complete the third activity, I instruct them to take out a new piece of paper and write a 1-2 sentence description of trench warfare.  After allowing a couple of minutes for students to complete this explanation, I tell them to ball their paper up and throw it at the opposing trench.  Each student must now collect a ball of paper thrown by one of their classmates and read the description on it to their group.  Groups must determine which description best explains trench warfare and share this description with the class.  As groups share their explanations of trench warfare we can debrief the activity and compare student experiences to a soldier’s life in the trenches during World War I.

This lesson idea allows students to experience life in the trenches by crawling through a space created in class while interacting with primary source documents that demonstrate the realities of trench warfare.  This allows for student interactivity with their classmates and with primary source materials while being physically active in the simulation of life in the trenches.  Students have now gained a better understanding of what soldiers experienced during World War I while practicing the skill of interpreting primary sources.

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