day before, my students took part in a Christmas Truce a la 1914 Western Front. Basically, British and German soldiers on the Western Front had a cease-fire, sang songs, and exchanged whatever gifts they could scrape together (cigarettes, etc.). Instead of tobacco, I gave students the cookies I bake every year to give to their enemies, which allowed me to tie them into the curriculum as the young, courageous soldiers exchanged gifts on the battlefield in No Man's Land, where just the day before they'd attacked one another furiously.
While a few people have told me, "I wish I had done that in school," after hearing about our near-mortal combat, it's important that the action isn't simply "playing war", but that it ties in neatly with the curriculum and is followed up with the practice of a skill. If not, the simulation for many of them is just seen as an easy day of goofing around in history class. In this case, the students practiced letter writing and we reinforced a paragraph structure that has been taught cross-curricularly by our entire team. To do this the students had to write a letter home to their parents from the perspective of a WWI soldier.
We also debriefed the simulation and had a short discussion about how it reflected combat during the time period: why the combat was so defensive, how the development of certain weaponry and tactics went hand-in-hand with the war (tanks for example), and also how each roll of the dice reflected something the soldiers actually had to deal with. By the end of the debrief, it was clear the students saw the difference between playing Call of Duty and the conditions soldiers face in combat- something past students in my class never seemed to grasp. As it turns out, soldiers on our front lines have never just sat in beanbag chairs drinking soda and eating refined sugar while in the thick of it.
The Christmas Truce angle helped take the simulation into another class period, which helped nail the point home. Because the attendance is so poor in our high school and in many across the city and because standardized testing leaves everyone with the impression that history is simply a series of events, dates and names we should all know, history teachers tend to encapsulate each lesson into a small package that can theoretically be handed to students at any time in one single class period. The result is that students don't understand major driving factors in history, such as economics, government regulation, the fight for personal liberties, etc. It's assumed that if we build these themes over time, students with poor attendance will be more and more lost and therefore will do more poorly on the exam, which in turn would increasingly affect the teacher's job performance ratings. I don't think that the former approach is very wise, personally, but I also don't have to deal with a standardized test at the end of the year that might determine whether I keep my job or not.
Finally, we connected the simulation to the collaborative work we've done with four other schools this year, thus attaching it to a major theme being studied and developed as the year progresses. Once a month our students discuss what justifies war live on a discussion platform with students from one or more of the other schools. The frequency gives teachers time during other weeks to tie it back into their own, more specific curriculum (everything from the back half of U.S. history to global history to a current events course), providing additional framework for the students to fall back on and with which they can tie history together more easily on their own- not in a sack of bundles brought around by Santa Claus.
Of course, if the kids don't come to school, they have not developed any opinion about what justifies going to war within the scope of U.S. history, nor have they received any cookies from me or their enemies.