The setting for this unit is an honors level class in United States History II (The Reconstruction Era to the present). The students are primarily eleventh graders, many who will hopefully take Advanced Placement United States History in their senior year. This is a half-year course that meets every day in a ninety-minute block. The block scheduling allows significant time each day to conduct in-depth simulations and discussion of important issues and events in the history of American foreign and diplomatic policy.
It is my experience that students do have significant interest in and strong opinions on controversial issues in American History. Nevertheless, many students complain that such issues are too often presented as a boring series of historical facts and events. Even recent seminal events such as the Vietnam War are sometimes dismissed as “ancient history” by students who were born more than a decade after America’s withdrawal from the conflict.
For the most part, textbooks have served as the primary means for studying history and world affairs at the high school level. Students read historical texts, documents, or analytical writings devoted to historical or current events. Next, they may engage in a teacher led discussion of that material, followed by a written assignment. On occasion, some type of audio-visual device, such as a film, may complement the learning experience. While this process works well for many students, particularly for those who are more academically inclined, it can also seem overly teacher-centered and dismissive of diverse learning styles.
In my experience, students want to engage in learning activities that allow them to feel that they are active participants. The teacher must therefore devise strategies that bring historical events to life in ways that students can physically and emotionally experience them. Experiential exercises such as case studies and simulations are proven strategies for engaging students because they invite active inquiry and decision-making.1
The proposed unit will use a case-study simulation approach to examine three controversial issues in which American foreign policy makers had to make important decisions regarding questions of war and peace: the decision whether to use atomic weapons to end the Second World War against Japan; the decision whether to commit American forces in Vietnam; the decision whether to deploy American troops to support humanitarian relief efforts in the African nation of Somalia.
This unit could stand alone in an American History course organized thematically. Alternatively, in a chronologically organized course, the individual case studies and their accompanying lessons could be used to supplement the study of the corresponding postwar time periods.