By Danielle Simoneau
Teaching about Ukraine has been trying at times. It’s difficult to watch what is happening to the Ukrainian people as they experience the horrors of war in their homeland. It’s especially hard for middle school students because they may not have the tools to process how world events impact them personally. For many, this is the first school year they have consistently followed world events. It has been an eye-opening experience for a large swath of my students. Several of my students have direct familial connections to Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, which has been particularly challenging. Some have families unable to flee Ukraine. I check in with them to see how their relatives are faring and how they are doing too. I can’t imagine how hard it must be on them to worry about family so far away in such a dangerous atmosphere while also trying to learn.
As a civics teacher, I think it’s important to watch the news and discuss the major stories regularly with my eighth-graders, to increase their knowledge about what is happening in the world, how it may impact the United States, and how our government reacts to those events. I call it “watching civics in real time,” and following the crisis in Ukraine has been no different. We start each class period with a 10-minute news segment and have been following the build-up to Russia’s invasion, and though my students have asked some thoughtful questions and expressed their sadness for the Ukrainian people, I felt that my coverage of this event in class was missing something in terms of students connecting the dots between the United States’ role and how it is dictated by our Constitution. That’s why I chose to incorporate iCivics and the Council on Foreign Relations’ new game ”Convene the Council.” The game elicited many “lightbulb moments” among my students as they got to experience the work of the National Security Council (NSC) and its purpose within the executive branch.
We were on February break when the invasion began; when we returned the following Monday, many of my students were eager to talk to me about what was happening. We spent our first day back exploring video clips and images of what was happening in Ukraine through a Pear Deck presentation. Throughout the week, we continued to follow events through our daily news segment. At the end of the week, I introduced my classes to “Convene the Council,” walking them through the iCivics pre-game Slide Deck from the game’s Extension Pack. I focused on key terms like “delegate,” “domestic policy,” and “foreign policy”; what the National Security Council was and how it operated; and the various foreign policy tools that would be available to students in the game. One of the best features of iCivics games is the abundance of ancillary materials available to help students connect gameplay with key civics concepts because making these connections can be difficult for middle school students. These materials saved me hours of preparatory time, were easily adaptable to my needs, and were beneficial to a variety of my students’ learning styles. Next, it was time to play! Students spent the remainder of our class period making their way through the eight-round game, after answering the pre-game quiz questions (another cool new feature of iCivics games). Students finished the game in about 20 minutes on average.
In the next class, I used a combination of post-game discussion questions from the game guide and post-game activities provided by iCivics to help students process their learning from the day. I loved being able to customize this portion of the lesson to suit the needs of my students. As we discussed their reactions to the game and what they learned about the function of the NSC, students also shared how at first they were frustrated that there was no “right” or “wrong” answer for each round. Here are some of their reactions:
We talked about how decisions (like having to intervene with a trading partner that was accused of human rights violations) seemed easy at first because it’s important to help prevent oppression; but knowing it could then negatively affect the U.S. economy made students take pause. Some students said this led to some frustration early on in the game; but as they got the hang of managing their stats and delegating to the correct federal department, the game moved quickly.” Convene the Council” aided students in understanding the complexity of making policy decisions. These discussion prompts allowed me to circle back to the crisis in Ukraine and the Biden administration’s reaction.
Playing games like “Convene the Council” supports students in learning about how the presidential Cabinet and the NSC aid the U.S. president in making the best possible decisions for the country. It’s a wonderful addition to the iCivics game library and has helped my students make connections between what we have been seeing and discussing in the news about the crisis in Ukraine and how the Constitution provides a framework for how the federal government can react to global crises.
For-Credit, Professional Development
Learn how to use ‘Convene the Council’ in this for-credit, on-demand webinar, Global Civics Gaming: Why Foreign Policy Matters, hosted by iCivics and World 101.
Author: Danielle Simoneau
Danielle Simoneau is an eighth-grade civics teacher at the Robert Adams Middle School in Holliston, Mass., and a member of iCivics’ Educator Network. She has been teaching for 18 years and has taught a variety of social studies subjects such as early world history, ancient history, U.S. history through Reconstruction, and Advanced Placement psychology in grades 7-12. Simoneau is passionate about teaching civics, particularly voting and voting access; becoming responsible consumers and producers of news; and teaching her students that it’s never too early to learn about their rights and responsibilities as citizens and residents of the United States.
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