WWI Trenches in the Classroom

By far one of my favorite historical simulations to do is the trench warfare simulation for WWI. Initially, the thought of allowing students to turn the classroom into a war zone made me hesitant to do the simulation, but I finally took a deep breath in 2014 and decided to try it out.*

I began the class period with the following presentation to have some order to the madness.

From my first experiences, I highly recommend that you go over the rules and expectations BEFORE the trench construction begins. With all of the student excitement and noise, it is difficult to get their attention, especially if they begin hiding in the trenches; I would divide up the classroom and allow construction and then it was herding cats to get everyone to refocus for more direction. The main rules I have is that when the lights are on nothing is thrown, but when the lights go off and the war begins then its fair game. As I said, explain everything THEN allow construction to begin.

Even though the students will be willing to literally dig trenches, I always have to explain that the desks will have to suffice. I also reserve some chairs to represent the barbed wire and blockades in No Man's Land, but they can use some as well. Beyond that, I allow students full creativity when constructing their trenches. Every period does something different. For example, some have the flat part of the dais face the enemies while other have the legs face the enemy. This year one class tried breaking up the trenches with a gab while another used the corners of the classroom for more protection.

Trench Warfare in 2015 at Woodlake High School

Trench Warfare in 2016 at Minarets High School

Depending on the period and amount of time, I do two to three rounds and integrate the poisonous gas in the second round; the poisonous gas isn't very effective since students aren't honest but it allows them to see how new technology didn't make the war more effective. At the end of each round, students rebuild and gather ammo while I count the casualties; students are allowed a dramatic death, must stay dead for the rest of the round, and die no matter where they are hit since they would have died of infection.

More often than not, each round ends with a tie or a close tie. At the end, I explain how this resulted in a stalemate that lasted for four years. After students have cleaned up, they reflected on their experience. One year they completed haikus while this year they completed a blog post. 

Without fail, this simulation is a favorite for everyone involved. Students get a hands-on experience and practice their critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity while I get to see a whole new side to my students. 

If you are considering doing this simulation, all I can say is just do it! It will be chaotic and crazy but it will be one of the most memorable experiences that you will have with your students and you will improve it each time you do it. 

Have you done this simulation? Comment and share what you have done differently or how you've made it yours! 

*Note: I always inform my admin and neighbors that I'm doing this activity. Many like to come and observe and if they hear screaming they'll know what's going on. 


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