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An independent day school educating students PreK-Grade 12

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Grade 8 Reenacts Pre-WWI Negotiations

One way to understand the events that led to World War I is to reenact them, which is exactly what Ken Lewis’ Grade 8 history class did recently. In an engaging and lively simulation, the exercise introduced students to the national alliances that developed before the start of The Great War. Using role-play, students gained a deeper understanding of the alliances and the discussions, negotiations, and occasional agreements between country representatives. 

Students examining map

The lesson began with a discussion about why countries go to war, whether war is justified, and the events leading to WWI. 

Each student was assigned one of the eight major European powers relevant to the start of the war, including Great Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Russia, and Serbia. Students served as representatives advocating for their assigned nation. 

While carefully studying a map of pre-1914 Europe to strategize what countries to target for support, students engaged in conversations with the representatives of other countries. Every five minutes, Lewis would pass each representative a note featuring classified information, thus throwing unexpected elements into the negotiations. 

Student huddle

Notes relayed information that either clarified or confused the relationships between negotiating countries; per the rules, representatives had to accept the notes as the truth and act on them before receiving yet another note. Negotiations included misinformation, distortions, and fierce competition for attention as students lobbied in their country’s interests. 

After the simulation, the class reviewed the outcome, identified successful alliances, and reflected on the experience.

Caroline Curry ‘27, proved to be a skilled strategist.

“I was most proud of the countries I allied with,” she said. “I chose every country strategically, and I chose countries that liked each other so there would be less drama in the case of a war.” 

According to Lewis, the lesson was successful in helping students understand the complexities of negotiation and how tenuous relationships can be between countries. But there was a silver lining, too.

“I watched normally shy students come out of their shells as diplomatic representatives of countries and fight for beneficial and strategic agreements on the eve of war,” he said. “They learned that diplomacy is all about communication, information, and trust. The best learning opportunities can certainly be fun as well!"