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Students transported through a ‘time warp’ delve into the Native American past to seek solutions for the future

The fifth-grade students in Ms. Evans’ class were captivated as a brilliant light illuminated the classroom smartboard, accompanied by the phrase, “Let’s do the Time Warp!”

Ms. Evans, an educator at a sizable suburban school in central Ohio, informed her students that they were embarking on a journey to a 19th-century Native American community. Excitement filled the room as Ms. Evans began narrating the story of Seminole leader Osceola.

In the tale, Osceola expressed, “The white man wants our groves of orange trees, our fine harbors, our full forests, and warm fertile lands. But they are ours. Here are our fish and birds and animals, the graves of our fathers, the grounds of our children.”

Instantly, a picturesque village materialized on their Chromebooks. The students were welcomed by the Seminole and immersed in a series of interactive slides. They delved into the Seminole’s culinary preferences, attire, and daily routines, extending an invitation to live alongside them during their visit. However, on this initial day of the history unit, the students were unaware that Osceola would soon confront captivity by U.S. troops, deceived into a truce meeting.

This experience exemplifies the kind of social studies lessons our research group, Digital Civic Learning, has been developing since 2020. Our goal is to enable students to use immersive storytelling, fostering a better understanding of diverse perspectives on complex historical and current social issues. We’ve collaborated with elementary school teachers from various districts in Ohio.

Contrary to curricula focusing on rote memorization, our approach prioritizes student dialogue to infuse excitement into history learning. This need is underscored by national data revealing a decline in American teenagers’ knowledge of U.S. history over the past decade.

Many existing history curricula are rooted in settler colonialism, often downplaying underrepresented populations’ perspectives. Our strategy integrates technology, immersive learning, such as a close examination of Seminole daily life, and collaborative small-group discussions into daily social studies instruction.

The interactive experiences with the Seminole are crafted using Google Slides, featuring illustrations, narrations, readable texts, and interactive activities developed by our team. Beyond history, we’ve designed units covering geography, government, and economics, tailored for upper elementary school students and delivered over two weeks.

Students actively engage in small-group discussions on the third and ninth day of each unit. In the Seminole example, students reflect on the Treaty of Payne’s Landing, signed in 1832, requiring the Seminole to exchange their Florida land for new land in the West. They explore the dilemma Osceola faced – accepting the treaty for peace or refusing to agree to preserve their land.

Our teaching approach emphasizes connections with current events, like the Dakota Access Pipeline. Students discuss the economic benefits versus environmental concerns, drawing parallels with situations such as the proposed pipeline construction in Minnesota through Native American land.

Analysis of student discussions and essays throughout the unit indicates that immersive learning and interactive practices encourage collaborative work and a greater consideration of multiple perspectives in civic debates. Surveys also reveal increased emotional engagement with history, as students forge emotional connections with story characters and gain a deeper understanding of how historical events impact lives.

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