I always loved teaching this project. Or, more to the point, I loved watching students squirm and struggle to solve almost an impossible problem. Conventional thinking is not going to get it done in this project; one has to come up with something drastically different, unconventional.
I would start the project by showing the famous/infamous “Kobayashi Maru” scenario from the Star Trek series: an unwinnable military simulation where the point is not to “win,” but to make the best decision possible under the circumstances as you “lose.”
I then broke students into teams and asked them to put themselves in the place of legislators from the North after the Civil War crafting a Reconstruction policy that would reunite North and South, and do justice by the “freedmen” and protect their civil rights (ie. the right to vote, in particular). I would then have each team present their policy to me, and I would ask them the hard questions that did not let them avoid difficulty realities about race and reality in post-Civil War America. By the end, it became this simple: “Can black people vote?” The struggle to square the circle.
I want students to look beyond conventional answers to different ways of looking at the problem – going to the heart of the issue, taking truly drastic and unexpected steps. In this project students surely learn the history, but more importantly they can see how difficult are the challenges politicians face and yet how the sky is the limit in terms of how one could use power as a life-giving force to improve the world.
I love watching students squirm and sweat and think. But I was rarely impressed with their final results. They did not really come up with any better ideas than did the real life legislators in the 1860s and 1870s in the United States Congress.
This kind of “deep learning” was so gratifying for me as a teacher. The learning is also exactly the kind that stays with students over time.
In 2011 we did this “Philosopher King” project online with a class in Atlanta, Georgia. Not only were students excited to meet, work, and share ideas with students from a different part of the country, but young adults from the South were able to give unique perspectives about race, the Civil War, the Confederacy, and the Confederate flag to students from California who do not share that perspective. I was very happy how this online project went off almost flawlessly, and whipped students into a fine frenzy to engage deeply a complicated era of history and learn complicated truths. And students learned all this mostly from each other and their research, not from instructors or from direct instruction.
Check out students struggling to untie the Gordian knot, so to speak, at these locations: