Connecting Ancient World History to Today's Political Landscape

A few weeks ago our 6th-grade social studies teacher, Ms. Wynne, came to me because she wanted to chat about creating an activity that would allow her students to explore the history of walls. In world history, she and her students were beginning to explore ancient China. I was excited to help her meet her goal. She was asking herself, how can I make ancient China relevant to students in 2019? This was a great question and a struggle for anyone who has ever taught ancient civilizations. Those who are great at it find historical examples from ancient history and find ways to relate the stories from those times to their students’ lives. One of the greatest feats of engineering was developed by the Chinese, and of course, her students are quite interested in the Great Wall.

In light of the political debate raging on in our country about invasions at our southern border as well as illegal immigration, what a perfect topic to allow our students to explore on their own. The central question that American citizens, taxpayers, and politicians should be asking is, “if we invest in such a wall as what President Trump is suggesting, will it work?” The President has said on many different occasions that “walls work.” Is what he is portraying to the American people accurate? In the history of the world, how good are walls success rates in keeping out invaders? While the conversation could easily become politically charged, what does the historical evidence suggest? This is what she would like her students to explore. Moreover, Ms. Wynne has been looking all year to expand her toolkit as to how to engage her students in different discussion strategies. This has been her professional goal, and she has explored a few different options. The one we landed on for this exploration was a snowball discussion. Here is what it will look like.  

Students will be presented with the following prompt and be asked to answer in a short journal:

Part 1:
President Trump and his administration has continually express the point of view that the United States needs to build a wall at our southern border to combat illegal immigration and to protect against an invasion. His stance is that “walls work.” Is he correct?

Part 2:
Let’s look at historical evidence.

Walls to Choose From
  1. Great Wall of China
  2. Walls of Ston
  3. Hadrian’s Wall
  4. Berlin Wall
  5. Wall Around Troy - Trojan War
  6. Ancient Walls of Mesopotamia
  7. Hitler’s Atlantic Wall
  8. West Bank Wall
  9. Long Walls of Athens

Part 3: Driving Questions:
  • In your case study, do walls work?
  • Who built it?
  • For what purpose was it built?
  • When was it built?
  • What was the wall built where it was?
  • Was there a strategic purpose for the wall?
  • Was the wall successful in achieving that purpose?
  • Was the wall ever breached? If so, how?
  • What is the wall’s current status/condition?
  • Are there any misconceptions about the purpose of such a wall?
  • How might this wall compare to Trump’s proposed border wall?
  • The Trump administration’s stance is that throughout history, walls have worked to keep out hostile invaders. Is the administration’s claim true? If so, what evidence do you have to support such a claim? If not, what evidence do you have that could contradict the administration’s claim?
  • Additional Student Questions:

Part 4: Snowball Discussions – The Process

The process:
  1. Research your wall with a partner answering the above driving questions.
  2. Join another pair and interview each other about the driving questions. Compare and contrast. What is different? What is similar? Does this help answer the main question regarding Trump’s request for the border wall? Come to a consensus as a now larger group
  3. The group of four joins another group of four. In their group of eight, using evidence that is collected the group must discuss and come to a conclusion if walls really work. Knowing what you know, debate and discuss the following question. Should we build a wall at our southern border? Is it worth the expense? Will it achieve results? Designate someone in the group to be able to Google facts as researchable questions arise.
  4. Share out the large group findings to the class. Group A explains to Group B what they have found and the discussions they had. Did they come to a consensus about the construction of an American wall? Group B will have a chance to ask questions of the group following the report out.

a.k.a. Pyramid Discussion
         Basic Structure: Students begin in pairs, responding to a discussion question only with a single partner. After each person has had a chance to share their ideas, the pair joins another pair, creating a group of four. Pairs share their ideas with the pair they just joined. Next, groups of four join together to form groups of eight, and so on, until the whole class is joined up in one large discussion.

This discussion was put on hold due to the school’s Wax Museum Projects as well as state testing. They will be resuming these discussions later in the week. I’m excited to see how these discussions will play out and the conclusions our students come up with in finding out the successes and failures in the history of walls. Thanks, Ms. Wynne for including me in your thought process.