High School Students Navigate Through History Using Innovative Tabletop Games

High School Students Navigate Through History Using Innovative Tabletop Games

Transport yourself to the trenches of World War I, whether you're a German or American soldier, but with a twist—it's 2024, and you're in high school. Assets History Teacher Larry Shelvey uses tabletop games he created to help students step into the shoes of those who lived through the wars, providing a unique way to learn and strategize. Mr. Shelvey’s first simulation in one of his US History classes was a refight of the July 1863 Battle of Gettysburg. It was a hit with the students!

Mr. Shelvey considered creating these games when he read an educational journal discussing simulations and how they help in history education. 

“I had also noticed how many students were computer gamers and their buy-in with those, so it was a short leap to joining the two,” Mr. Shelvey explained. “History learning tends to be mostly books and papers. I was looking for something appealing to tactile learners, and this seemed a good way to tap into that. Students also tend to be naturally competitive, and tapping into that nature encourages engagement.”

Every recreated battle is a unique experience. Using various techniques and materials developed over the years, he crafts tabletop boards to precisely replicate historical terrain. The goal? Emulate historical geography for a deeper understanding. Students get to relive decisions made in over 20 simulations, spanning from ancient Greek to modern conflicts. 

“I like that they are interactive, interesting, and a productive break from traditional classwork,” said Nahele ‘25. “The tabletop games, which Mr. Shelvey calls "simulations," help show a physical representation of a specific battle during the war we’re learning about at the time. To win the games, we have objectives that match those of the belligerents, such as defending a line or breaking through defenses. During the games, we get to employ our tactics and see how they play out. Afterward, he will tell us how we did and how our battle compared to the real one.”

“Engaging in these simulations not only provides students with a deeper experience but also fosters an understanding of the motivations behind historical actions. It allows them to appreciate the challenges individuals encountered in various eras, spanning from navigating challenging terrains to overcoming communication barriers. Students gain insights into the significance of being in the right (or wrong) place at a given moment and the influence of simple bad luck on historical events. Through these simulations, a comprehensive perspective on the complexities people face throughout history emerges, offering valuable lessons and a more nuanced appreciation of their struggles and triumphs, “explains Mr. Shelvey.

“I always find it interesting when alumni come back after years and remember the simulations we did in class and can recall details of the actual events versus how their game turned out,” said Mr. Shelvey. “I had one student return during an alumni luncheon and tell me how they went to tour the Saratoga battlefield since he remembered the simulation. He wanted to walk the ground himself.  I often hear from other teachers that students in their homeroom at the end of the day are still discussing the game hours later and mulling over decisions they or other players made, which shows me there was definitely an impact.”



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