Covenant Usurp Simulation: constructing a glimpse of forced assimilation for our students

An excerpt from a student’s reflection.

When we start teaching Native American studies, students often refer to Native Americans only in past tense or as peoples who “used to live here.” We correct this misconception and learn about American Indians TODAY, but we also ask our students where they got this idea from and why this so often is the dominant narrative about indigenous Americans.

This exploration requires some understanding of history (which remains limited by the literal mindedness of 5th graders) and the reality of extermination, eradication, and (forced) assimilation that native peoples experienced. Before we start learning about boarding schools in detail, we want our students to have an experience they can use as a parallel to forced assimilation.

Another student’s reflection homework.

An important disclaimer is that this simulation (or any simulation) is NOT the same or even close to the actual experience, which we would never ever want to simulate. Ours is temporary; historical experiences were real and permanent. It’s important to acknowledge that we are only getting a tiny glimpse. We tell our students this constantly and have them reflect upon it as one of their homework questions. But there can never be too many reminders.

This simulation requires some sixth graders to come in and act out the role of the villains. This year, so many of our former students were interested in being a part of the simulation that we had to hold auditions! They were hilarious to watch and we ended confident that we had chosen strong actors and actresses who wouldn’t crack a smile or break character.

We gave our 5th graders some work to do and had them reading quietly when the 6th graders stormed in at the agreed upon time. The 6th graders (4 in total) announced that they heard our students were having trouble paying attention, using computers responsibly, and kept fighting over who gets to sit where. They told the 5th graders that this was no way to get ready for 6th grade and since their covenant (our class agreement or rules) was clearly not working, they needed to revamp it.

At this point, we joined in and told the 5th graders that we were going to let the 6th graders take the lead and help them re-think their covenant. The 6th graders took some suggestions. All of the 5th graders’ suggestions were shut down. Next, the 6th graders took down our covenant (which we spend over a month working on at the beginning of the year) and put up a 6th grade covenant which declared:

  • Respect ourselves, each other, and the environment
  • Assigned seats (no couch)
  • All voices heard. You are only allowed to participate once per lesson.
  • Take notes on everything the teachers say, follow along
  • Use computers only to write essays
  • The whole class has to do something right or we start over (we are a team).
  • Don’t say the words ‘like, well, um’
  • Don’t use kudos, high fives
  • No games or breaks

Our students were upset. No kudos? No high fives? No computers (except for essays) caused a lot of grumpy faces, and even a few tears. One change would be unsettling, but this was turning everything upside down!

We ignored their complaints and told them we had to keep going and the new rules went into action immediately. We wheeled our computer cart out and away, relocated students to their assigned seats, and passed out a new assignment.

When students asked to get a drink or go to the bathroom, they were told “NO! We have new rules now!” After they finished their assignments, we moved into a discussion. Our more verbal students were very frustrated by the rule that “everyone has to speak” as they had already used up their allotted speaking time and had to wait for everyone else to share first.

The simulation lasted less than two hours, but the students were extremely frustrated and angry at the sixth graders. They also engaged in acts of disobedience like trying to give each other kudos and slyly give high fives. They tried to appeal to other teachers or administrators on behalf of their computer time.

Their homework that night was a reflection about the experience of having their covenant usurped. Many students had to be reminded that as much as they may have felt frustrated, their experience lasted less than two hours and was not permanent. They also only had their class culture critiqued and curtailed, instead of their entire way of life. Upon reflection, they were able to reflect upon this distinction.

Here are some of their thoughts:

  • “I used to think that turning around and joining another community would not be hard, but now I am thinking it actually is really hard.”
  • “We can’t say things like ‘well,’ ‘um,’ and ‘like,’ which is like how the Natives had to speak English. And we had to sit in an assigned spot, like how the US made a reservation for the Natives to live on.”
  • “I used to think that most of the discrimination is gone but now I think that we still have a long way to go before everything is fair.”
  • “Today made me feel like our ‘tribal sovereignty’ had been taken away because the sixth graders came in and took away our covenant. Without asking! Then, the sixth graders replaced it with their covenant, forcing us to assimilate to their ways.”

Originally published at