Re-enacting the Cuban missile crisis brings home the high stakes in the nuclear stand-off that made humanity hold its breath, says Kate Hurry
If you are looking for a way to get the attention of your GCSE history pupils, then why not steal the science teacher's thunder and opt for a little active experimentation? This approach has the power to enliven a lesson, sky-rocket pupils' interest, triggering debate, analysis and lasting understanding.
My class has to investigate the changing role America played in the wider world between 1929 and 1990. Key Cold War turning points such as the Cuban missile crisis need to be addressed in detail. Pupils need to explore widely how and why this nuclear stand-off led to a reconsideration of the direction of the arms programme and an improvement in relations between the USA and the USSR.
A freeze-frame re-enactment of this historical moment can be simply and effectively recreated as follows:
Take two bottles of water and three volunteers.
Tell each volunteer that they represent either Cuba, America or the Soviet Union and ask them to stand in roughly correct geographic positions, ie, America and the Soviet Union at opposites ends of the room and Cuba next to America.
America and the Soviet Union then receive their unarmed nuclear warheads (capped water bottles).
Now pause and allow the class to discuss how the Cuban crisis emerged.
As the crisis escalates the Soviet Union will move towards Cuba.
Once at Cuba the lids from both bottles can be removed: the missiles are now armed.
What happens next is in the pupils' hands. Will the missiles act as a deterrent or will there be mutually assured destruction?
The thought of soaking the other pupil will flash through the minds of those participating, but then that is the point. And like the people of the time, the rest of the class will be holding their breath in anticipation. While it is agonisingly tempting for pupils to impulsively slosh each other, the consequences begin to dawn almost as quickly as the thought itself.
With the rest of the class being encouraged to explain the crisis there is ample opportunity to recap how the Cold War unfolded to the point where both sides could launch a devastating nuclear strike. The opportunity for pupils to consolidate their understanding of the tensions between capitalism and communism make this an ideal revision activity.
Once the moment where the Cold War threatened to boil over has been re-created it can then be frozen to allow the pupils to fully explore the pros and cons of the options available to the newly elected President Kennedy.
By pushing back the teaching boundaries to create an analogy that involves real risk, the pupils are able to take their understanding and analysis of the Cuban missile crisis to a new level
Kate Hurry teaches history at Oriel High School in Crawley, West Sussex