Spotlight on Modern European History: Understanding the Past, Understanding the Present

What do Shipley’s COVID-19 protocols have to do with John Locke’s late-17th century essay Two Treatises on Government? Enough for students to engage in scholarly work linking the two in Shipley’s Modern European History Class. In addition to teaching students the skills they need to study history, “Creating space for students to process the complexities of this time,” commented Mr. Addis, “is an important role for me in the classroom this year.”

First, Mr. Addis asked students to play a game at home with a sibling or parent. (“Some played small-sided soccer and P-I-G or H-O-R-S-E while others played UNO, Connect Four, War, or Jenga,” explained Mr. Addis.) In the first version, both players could make any rule at any time. In the second version, only one player could make any rule at any time. In the third version, both players agreed upon the rules prior to playing.

Students were asked to write down observations at the end of each version and use them in class the next day for an informal, practice Harkness discussion. Mr. Addis stressed the importance of listening to peers and including others. “My goal was for the class to facilitate the discussion,” he said. “I was really impressed by how the kids shared the conversation, locating similarities between their versions of the game. I only stepped in to help with transitions and to remind in-person students to create more time and space for remote learners’ voices.”

The class found that no matter which game was being played, Version 1 was “chaotic” and “confusing.” Students were “frustrated,” and no strategy was involved because the games broke down. In Version 2, some players became “selfish” and power hungry. Students talked about how this version was “unfair.” Lastly, students discussed how “smooth” and “normal” Version 3 was, finally involving strategy.

After consolidating the observations as a class, Mr. Addis introduced an excerpt from John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government. “The language and ideas are complex,” explained Mr. Addis. “Students and I have found it helpful to play these games prior to working through the document.” For homework, students finished reading the primary source document, answering questions about Locke’s views on government and social contract using quotes from the essay.

Finally, after a class discussion on their interpretations of Locke’s views, Mr. Addis set up a discussion board linking the games and Locke’s essay to this time of COVID-19. “Does this time of COVID-19 best fit your experiences with Game 1, Game 2, or Game 3? By agreeing to adhere to health precautions, what do you expect (hope for) of those in power? Of your fellow humans? What is the best way to get people to submit to health authorities in this time? What is the cost of this submission?”

Here's what students had to say:

The ability for students to connect disparate moments in history is a major goal of Shipley’s Modern European history class, where students examine significant events that shaped Modern European History (from the French Revolution in 1798 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991). Rather than study the events chronologically, they are paired together to facilitate synthesis, and to help students develop historical thinking, reading, and writing skills. Mr. Addis believes that students can use these skills to help them think critically about and better understand the complexities of our time, making possible a global perspective that incorporates historical points of view.


The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.