I don’t ordinarily distribute candy to students as an incentive, but when I am introducing Animal Farm to 9th graders, I need to acquaint them with the concepts of communism and capitalism.
To do this, I engage them in a simulation activity I learned from an amazing social studies teacher. In this simulation, Hershey’s kisses equal money. But I don’t tell the students that until later. I just come in one day and start inexplicably throwing chocolate around.
If the principal came into my room for a 10-minute walk-though just as I was throwing the Hershey’s kisses up into the air and saying “Go for it,” he might well wonder what I was up to. In light of the scramble that ensues—kids bolting from their chairs, dropping to the floor, reaching, stretching, even covering the chocolate pieces with their bodies—I could just hope that he knows me well enough to believe there’s method in my madness.
Capitalism, I could tell him, and maybe he’d see that kids diving under tables and greedily scooping up kisses by the armful resembles the drive to amass a fortune. Maybe he’d see the girl with the big heart slip a few pieces of chocolate to someone who has none and recognize the philanthropic impulse. Maybe he’d see the kids who are seated at the back of the room or trapped behind furniture and realize they represent the disadvantaged in our society. “Not fair!” he’d hear a few kids cry—and see them sit there, mad.
If he came in later, when I was redistributing the chocolate evenly, would he see the gratitude of those who had nothing, suddenly having something? Or would he see the complaisance of those who hadn’t been willing to scramble, smiling smugly when they got some chocolate anyway? Would he see the frustration of the ones who put had effort into the game, no longer having so much? “Not fair!” he’d hear them cry. Or would he think I was just offering up candy that day and making sure—in good teacher fashion—that it was shared equally, that everyone got the same amount?
He might come in later when a discussion about these two economic systems was underway. Would he wonder why the kids weren’t naming the systems? I wouldn’t stop to explain that I hadn’t yet labeled them: If I had, the students’ discussion would be informed by what they already knew or had heard somewhere. In this simulation, the scrambling represents the American system, capitalism: The students might not be able—or willing—to point out its flaws. The other system is one they’ve already, by age 14, come to regard negatively. They might not be able—or willing—to discuss communism without bias.
But this way, with chocolate as the symbol and no names named, the students conclude that neither system is perfect.
And then I name them, the systems (and reveal the learning objective for the day, hidden from the kids until now so as not to spoil the discovery aspect of this lesson): Students will understand and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of two economic systems—capitalism and communism.
Looking at the activity as a vocabulary exercise, what better way to make meanings permanent than with a physical activity? For learning words, the research tells us that kinesthetic connections create the strongest memory bonds of all.
Or, if I think about it as a strategy for stimulating higher level thinking, the discussion is really a comparison/contrast exercise—We know that one of the best ways to understand one thing is to juxtapose it with another and examine the points of similarity and difference. So it’s analytical.
And as a stategy to build familiarity prior to reading a text, which is what an English teacher also needs to do, the simulation works perfectly. Suddenly the excesses of Mr. Jones of Manor Farm are made real, and the intent of the rebellious animals—to share equally in the work and the profits of the farm—are understandable.
But of course, what begins idealistically in Orwell’s classic deteriorates rapidly. The introduction of Napoleon and Snowball turns Animal Farm into another thing altogether.
“Not fair!’ the students cry when the milk and apples are reserved for the pigs. “Not fair!” when the pigs begin sleeping in beds. “Not fair!” when confessions are forced and animals executed. More than “Not fair!” when Boxer is sent to the knacker’s. Kids sometimes cry tears, not just foul, when they realize, with the betrayal of Boxer, the depth of Napoleon’s deceit. At the end of the book, when the pigs are walking on their hind legs and carrying whips in their hooves, when the other animals see Napoleon and Pilkington playing poker and raising toasts to each other, the pigs and the men around the poker table indistinguishable from each other, the destruction of Animal Farm is complete.
And now, a third term—totalitarianism—presented visually with the image of Napoleon, drunk with power and playing cards with Pilkington. The stage is set for another analysis task: tracing what happened at Animal Farm, step-by-step, in order to see exactly how the animals were deceived. And then for another: drawing the allegorical connection between what happens on Animal Farm and the Russian Revolution.
What goes on in a classroom is so much more complex than what meets the eye. Throwing chocolate around, indeed!
It’s ideas that teachers send flying through the air—and lessons like “Chocolate Scramble” that land them in students’ minds.
PS: That amazing social studies teacher? My daughter. Thanks, Elizabeth. This simulation worked for me for years–and when I left the classroom, I passed it along to my colleagues. Isn’t that what teachers do? Share the wealth?