Chocolate Scramble


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?

8 thoughts on “Chocolate Scramble

    1. So glad you like it, Guliya! I’ll pass your thanks on to Elizabeth. If you stage a “chocolate scramble,” I’d love to hear how it worked for you–if the students responded in the same ways, if they came to the same conclusions.


  1. Thank you for posting this activity. As a new teacher, it’s great to have wonderful ideas like this shared to us new in the field.


  2. Sarah,

    I was looking for something fun to do with my class before Spring break. We’ve just finished WW2 and I needed something light to introduce the ideas behind the Cold War.

    This activity was a great one to spur conversation even in a difficult class. I even managed to talk a lot about the inequalities that develop in a capitalist system by talking about my placement of the candy in the room benefitting certain students over others.

    Thanks for the idea!



    1. Awesome, Philip! I am so glad the activity worked for you! Yes, I think the conversations that ensue are rich. I always was gratified when my students realized that the placement of the furniture–the challenges to equity–mimicked the advantages some people have quite naturally and I’d be equally delighted to see kids surreptitiously passing kisses to each other in the name of philanthropy. And on the converse, I was happy when they would realize the unfairnesses of fairness. No system is perfect; they found that out. Thanks for the feedback and continued good luck! Sarah


  3. I did something similar with my college classes in Hanguk University of Foreign Studies many years ago. (2007) I’m still teaching in Korea. Not face to face this year so I can’t do the experiment with my new students. But I’d be interested to see if the students at my new school, an engineering wing of Kongju National University, would achieve results similar to the students at HUFS. I actually think I’d change it and do it the way you did just chucking chocolates everywhere. It’s more representative of the chaos of capitalism I think. I was very impressed with the results I got from the students at HUFS, although they represent a much more worldly bunch than the average student here, or in most places really. Here are the results I got:


    1. Loved hearing the results you obtained using this activity with college students in Korea! The most indelible memory for me is the image of the kids who hung back when the kisses flew. You might think it was shyness or a passive personality–and there was a bit of that–but largely, it was about access. They couldn’t get past the tables and chairs between them and the scrum of kids groveling for the kisses. Couldn’t get a toe it. It was about access. So applicable today as we think about racial justice and other societal constraints. Physical disabilities. Colonization. Whew! A good lesson for all. Thanks for writing.


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