Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Fifth Grade Revolutionary War

You may not know this (I didn't until a few years ago, but that's just because I lived overseas for some of my elementary education, but I'm told that this is common knowledge for most people - wow that was a long explanation for incidental information), but fifth graders get to study American history. I say "get to" because let's face it - we've got some pretty darn good history in this here country.

In my fifth grade class this week, we are studying the Revolutionary War. As an introduction to that, I did something a little different today than I would normally do for social studies. We had a lesson on the lead up to the war that sort of lasted all day long. Now don't go thinking we forgot about math and reading and all those other important things. This lesson went really well around all that.

It is a lesson called "The King's M&Ms." The main objective of this lesson was to learn about taxation without representation. For classroom management purposes, I have a mug of popsicle sticks in my class, and each popsicle stick has the name of one of my students on it. This is a great tool for random selection. I used the popsicle sticks to select five students for this lesson. Two kids would represent tax collectors, two would be members of the British Parliament, and one would be King George III. Incidentally, all the names I drew from the sticks ended up being girls. Several boys were unhappy about this, but they could not deny the randomness of the popsicle sticks.

All the remaining citizens became colonists. Each colonist was given a small bag of M&Ms. Throughout the day, the King could ring the bell three times. When she did that, the members of Parliament would select a card from a stack I prepared beforehand and the tax collectors would collect an M&M from each colonist who met the criteria on the card. The cards said ridiculous things like "All wearing jeans," or "All with blonde hair." If anyone had a question about whether or not that had to pay up an M&M, I deferred to the King. After the tax collectors got M&Ms from everyone who owed candy based on the selected card, they would divvy them up. 50% of the revenue went to the king, 30% to the Parliament, and 20% to the tax collectors.

The first few times King George rang the bell, the students would pay up their M&Ms without a problem. Sure, some of them would complain, but they would pay in any case. Slowly, however, some small rebellions began.

I noticed one boy grinning at me suspiciously. When I asked him what was going on, he whispered to me, "I stole the bell. Don't tell." The King didn't know how to call for a taxation without the bell, so instead she promised two M&Ms if whoever stole it returned it right away. That was enough for the bell-snatcher (the bell got stolen several more times, but the King and Parliament always found a creative way to call for taxes).

Several other students tried to bribe the King, Parliament, and tax collectors so they wouldn't have to pay. This only worked some times.

Other students began talking about ways they could rebel, making references to their knowledge of the Boston Tea Party and the Revolutionary War.

After a while, we started running low on cards (tax cards as we called them), so I let the king and the parliament write out a few more. They wrote out several specifically targeting people they knew were involved in revolution talks. This squashed those ideas, but only briefly.

By lunch, two of the colonists had successfully bribed the King into letting them work as slaves rather than pay taxes. This let them be involved in the government's plans for how to tax the people the best. The government faction decided to meet back in the classroom after they ate to work out how to best prevent any revolutions from starting.

Unfortunately, the beginning part of lunch recess was deemed an inside day, so the government faction was met with three-quarters of the colonists when they entered the classroom. They chose to defect to the library because of the sheer numbers of the colonists. The colonists took this as a victory and tried to rally and form a plan. This became a challenge for the handful of kids who felt passionately about the need for a revolution as many of their fellow colonists were apathetic about the idea. Once the front office told everyone it would be an outside day after all, many colonists decided they would rather play football or four square than play a revolt.

The few colonists that did stay, however, brainstormed a variety of ideas for rebelling/overthrowing the Brits. One girl had the idea (from the book her literature circle is reading, in fact!) to have all the rebels sign a Round Robin. This is a petition that everyone signs in a circle so that nobody's name is on top so you can't tell who started it. This would have been a fantastic idea were it not for the fact that the government sent spies to find out who was organizing the revolution.

The spies took this information back and the government quickly began making tax plans that would target the rebel leaders.

The rebels, on the other hand and to their credit, decided that the best way to escape the taxation was to challenge the King and members of Parliament to a game of either four square or chess, winner take all. This would have been a brilliant plan... had the government been willing to accept.

When class started back up again after lunch recess, the taxation began again and with a vengeance. Several colonists decided straight up to just not pay. This caused the government to put them in jail (a spot on the floor where they had to sit and complete their assignments. They could only move from that spot if invited by a member of the government or by me). The tax collectors and parliament members gave the jailbirds several chances to be freed, if they would simply pay double or triple taxes.

At this point, what with all the taxation going on, many students started getting upset. They came to me complaining that the whole thing was unfair. My response? "Exactly. It is supposed to be unfair because it was unfair for the colonists. That's what made them rebel and start the Revolutionary War." (There was a point that I stopped everyone and reminded them that this was all pretend and to not get too emotionally involved. They're just little guys, after all.)

I don't know when it happened, exactly, but I discovered that one of my tax collectors started sympathizing with the colonists and began to play a role as a double agent. This just added another level of authenticity to the simulation.

At the end of the day, I had everyone pass in their M&Ms (what few they had left), re-divvied them up so that each table got the same amount, and allowed the kids to munch on them while we debriefed the simulation. Each of the students had a worksheet where they were to be writing down their feelings about what was going on throughout the day. Several students spoke up about how unfair they felt that it was. We connected these feelings to how the colonists felt when they were being taxed without representation. We discussed what taxes are and what they are used for - and how they were being abused by the King of England and Parliament in the 1700s. We touched briefly on the Boston Tea Party and how that was such a significant act of rebellion.

The worksheet included a few other questions that I gave the students time to fill in. I asked the students who represented government officials to answer the questions from the colonists' point of view - and was surprised and rather touched by the level of their empathy towards the colonists. They had fun collecting taxes, but they were aware of the toll it took on their classmates.

The last question on the worksheet was a deep one and I was impressed with the sensitivity and sympathy with which my students answered it: Would you be willing to go to war over this issue? Why or why not? All of my students said that yes, they would be willing to go to war over it, but with the caveat that they would be safe or, more commonly, that their family would be safe. This segued into a discussion about what risk is and what makes something worth the risk. The kids connected this back to their ideas of challenging the government to four-square or chess. Each side had to genuinely believe that they had a shot at winning for the risk to be worth it (probably the biggest reason why the government peeps rejected the proposition). On top of that, the colonists had to be positive that what they were fighting for was worth the risk of all-out war.

This was a really cool activity. True, it was not the most fun for a lot of my students. I'm pretty sure many of them full-on hated the simulation because of the injustice of it all (here's looking at you, colonists). But boy-oh-boy, it was effective. My students didn't just read about the Revolutionary War. They got a taste of what the actual colonists felt that incited the revolution. There are things I would change if I taught it again (I'm already making plans for next year's simulation - fingers crossed I'll be teaching fifth grade again), but the outcome of the lesson as is was exactly what I was hoping for.

Plus in the end, all the kids got to eat M&Ms. I've found that nothing brings divided 10- and 11-year-olds back together into a team better than candy.
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