Some of the manila envelopes were thick; others were noticeably thin. “Inside, you’ll find your group’s ‘resources’,” Katy Green and Jason David told their Division Three humanities students at the start of the class. Without realizing it, the students were beginning to grapple with the essential question that will frame this year’s studies in class: “How does power or lack of power affect individuals and societies?”
Each group’s folder of ‘resources’ was, intentionally, different. Some might include pieces of colored paper, scissors, paper clips, glue sticks, or tape – or not all of those items, and not in equal amounts. Katy and Jason purposely distributed the resources unevenly among the different groups, to simulate the disparity of natural and human resources among societies in the real world. To further the analogy, Katy and Jason placed some student groups at tables with chairs. Others sat with chairs but had no table to work on while others were only allowed to sit on the floor.
Despite the resources disparity, each group was given the same task: build something representing the basic societal needs of food, clothing, shelter, and advanced institutions of education and industry. One example: each group was asked to represent industry by building a chain made of orange, blue, and purple paper. This was an easy task for the groups lucky enough to start the simulation with scissors and glue but quite a challenge for the groups without these resources.
Not surprisingly, in this simulation, the groups that had the most resources to start with were able to finish all of the tasks first. These groups also were able to leverage their wealth of resources when resource-poor groups came seeking what they lacked. Katy and Jason left it to individual groups to decide how to acquire the materials they weren’t given in their envelopes. Students resorted to trade, persuasion and even friendly intimidation to get what they needed; I overheard a member of a resource-poor group ask one of the teachers, “Can we pillage other societies?” Good question. And, what are the alternatives for getting stuff you need?
“This year Division Three humanities’ focus is world studies,” teacher Jason David tells me, “and we want the students to begin the year understanding the real disparities that shaped the world in history and the consequences that continue today.” But just knowing isn’t enough. Jason wants his students to understand the implications for everyone in these resource equations. “Through humanities,” Jason continues, “our students will be empowered to help repair the world and address the disparities that exist.”
After the simulation, the students discussed connections between the simulation and the world they are inheriting. Tenth grader, Zander H. pointed out “this reminds me of the social class differences in American society— the haves and the have-nots.” His classmate, Abby L. noted how “society that has a valuable resource often attracts others who want it,” to which 10thgrader Mason A. added, “like when some countries go to war over oil!”
“The humanities curriculum can get kind of heavy,” explains teacher Katy Green. “We like to do simulations like this one to bring a sense of playfulness to the learning process, while at the same time providing the students a hook to get them to engage with the ideas and concepts.”
Bringing the tough questions to the table in ways students can relate to is a Wildwood tradition, and a back to school reminder that playful inquiry is always welcome.