Tip for Teaching the Great Depression: Economics Roleplay

What is a role-play, simulation, or re-enactment?  I’ve learned that within the realm of Social Studies instruction, teachers use these different names and varying twists on methods to help students come away with a deep understanding of cause/effect, sequencing, and historical appreciation. Basically, role play is a “learning strategy in which students act the part of another character, thereby gaining an appreciation for others’ points of view as well an understanding of the complexity of resolving issues and problems in the real world.” In fact, it’s worked so well that the Battle of Gettysburg is celebrating its 150th re-enactment this year. Crazy cool, right?

Why not just use the textbook? In my class, when it comes to the 1920s and ’30s, students could just memorize textbook bullet points of cause and effect; however, they still would have a difficult time coming to the somewhat abstract understanding of where the money goes.  It isn’t until my sophomores see the money actually moving around the classroom that they can ask these deep, quality questions, like: “If we had so much money during the ’20s, how’d people lose it all in the ’30s?” “Where did the cash that was invested in the stock market actually go?” “Why couldn’t we just print more money?” “If “cred,” like credit, means believe, are we seriously just running on belief?”

Why not just lecture? Aside from the fact that an interactive lecture on the foreign and domestic economic policies of the 1920s-1930s would take days upon days, I’m willing to open up here and say: I’m a History Newbie. Extended lecture–while probably what my kids will receive in AP and college–is something that scares me.  I’ve been teaching English for a number of years, but I’ve only been teaching U.S. History since 2011. Based on the teacher certification spread at my school, it didn’t seem likely that I’d ever teach history, and now I find myself in love with my two-hour Humanities block.  Essentially, I think it’s my growing confidence in social studies instruction that has helped me (weirdly enough) identify that in this particular unit–where there is a lot of confusion–students need solid interaction that goes beyond a lecture. 

How did you design this roleplay? I have to put out a disclaimer, this role play, like all of my curriculum, is always in make-over mode, so it’s bound to change and adapt over time, but I basically designed the roleplay from the “script” laid out in my textbook. I took the sections on the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression and shifted the paragraphs into actions and dialogue for my cast of students. This probably could be done with a lot units, but I don’t want to over do the roleplay option nor do I want to scaffold something that doesn’t need the breakdown.

Which characters are cast in this role play? — Basically, I started by gathering the cast of characters who are essential to the time period. When students come in to class, they randomly choose a Cast Card and find their way to their assigned desks,  which are labeled and arranged in my room based on the photo above. Some “characters” of course need more than one student to represent that role, like the U.S. Government needs two kids because there is some interaction within the government during the Tea Pot Dome Scandal, and other characters don’t show up until Act Two or Three during the New Deal.

  • President Harding (1)
  • President Coolidge (1)
  • President Hoover (1)
  • President Roosevelt (1)
  • U.S. Government (2)
  • French Government (1)
  • British Government (1)
  • German Government (1)
  • The Federal Reserve (1)
  • Bankers (1)
  • Stock Brokers (1)
  • Gangsters (1)
  • Social Activists (1)
  • Business Owners (2)
  • Upper Socioeconomic Classes (1) to show the 1%
  • Middle/Lower Socioeconomic Classes (#) to show the represented %
  • Farmers (#) to show the represented %

What kind of props do you need? — Before class, I prepare a basic set of props that help show the information in a concrete way:

  • “Beaton Bucks,” which is basically just a stack of fake cash that we pass around to buy products, pay off debts, invest in the stock market, pay taxes, and bribe government officials. TIP: It helps to have these lamented because kids are handling them for a few days. 
  • IOU Debt Cards to show installment buying, margin buying, and mortgage lending
  • 1920s Advertisement Products
  • Character Cast Cards and Desk Labels. 
  • Social Activist Protest Sign
  • Oil Reserves (we just use a bottle of hand lotion!)
  • Painter’s Tape and Masking Tape, which I lay out on the floor to represent the foreign and domestic economic policies.

How do the students actually move through the simulation? To move through the lesson, I act as “director” of a basic interactive lecture. Students “lazy act” just like we do during our reading of Shakespeare’s OthelloFor example, in one scene…

  • The citizens get up and pay taxes to the government
  • —> The US government trickles cash down to the businesses through tax breaks and incentives.
  • —> Business owners pass on raises to their employees.  
  • —> Employees purchase goods from the businesses through installment buying, stock from the broker through margin buying, and houses from the bank through mortgage lending. 

How do students take notes during the role play? I’ve tried a couple variations of notes during the role play. This year, we went with this “Game Board” method, and it seemed to work quite well. Students drew a mock-up of the “stage” across a double-page spread of their notes. Then, as we moved through each scene, they use different colors to represent different Academic Vocab terms. For example, the yellow line below represents Trickle Down Economics, the blue line is the Dawes Plan, the pink line shows consumerism and installment buying, and so on. 

How does the role-play inspire argumentative writing and debate? After each scene, students can review their notes to process them in another way. Often, we either stop to do a Quick Write or participate in a Pop-Up Debate, tackling one of our Essential Questions.  Some of the questions that I ask are as follows:

  • How might you evaluate Coolidge as President?
    • Consider his domestic economic policy, lack of social change, and foreign economic policy, known as the Dawes Plan
  • How did upper class citizens, middle/lower class workers, and farmers differ in regard to consumerism?
    • Consider the uneven wealth distribution, installment buying, margin buying, and mortgage lending
  • What were the primary causes of the Great Depression?
    • Consider the panic of Black Tuesday, the collapse of banks, the closing of businesses & unemployment, the rise in trade tariffs, and the impact on the global economy

How does the role play affect student understanding of current events? As we start shifting our conversation from the Great Depression to the credit crisis of 2008, the “stage” remains set according to the roleplay. We can then start to pass the money around simulating sub-prime mortgages and using leverage in investing. Ultimately, the roleplay makes these abstract and sometimes distant concepts become real in the hands of the students. 

How do you set up roleplays in your classroom? I’d love it if you provided links to roleplays, simulations, etc. that you’ve done with your students or offered suggestions for my lesson (Seriously! Challenge me. Raise my consciousness.) Hopefully, we can create a plethora of resources for one another.

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