Tip for Teaching about the Race-Based Wealth Gap: Monopoly Roleplay

Q: How can I seriously fit a game of Monopoly into a rigorous, time-crunched curriculum? 

Each spring, as an entry event to my oppression unit—where we share To Kill a Mockingbird and discuss civil rights from post-Reconstruction to present day—I try to challenge the students’ assumptions about oppression (i.e. racism, sexism, class-ism, etc.) that exists today.  I’m not sure if it’s just the students in my rural school district or simply all fifteen-year olds, but my classes year after year seem to really struggle with this unit.  It’s not the content that is difficult to understand, but the “hidden curriculum,” if you will, is difficult from them to internalize.  For one, some of them naïvely think that once Dr. King expressed his dream, racism ended. Furthermore, they don’t see how past and present systems of dominance affect our current political, economic, and social landscape.

The Monopoly Roleplay, which I’ll explain shortly, creates a safe and uncomfortable simulation for students to experience some of the oppression that exists today, in particular how the race-based wealth gap impacts our society.

Q: What are the goals of this activity/unit? 

1. understand what oppression is
2. concede that oppression still exists today
3. not yield to pressures to discriminate
4. unlearn our own prejudices
5. work towards an egalitarian society

I know that I’ve modified the language in this list of goals, so I’m struggling to find the original source where I found it and apologize for the lack of citation.  Regardless, one of the most important aspects of this activity is to express our vulnerability and need to create a safe environment for all students.  A friend of mine always says that in order for people to experience true change, they must experience both discomfort and safety.  If we stay comfortable, we don’t feel a need to change.  If we don’t feel safe, we won’t take the risk and move towards change.  I always tell students that this particular set of goals get progressively more difficult to do as we move forward through them.  Depending on wherever each student is on his/her own life journey, each facing their own unique experiences, it’s important to explain that all students will begin and end in different places in terms of these goals, as much of this growth throughout the unit will be expressed through private, reflections.

Q: Where does this idea come from?

I will be the first to admit that this awesome activity is not of my own creation.  I originally learned about from an article in The Journal of Effective Teaching titled “Using Monopoly to Introduce Concepts of Race and Ethnic Relations.” When I was trying to find more information about it, I came across this description from Teaching Tolerance called “The Real Monopoly: America’s Racial Wealth Divide.”  They provide the most direct explanation, which I’m going to draw on below in the step-by-step directions.

Q: What materials do I need? 

Obviously, you’ll need a number of Monopoly games.  I didn’t want to buy a bunch of games, so I sent out a mass email to my district staff requesting boards. Thankfully, our Business Department at the high school has a bunch of them for one of their projects, so I try to communicate my borrowing requests with them in order not to overlap on our lesson plans.  To do the simulation, I set students up in groups of four, so you’ll probably need as many boards as this makes up with your particular class size.  If you can’t find this many boards, you could always operate the simulation as a fish-bowl observation as well.

Q: Okay already, how do we “play” this game?

Step #1: To start off the roleplay, I begin with a little fib: “Because we just finished our last big unit and you all worked so hard, today is going to be a game day.” Of course, they all cheer like we’re actually going to waste a day just playing games.  “But the thing is we have to make it a little interesting, so instead of playing by the normal Monopoly rules, which can drag a game out for days, we’re going to play a modified version.”  This always piques their interest.  At least a little.  I try to psych ’em up at much as possible, saying that it’s essential to be competitive and some trash talk is allowed. (Trust me: this makes for interesting reflection points later on!)

Step #2:  Before students get started with the game itself, we do a Quick Write on the following proposition: A good Monopoly player can be competitive even in a bad situation.  Since we’ve already created a community the loves debate, students have no problem arguing one way or another, trying to draw upon valid reasoning.  Certainly, if you have students that have never played Monopoly, they can substitute another multi-player, strategy game in its place.  The point is, I want them to lock down their original presuppositions in order to reflect upon them after the roleplay ends.

Step #3: I mix the students up however I see necessary at that point in the school year. Remember, we’re trying to create a safe yet uncomfortable environment, so all of the classroom community aspects need to be built up at this point. I can’t really imagine doing this activity at the start of the year when I haven’t gotten a good read on everyone and all their past interactions, but I’m sure y’all are rockstars are creating classroom community.

Step #4: Have the students set up the game boards and distribute the money according to the traditional Monopoly rules.

Step #5: As they’re doing this, I walk around to each group and number the students 1-2-3-4.  Sometimes, this is random.  Other times, it’s not.  You’ll see why in just a moment.

Step #6: Once everyone is all set and hyped up to go, I explain that their numbers correspond to different rules for each player.  On cue, I show the first slide (as seen below).  Student #1, which I try to assign to an easy-going kid that won’t mind taking notes, puts his/her money back in the bank and takes out a notebook and pen.  Once the Observers are ready, I share the subsequent slides.  Over the years, we’ve noticed interesting results from the observations recorded during the showing of the other students’ rules.  They always have really honest responses when they learn about their particular rule modifications.

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Step #7: Once everyone has a clear understanding of their rules, we begin to play.  The game generally lasts about 10 rounds in my class period.  Oddly enough, my hope is that at least one kid in the room goes bankrupt before we finish.  I don’t like to extend the roleplay over more than one class period because it loses some of the effect.  While the students are playing, I walk around also writing down snippets of their game comments.  I also try to keep surging up the competitiveness of the room.  “Oooh, he snatched up all the good property and you still can’t buy any!”  Remember a bit of rowdiness is good here.  When I hear a particularly revealing comment, I try to get the student to elaborate on the feelings during the game: “Awww, man, how did that feel when she took all of your money?”

Step #8: Before the class period ends, I collect the students’ final bankroll amounts, grouping them according to each specific role, along with the Observers’ conversation notes.

Step #9: Following class, I review and sort the comments and transfer them onto our unit presentation. It’s important to remove any student names at this point.  Because we will be discussing them together in class, it’s important that the Powerpoint slides become a neutral, third-party point.  This will maintain safety during the sometimes uncomfortable dialogue.

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Step #10: As a part of the discussion, I explain how these comments connect the struggle for Civil Rights across history. For example, like the Horses, Native Americans had their property confiscated by European colonizers. Like the Cars, most African Americans were not allowed to own property until after the Civil War – and even then, Jim Crow laws or biased business practices prevented them from buying property in many communities. We continue to discuss the concepts and reality of generational poverty and institutionalized oppression by close reading parts of this infographic on The Racial Wealth Gap.

Step #11: Students conclude this particular entry event by revisiting their Quick Write arguing whether “A good Monopoly player can be competitive even in a bad situation.” Students either rework their response based on their experience playing modified Monopoly or their further elaborate their original position with concrete examples from the game.

Each time I facilitate this experience for my students, I am amazed at the thoughtful and deep conversation that results.  I’d like to find more role-plays like this that promote empathy and broadening understandings.

If you have suggestions for other similar activities or modifications to this one, I’d love to hear ’em!


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.