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!