For many years, the School’s Grade 7 students have studied the Great Depression by participating in an immersive, cross-curricular “simulation.” This year’s foray included hands-on, experiential learning in math, history, and English. Over the course of the six week project, students gained both an understanding of the historical significance of the period, as well as a keen awareness of its toll on people’s lives.
To kick off the project, each student chose an American “character” out of a hat. The students’ assigned character became their focus during the simulation—dictating the lens and worldview through which they approached their activities. While each character came with accompanying basic background information (like country of origin, ethnicity, job, etc.), students were tasked with fleshing out their character’s unique identity. They used research skills and creativity to create elaborate backstories, including how the financial crisis impacted their character’s day-to-day life. By the culmination of the project, each student had developed a rich, relatable narrative, as well as a deep understanding of their character’s specific economic plight.
In math classes, students worked with percentages as their salaries declined through the simulated depression. They were also introduced to the concept of probability while they determined their characters’ marital status based on a coin toss.
In an over-arching six-week lesson combining history and math, students participated in a stock market simulation that mirrored the volatility of financial markets during the real Depression. Students learned the basic risks of investing, and also how to budget their personal finances using a handwritten ledger.
History teacher Amy Spencer explains that the market simulation was a helpful tool for the teachers who’d wanted to demonstrate to students “what really happened financially in America in the 1920s and 1930s.” She adds, “They saw the bull market of the ’20s, the subsequent market crash and bank failure, the Dust Bowl, and then the undulations of the market that rippled throughout the ’30s.” By participating in trading, students saw firsthand how volatile markets didn’t just affect the wealthy—they could wreak havoc on the lives of anyone who’d invested in stocks, or even just left their money in the bank.
In history and English classes, students learned about the social, cultural, and political events that precipitated the crash. They read articles about how life changed during the crisis—and they spent a significant amount of time using primary sources (like images, songs, poems, graphs, charts, and radio broadcasts) to research and develop their character’s identity and backstory.
The culminating activity was a town hall-style meeting to help President Franklin Delano Roosevelt create a brand new (fictitious) New Deal. Before the meeting, students worked in groups (as their characters) to come up with novel ideas for an economic relief program. Then, to prepare for the actual meeting, the grade took a field trip to Safeway and Goodwill—where they were separated into “social classes” based on their ledger totals. Teachers gave each “class” of students a specified, limited budget, then tasked them with buying a meal for lunch and an outfit for the meeting. Many students struggled to make their purchases. Students experienced firsthand the distress caused by not being able to afford basic necessities. They also learned an important lesson about inequality and class.
At the meeting itself, teams presented their unique New Deal ideas to a “government panel.” With Pirate parents in attendance (for the first time since the start of COVID-19!), the panel selected the three best, most original, most relevant relief program ideas. This year’s winners included: the Educator’s Relief Association (ERA), the Mental Health and Shelter Association (MHSA), and the Shelter Construction Act (SCA).
By the end of the simulation project, students had experienced what it felt like to live through the Great Depression from start to finish—the exhilarating opulence of the roaring 1920s, the hopeless desperation of the post-crash 1930s, and finally, the more measured but hopeful optimism of the recovery-focused mid-1930s.
Ultimately, Ms. Spencer says that the simulation was full of valuable lessons for all participants. She explains, “One of the intended lessons was for students to walk in the shoes of someone who lived through the Great Depression. By encouraging students to spend and invest while they were still in the boom of the 1920s, then go through the crash of the 1930s, it helped students to confront what a realistic financial crisis and failure of banks would actually look and feel like—and to learn about it all in a way that simply reading and watching videos could never accomplish.”
Quinn M. ‘31 summed up how much he appreciated the simulation experience saying, “Being able to see the situations people faced during the Depression really gave me a deeper understanding of it. The conservation of money and the field trip we took put us in a real-life situation that made me think about how life was like this every day for the people in the 1930s. This simulation was very fun overall, and it definitely helped me achieve a better understanding of this part of American history.”
Click here to see a collection of photos that were taken of our Grade 7 students during the 6 weeks of their Great Depression simulation.