5th Graders Grappling with Labor Rights, Wealth, and Dynamics in Organizing

By Social Studies Teacher Gabby Arca

The buzz in the room was palpable; some students were red-faced like when they come in from recess. Even I was sweating a little (okay a medium amount!) from all of the moving pieces. I hadn’t felt this much energy and emotion around Economics the entire unit. Already in the span of an hour in our 5th grade classroom, we’d had two attempted strikes, wage complaints, a dispute between previously organized workers, and even some temporary workers have been hired.

Our students were feeling… and those feelings led to some pretty interesting thinking, curiosity, and empathy. All of the bigger questions I dreamed of having 10 year olds ask about economics came forward. What oftentimes in past years has been economic discussions with finger pointing at different groups of people with different amounts of money, was turned into a jet stream of questions, attempts at analysis, and more questions. Their questions rapid fired as hands waved to be called on, asking about money, labor, and quality of life. They especially fixated on wealth: both about the distribution of wealth (or lack thereof) and about the cyclical nature of wealth over generations.

This started with a simulation. Now of course, it’s not actually that simple. It actually started with routines, and clear expectations, other experiential learning, news articles, and ongoing conversations about different aspects of human identities, etc. Of course. It also probably started with two women of color as teachers in a classroom where we have some freedom with curriculum, as well (shout-out to my co-teacher Nina Sethi here!). All of that is part of this, too. Certainly we work very hard to have our students be curious, open-minded, critical thinkers who are excited about differences. But this particular moment was a simulation. A simulation I had been cooking up since my visit to the Dominican Republic the previous summer.

In my visit to the DR, among other things, I went to see a factory called Alta Gracia. The factory recently underwent an upheaval to become a facility and company that works to honor labor rights and think of their employees as human beings. After speaking with current employees about the shifts that have happened (maternity leave, PTO, a healthcare professional in the building), I knew I wanted students to think about factories and labor rights as part of their economic conversation. This was especially important when considering how most of our students will be financially above average consumers in their lives. This worked out well with other economic vocabulary like boycott, supply and demand, and natural, capital, and human resources. It also went well with Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt, one of our entry points into investigating about how we’re all connected as producers, consumers, and humans!

*We also ended up having a 4th group (slightly unplanned..) who ended up being unemployed (they went on strike and their classmates did not join them so they got fired!). They were hired for temporary employment by the office workers and did small jobs around the classroom. This proved to be an interesting dynamic that added to the simulation!*

The General Experience

Students work hard following the directions on their assignment sheets. Every once in awhile teachers come over and say it was ‘pay day’ (we have 3 payday rounds) and give each member of the group the points they earn for their work.

For the most part, the students worked really hard at their jobs (it was confusing to see how hard they worked- if only they did so on their word study homework!). Students also had group conversations about quality of their work environment and how to best navigate it. The majority decided to ‘put their heads down’ and work harder.


Teachers also come around when it wasn’t ‘pay day’ time and provide circumstance cards that students need to calculate into their paychecks. The circumstance cards range from “Your child had a fever, you bought medicine: -2 points” to things like “You have had a death in the family and you need to cover the funeral costs: -15 points”. There were multiple health related cards that could add up (hand pain from repetitive motions, back pain, breathing issues from dust in the factory), all of which we learned different individuals suffered from — especially in the Timberland and Levis factories in the Dominican Republic.

Some cards from the simulation

These cards began to frustrate students and heightened the stress in the room tremendously. Some students glanced at their point cards frequently and nervously double checked math, searching for an additional few points that weren’t there. Of course there were some cards (especially for the Office team) for getting a promotion (+4) or a boss noticing their hard work! One boy in the unionized factory who was fed up and was trying to convince his friend to go on strike with him said, “They aren’t even paying us that much and making bracelets is bad!” His friend, however, had just received a +4 bonus for his hard work (sly teacher choice there), and waved him away with his head down. “You just gotta work harder!” he replied.

One of Nina and my favorite moments was when a student was so engrossed in her work that she missed ‘payday’. She turned to her ‘coworkers’ who all shrugged because they didn’t have the means to help her, and she turned to the overseers (us) who also shrugged because that was the logical consequence. She later shared that one life lesson she learned was that you should never miss payday and then gave us a great 5th grade glare.

Another twist we saw was that some of the Office workers went to ‘donate’ points to the factory workers. They donated 1 point to each person. (They were making 100 points per paycheck while the non-unionized factory workers were making 10 points per paycheck). It was interesting to see the different responses to these donations and how some of the donations didn’t help people’s overall situations, and how some office workers who were donating grumbled because they expected the recipients to ‘be more grateful’.

Some of their reflections (they had a ton!)

Our students were STRESSED! They talked a lot about how they were worried about making deadlines, how hard they were working, and how scary it was to receive a card and know you were barely keeping any money. They noted (over and over again!) that their emotions ran high, and they had a lot to say on how hard it was to be under continuous stress. We came back to this conversation taking on many other people’s points of views throughout the year. We are glad they have the teensy-tiniest insight into what incessant worry or stress might be like for someone.

A couple of students talked about how they felt they weren’t paid for the level of work they were doing and felt like no one (they looked at us grumpily here) noticed how HARD they were working. The bracelet group made extra bracelets in hopes of a raise and they didn’t receive one. They also recalled how they had been randomly assigned to be in these groups, which led them to the fascinating realization that no one deserved or earned the right to be in one group or the other.

More than anything, the conversations from this simulation came back time and time again in our classroom in academic and social ways. In this simulation debrief, students had to hear friends say that their situation wasn’t the same and to stop comparing their stress in the office group to the experience and stress of the factory work. They called out these differences between them, the frustrations of these differences, and had a deep sense that no one deserved to be in one group or the other — they were all randomly assigned, just like in life. This takeaway was really important to them. The moments of disagreement and high emotions were especially challenging to feel, share, and hear and we were amazed as they took it on with passion and compassion. In the end, through this simulation, our little classroom community had to grapple with what work experience is like for different people, why, and what we want to do about it.

As they marched out of the door of our 5th grade classroom to recess, one of our students turned to her friend who was in another group and said, “I don’t understand why other companies treat their factory workers inhumanely if you can still be successful if you treat people like people!” Their feelings stuck with them and they are still bouncing around their ideas from this dynamic simulation. And honestly, after all of their thoughtful insights and debates, their teachers have ongoing food for thought, too!

Gabby is an elementary educator who is passionate about the brilliance of all young people, and the caring, justice oriented work they can do. She’s an avid eater and traveler, but a terrible chef. She writes and teaches about these passions with rad co-teacher Nina Sethi on their TeachPluralism blog. She’s also the overly proud coach of the fiercest girl’s basketball team (go Owls!:).

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