Yesterday, I wrote about our school’s 7th grade retreat, during which we talked about loving our neighbors. Our students come from privileged backgrounds, many of them having grown up with personal maids, nannies, and drivers. We showed them the this picture, and many of them thought that it was their city.
Jakarta is a city of poverty that is hard to see and riches that are hard to comprehend. To help our students better understand what it would be like to be poor, we utilized the Paper Bag Simulation.
Students were split into “families” of six people, and given newspapers and (disgusting) glue. After we taught them how to craft bags out of their supplies, we started our game. Students had three “months” (20 minute segments) to try to earn money. They had to pay for rent, food, toilet, and more supplies; their goal was to save $500 by the end of the game so that they could send one of their members to school.
Throughout the game, there were “health seminars” that they could attend. Whether or not they should send somebody was a difficult decision – they would lose manpower! However, not going later proved to have dire circumstances… family members would get sick, and some even died.
Throughout the “months”, they could sell their bags to shop keepers (teachers, myself included). They quickly realized the power that the “upperclass” held over them, and began resorting to lying, cheating, and stealing. They also began selling their items, offering massages (I didn’t even have to ask for mine … they just came up, started giving me a massage, then demanded money for it! They’ve got the way things work in real life down!), dancing, singing, and basically doing whatever we asked of them. I was even brought a cup of tea! I must admit that, for the teachers, this is super entertaining. Even usually-shy students will do just about anything. Kids were dancing gangnum style and performing runway walks and commercials for their products, the drummer was running around the room shouting “I’m a little drummer boy”, and the student in the mask was walking around informing people that it was a good look for him.
By the end of the simulation, we had all kinds of things – newspaper crowns, hats, shoes, watches, a drum stick… anything the kids could talk us into buying!
Some groups got creative with their “products”… I was offered camera and cell phone holders, backpacks, “designer bags straight from Paris”, and “products made from 100% recycled items”.
Other students started in on sob stories about their starving children, malaria stricken partners, and high rent checks. They begged for donations and the purchase of bags that were not up to my standards. As the store owners, we stood our ground and made sure that they knew their place in the hierarchy. One student asked for a sip of my tea. “Who do you think you are?” I reprimanded him, “There are diseases in your kampung [poor village], of course you cannot spread your germs on my teacup. If you would like to lick the drips off of the saucer, you may.”
If students were not able to pay their rent, they were kicked out to “the bridge”, scurrying to bring their supplies with them. The bridge owner demands 50% of all they made in return for allowing them to live there. If they did not earn enough to pay for their food or toilet, families members would fall sick and their weakness would harm the family business (they could work with only 1 hand).
The simulation was not only fun, interactive, and a huge push toward good teamwork, but also a very eye-opening activity for the students. They were all very invested and engaged throughout the activity and the debriefing afterwards. I would highly recommend this activity if your students could use a lesson in how the other half lives! It took us about two hours to complete, and the only supplies needed are newspaper, glue (we used a mix of water and tapioca flour), tarps (if you’re indoors), scissors, and monopoly money. Enjoy!