Questions about my Animal Farm Social Experiment

It’s interesting how many teachers email me about a post I wrote six years ago, Animal Farm Lessons. People can read it at HuffPost or in my book Uncommon Core, so it’s easy to find it if they are looking for lesson plans for Animal Farm.

Today, I spent some time answering these questions:

1. What is your classroom management style? In your opinion, are there classes that are too immature for the experiment? 
2. Do you let this experiment continue for more than one class period?
3. How do you collect students feedback on the activity? (I’m debating anonymously, first).
4. Do you add any formal assessment element (for example, if they are able to meet all 5 requirements as a class, each student earns 10 points)? (I’m just as worried that I would HAVE to tie points to the activity to get some of my students engaged or willing to risk becoming a leader).
5. How do you handle students crossing the line with breaking rules/classroom expectations?  Would you say for the sake of the experiment you allow cellphone use, swearing, etc? 

So I thought I’d share my response on my blog.

Dear Friend,

Thank you for your email and your questions. I understand your fears. It is definitely one of the reasons I left classroom teaching: We can no longer teach a lesson without a way to measure students’ learning in some concrete way. This lesson teaches students things that can never be measured, but they will never forget it and it will change them in some positive way.

First, I always used the lesson as a social experiment and let them learn from their behavior in the small world we created for one hour on one day. I have often wondered what would have happened if I let the experiment last longer than that, but I don’t think that’s the goal of the lesson. The goal is to see how students choose to behave in this situation. Each class is different, and something the teacher cannot control. I have conducted this experiment with honors students and with students who have been to jail. I never had to stop Rebellion Day, although I did end one session about 5 minutes early once because students set themselves up as “security guards” and were getting dangerously close to getting physical with other students. When I took back the classroom, I asked the security guards why they chose to do that. Their answer: They thought it was fun. So without judgment or anger I asked, “You think threatening or hurting people is fun?” I said nothing else to them. By the end of class, both boys apologized to me and the students they threatened. How do you grade that?

Which brings me to grades: I told them they were getting graded but not how, because I wanted them to be motivated to engage. I gave them all a participation grade for the day, regardless if they were the leader or the person in the corner playing on their phone (so, yes, I allowed that), regardless if they worked together to accomplish the tasks or all sat for an hour and did nothing (which never happened by the way). 

I think the most essential element of this experiment is my notetaking. I observe without interfering, but then I share all of my observations and then ask students questions about my observations like, Why didn’t you participate? Why did you get angry? Why did you mistreat that person? Why did you all blindly follow the leader? These observations and questions are the real lesson. Students are just acting out who they are and what they have observed in their lives. This experiment merely holds up a mirror for them and asks them, Is this really who you want to be?

It will take a lot of courage on your part to let them be, but that’s what I recommend. Of course, other teachers have put more controls and rules and grades on the lesson, so it is completely up to you and what you feel comfortable with. Some teachers graded the reflections they asked students to write afterwards, which is probably the only one I would recommend, but I never did that. I didn’t want to take a life lesson and turn it into an arbitrary grade, but I understand the pressure to attach a grade in the current system.

The only other question you asked is what is my normal classroom like. I always set up my classroom with mutual respect and created a safe environment for my students. Some classes were more challenging than others, but they always knew I had their best interest at heart–they won’t care what you know until they know that you care. They knew that this experiment was another way I was showing how much I cared about them.

I hope this answers your questions. Let me know if you have any more. If you decide to do it, let me know how it turns out.

Best wishes,

Pauline

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