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If you want to teach your students about poverty and homelessness, here is a great lesson plan, and all you need is a bag of chocolate! So on the final day of our first “Volunteerism and Kindness Week,” my class explored childhood poverty with an M&M experiment.
Each child received a bowl and the promise of rainbow, candy-coated goodness. I passed the candies out at random.
Most children got a moderate amount of M&M’s. At each table, however, I made certain that at least one child got an enviable handful and one child received only two, small chocolates.
“Ms. Heather,” the first unlucky child spoke up, “You forgot to give me the rest of my M&M’s.”
I apologized, but didn’t add more to his bowl. Instead, I continued distributing to the other kids.
After the kids had all gotten their unfairly varied amounts of candy, I instructed them not to eat yet. First, I went around the room and asked each child how he or she felt about the amount of M&M’s he or she had been given.
Not shockingly, the kids with only one or two complained about the unfairness of the project. However, some of the kids who were provided with heaping amounts complained as well. They said they wished they’d gotten more. Even more shockingly, most of the kids with a moderate number of M&M’s said they were happy with their amount.
“I guess I’m middle class! I’m okay with that!”
“Alright,” I said, “Now think about the kids you read about in ‘Lives Turned Upside Down’ (a great book of photography and stories created by kids in homeless shelters). Did they have any power over how much money they had? Do you have any power over how many M&M’s I gave you? Now think about how you feel about the amount of candy you got, especially if you are disappointed or upset. I guarantee you there are kids in your school who are or have been homeless at some point. Yes, homeless kids still go to school. And you probably don’t even know who they are. But you get to go home and buy more M&M’s after this. They don’t. Think about having less M&M’s and then think about what it might feel like to live in poverty or not have enough food at home.”
“But what can we do about it? How can we help?” they asked me.
“I’m glad you asked! So we were going to make hygiene kits to give to our own local homeless shelter, the Raleigh Rescue Mission, but I called them and they said they have plenty right now. So we’re going to make laminated place mats for their dinner tables to help cheer the place up and let the residents know we care. We’re not helpless against poverty. We can always make a difference.”
“So,” asked one of my students, “Now that the lesson is over, do we all get more M&Ms?”
“No, of course not. That defeats the purpose,” I said, grinning a bit.
“What??” he said, his voice cracking. “That’s not fair! My stupid two M&M’s!”
“Don’t worry,” said a middle-class M&M student at his table. “I’ll share mine with you.”
That’s exactly what a teacher wants to hear.