Every year around this time we study ancient China in my social studies classes. We read about early emperors, see a video about the terra cotta soldiers, create a timeline of ancient dynasties and so on. I always try for a mix of different strategies to teach this stuff because no two kids learn in exactly the same way. However, most students agree that the best part of the unit is the simulations. Some of the early dynasties experimented with different forms of rule, so we take the kids through an activity designed to give them a feel for life under three of the systems.
The first system is the philosophy of Confucius. Because Confucius taught that younger people must respect and learn from their elders, we have the five eldest kids in class become the leaders. They get to sit ON TOP of the desks, and they get to tell all the students in their small group what to do. However, they are also responsible for the behavior and success of their "younger brothers and sisters." We talk about the power of honor and shame, and how a person's life could be ruined through loss of "face." They study the teachings of Confucius in their small groups, and then answer questions from me, the emperor. We leave out the part about men being thought superior to women until the end.
The second system is legalism. In this system I get to be the extreme heavy if you know what I mean. This is a system based on the idea that people are inherently bad, and the only way to have peace in society is through strict rules and serious consequences. All the students have to sit up in their desks, hands behind their backs, and pay strict attention to the lesson. They are not allowed to speak, look up, or move without permission. The smallest transgression leads to punishment. The best bit is wandering the rows and smacking a yardstick onto the desks of people who are "bad." Even though they know it is fake, some students still show signs of stress after a few minutes of my shouting and smacking desks. If a student is really bad I make them sit on the floor, or even kneel in front of the class. This year I added the punishment of standing in front of the room while holding a sign that says "I am a bad student." They must study the readings on legalism, and try to avoid getting punished. Each time a student is punished they get a check mark next to their name on the board. At the end I assign fake punishments to those with the most checks. Beheading is one of my favorites. The really odd part is that they absolutely love this lesson. They ask again and again if we can have another day like that one. I have no idea why they like it so much, but I'm just glad they don't complain to their mothers.
The third way of thought is Taoism. This lesson is such a great contrast to the previous day because it takes a totally different view of the world. Taoist philosophy says that people are naturally good, and the best way to govern them is to leave them alone as much as possible. Thus we clear the classroom and kids are allowed to choose their own seats on the floor as long as their seating choice "promotes harmony and not discord." We then talk about how the real struggle most people have is in their own mind, and how Taoists wanted to find inner peace more than anything. I place a potted plant in the middle the circle, and we all marvel at how it desires nothing and seeks only to be. Of course the kids are all snickering and trying to make fun of the whole thing, so I've developed a special strategy that avoids punishment, but still quiets them down. I talk about how some people are made uncomfortable by their own feelings, and these are the people who seek to act out as a way to cover up their won discomfort. They start to understand that if you are being a problem you are admitting that you can't cope. Finally, we do a little transcendental meditation where they all visualize a pond, imagine it experiencing a terrible storm, and then imagine calming the storm. This is a metaphor for all the problems that trouble our minds. Most kids think it is silly nonsense, but every single year there are a few who think it's a revelation.
In the end, we discuss how each of the three ways might have been used to rule a country. we also compare how these ideas might appear in the modern world, or how they might be applied to solve modern problems. More than one kid has come back to me years later and said that they remember these lessons better than any others. I love simulations!