Before class, prepare a set of index cards, each with a different "social role" written on it. These should be mostly social roles that exist cross culturally--such as priest or farmer--but may also include a few that are specific to a culture--pharaoh, for example. My cards include the following roles: Farmer, Gatherer, Hunter, Caregiver, Shaman, Priest, King, Slave, Laborer, Child, Teacher, Student, Parent, Scribe, Artist, Thinker. Many others are possible. Note that in most societies a person might occupy several roles--for instance, parent, teacher and caregiver, or child, student and laborer. If the lesson is intended to support a specific Social Studies curriculum, I make sure the prominent social roles of that society are represented, and that I am aware of those roles which will be especially difficult to conceptualize. (For example, ancient Egypt had slaves, kings, teachers, priests, farmers, scribes, etc., and these are roles that are easy to think about in relation to ancient Egypt, but roles like Shaman are less likely to make sense to students in terms of ancient Egypt, and roles like caregivers, parents, children and students will be challenging because most textbooks, including the one my students use, seem mostly unaware of the obvious fact that such people must have existed in Egypt. I don't necessarily take those cards out of the deck, but I try to be aware of the extra challenges they present.
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I begin the lesson by discussing the concept of social roles with my students. We talk about the ways that cultures have evolved a division of labor, and about the increasing specialization of roles as cultures mature. Just in the three or four centuries since Europeans first began to settle in what is now the United States, our culture has moved from on in which most everyone personally did most of the work related to individual survival--hunted, farmed, built homes, educated their children, etc.--to one in which most people have an extremely specific task in the larger fabric of society, and wouldn't have the first idea how to perform someone else's role. In addition to specialization, societies also tend to develop classes and disparities in wealth and position. We discuss the phenomenon generally and as it relates specifically to the cultures the students are currently studying. Then I lead the discussion toward the commonalties between social roles in different cultures. Many very different cultures have had Shamans, whether they were called by that name or not, and even though on the surface these holy men and women may have been quite different, it is easy to see that all occupied or occupy a similar place in their respective worlds. The same can be said about kings, whether called King, Emperor, Pharaoh, whatever. Do we not have a subgroup in our own culture that can be compared to the serfs in Medieval Europe? Or to the folks who built the Pyramids? Since I usually do this lesson with Fifth Graders, the discussion can get pretty involved, and I try not to rush it.
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The rules of the game are pretty simple once the prep work has been done. The group sits in a circle. One volunteer goes to the center of the circle and glances at the top card in the deck. (The honest truth is that I often manipulate the deck so that I control who gets what card--that way I can keep everyone challenged without frustrating anyone unduly.) Once the student has seen which "social role" he is to occupy, he begins to pantomime an activity that we might expect such a person to engage in. (For example, if the card said "Teacher" the student might pantomime writing on a blackboard, or lecturing an unruly child.) The rest of the group is trying to guess the social role, but they do not call out their guesses. Rather, as they think they know the social role, other students join the first one in the circle, to pantomime a different activity that illustrates the same social role. (If one student pantomimes writing on the board, the next might pantomime reading aloud to the class.) More students join the circle, until most of the class is on its feet. Then the leader stops the play and asks someone (not the one who started it all) what he thinks the social role is. Often this student will have been doing the wrong role, but usually by going around the room you can find some who had it right. I am always careful not to make it seem like the first student's failure if no one got it, but I also have to guard against the tendency in some students to try to make it difficult. The goal, I tell my students, is for everyone to get it right. But it's a team effort. We repeat the game with new social roles as time allows.
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This game leads naturally into quite a bit of discussion. We talk about what made certain social roles easier to guess than others. If there were any rounds of the game that went spectacularly badly--no one guessed the right answer, or almost everyone guessed the same wrong answer--we discuss what happened. I often find that this is a great opportunity to talk about rumor and stereotyping. What frequently happens is that one of the first people to join the initiator in the circle guesses wrong, and begins to pantomime an activity appropriate to a different social role. Subsequent participants are influenced by this guess, and so more and more people start off on this wrong tack. I try to get the students to see the parallel between this and what happens in their own school society (for example) when a rumor is started. The person who starts the rumor may not mean any harm--he may just be incorrect, but pretty soon the rumor takes on a life of its own and even if the original person realizes his mistake, it is too late. I try to let the discussion go where it wants to go.
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