As the Voyagers’ Outdoor Program begins our Global Studies class with the age of imperialism, we read Howard Zinn’s A Young People’s History of the United States. Zinn writes, “Before he was elected president, William McKinley had said, ‘We want a foreign market for our surplus goods.’ Senator Albert Beveridge of Indiana spelled it out in 1897. He said, ‘American factories are making more than the American people can use; American soil is producing more than they can consume. Fate has written our policy for us; the trade of the world must and shall be ours.’ These politicians and others believed that the United States had to open up other countries to American goods.”
We decided to investigate the ideas of surplus, trade and markets further. To make it real for our students, we provoked the class with school supplies and incited a trade market. With 5 tables of students in the room, the school supplies at each table were sorted out unequally. Some groups had a surplus of supplies, others had very little. Students were asked to think of their tables as countries and their supplies as goods. They were told that they would be allowed to trade with other countries in the room. They discussed with their country or table what they had and what they needed.
One group, or country, prepares their trade plan.
Paul: We could steal other countries stuff.
Camille: All we have is pencils. We could trick people into giving us stuff.
Hannah: I’m not exactly sure what’s better. What do we want?
Safi: They have a lot of pens, so we can trade with them.
Shaelyn: Why do we need pens?
Once strategies were created, groups decided what they wanted or what they needed and trade began.
Groups came together and a discussion was held on what happened amongst the countries.
Teacher: Why did the mirror become such a hot item?
Madison: No one else had the mirror, we thought it was kind of rare.
Andrew: We just wanted it
Jake: I don’t need it but I just want it! It’s cool! It’s super awesome!
This created a discussion on what people value and why they value it. We talked about the different types of value and the difference between something you need and something you want. This led to questions about how having a surplus of supplies to start with helped countries make more trades.
Teacher: What was it like for countries that had very little to start with?
Camille: It was difficult because we only had one pencil
Teacher: What helped you make trades with other countries?
Jake: We traded like crazy. We discussed it with the whole country.
Safi: We knew what we were looking for.
This lesson allowed our students to get a real feel for open trade. Some interesting things happened in this activity. First, students initially sorted out what they had and it was intriguing to see what students valued the most. Second, a special item came into play, the mirror and students were willing to trade a lot for it while those who had it, didn’t want to give it up. Third, groups with very little supplies were still able to make trades, they found strategies to trade what little they had for more useful supplies. Finally, students were able to see that some countries have more goods than others and how that can relate to a feeling of power. As we study the Age of Imperialism, we put our students in positions where they can get a true understanding of how global interactions and relationships have developed over time.