The Most Appealing Peanut
While her fourth-grade students get organized, Lydia Hamn walks up and down the rows giving everyone one peanut. A low murmur fills the room and Lydia smiles. "Hey, what is this for?" blurts out a student, holding his peanut above his mouth ready to drop it in.
"Each one of you is in the department of advertising for a peanut company, and it's your job to sell this peanut," Lydia announces. "You can use any technique you'd like: You can give your peanut a name, you can write poetry about it, you can even use gimmicks that you've seen on TV. I also happen to have a box over here filled with material with which you can package your peanut." Lydia opens a box filled with gift paper, little boxes, sequins, foil and many other decorations. She gives the students the rest of the hour to package their product. A shuffle of chairs and bodies fills the room as students move about excitedly gathering their supplies.
By the end of the hour,a neat display of packaged peanuts lines the windowsills. Each package has a number and Lydia explains that the next day when the students come back, she'll have them be consumers and go out and order their favorite peanut. When the bell rings to end class, the students leave the room talking excitedly among themselves about their efforts to create the most appealing peanut.
"They can buy anyone's peanut but their own," Lydia says in the empty room. "Inevitably, the majority of the students pick the fancier, more elaborate packaging jobs," she chuckles, pointing to the biggest package, wrapped in brightly colored cellophane with sequins. "The real discussion starts when I ask them what it was that they really wanted. Just the peanut," she emphasizes. "But. you got all this extra stuff and what are you going to do with that, I ask them. From there we roll into a discussion about packaging and what companies do to entice people to buy their products.
"The idea here isn't to point any fingers at particular companies," continues Lydia, "but to help students become aware that there are choices they can make in terms of being a consumer, and there are many implications to the choices they make.
"One little girl told me she made a big sacrifice by giving up her favorite pizza, one that was fully packaged with a colorful cover. She chose another brand with less packaging and now she says she likes it just as much. Another little boy, who was having a birthday party announced to his friends that they shouldn't buy him anything with a great amount of packaging and that they should just bring it in a paper bag. Many of my students also come to school bringing forks and spoons from home, instead of using the plastic ones in the lunchroom.
"This is only the beginning of our consumer behavior unit," explains Lydia. "From there, we get into material on landfills and what's biodegradable. We even do a little experiment where we bury typical trash items for three months. After three months, we dig it out and typically find that hardly anything has degraded, not even the newspaper. This leads to a discussion about the process by which materials are broken down.
"We also spend a couple weeks weighing our trash at home to see if it fits with the national average. I have the students notice what goes into their garbage and then think of ways in which their garbage could be minimized. Many of them spend several days designing ways in which they can reuse products.
"It's really exciting to see their enthusiasm," Lydia says. "When I first started doing some of these activities, our former principal was not very supportive. He felt it was more important to stick with the curriculum mandates, but I was so excited about the subject area that I went ahead and did some activities anyway. With our new principal, I have a lot more support and I'm hoping I can expand my progam and try many more things.
"Although the parents tease me about the little adjustments they've made in their buying habits, I can tell they're supportive," Lydia says. "They share stories about how their grandmother has always reused things. And they realize that it's really saving them money."