Work, Consumerism, Amazon Trial

In my US History class this past year I was looking for a way to infuse energy and new ideas into the beginning of our second semester. Throughout the first half of the year students had been in the role of historians, examining issues through sources, producing work that developed interpretations and reflected on what it means to do history. Most recently they had completed individual research papers. I felt there was an opening for a unit to connect past to present and allow students to be involved in a highly participatory activity.

I began to process several different factors that could influence my planning. Throughout the year, several of my students had been sharing stories from their jobs with me. In addition to time at school, some of my them worked extraordinary hours, sometimes in miserable contexts. I reflected on the fact that in our course we hadn’t yet focused on labor history nor had any of our units specifically focused on women’s history. At the same time a major news story was unfolding as New Yorkers were demonstrating resistance to the idea of Amazon opening a second headquarters in the city. Many of my students seemed to give very little critical thought to the consumer culture that permeates our lives. These seemingly disconnected points and desires swirled around in my head, proving to be the starting point for a unit.

What if we studied work at different points in US history? This would provide an opportunity to learn about female factory workers in places like Lowell, Massachusetts in the 19th Century. Students could relate their own experiences. Studying work would mean learning about consumerism and economics as well. This would provide a rationale for case studies of the New Deal, the Great Society, and Reaganomics, all very influential periods in US economic history that were not well understood by my students.

But why study these things? What would it lead to? My ideas were still very rough as I began to talk about them with friends and colleagues. A colleague reminded me of a resource I had once shared with him. Rethinking Schools has an excellent model for trials where multiple groups are on trial at once, all facing the same charge. Each group must research in order to prosecute others and defend themselves. Maybe this was a way to structure part of the unit about the role of the Amazon corporation in modern society? Another colleague pointed me towards a documentary of the Homestead Strike and a documentary about the implosion of Enron. These sources could be different case studies about worker and corporate power in two different eras of US history. If I found solid sources on Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers movement, I could include this as a case study on worker organizing and solidarity, developing connections that would unify the inquiry.

I was excited about the resources and my early ideas but did not have the larger framework that would make this a coherent unit for students. I began to craft Essential Questions, hoping this would help me clarify my goals. As always with EQ’s, I struggled to craft them in a way that would provide openings and a reasonable amount of direction. I came up with:

  • In what ways has work led to progress?
  • In what ways has work been used to oppress?
  • How have government and corporations influenced the nature of work throughout US history?
  • What roles should government and corporations fill today?

Never entirely satisfied with the questions I create, I decided to move forward with my planning, knowing that I could make revisions before sharing the questions with the students early in the unit. I began to divide the unit into sections, gathering resources that I was considering for each section.

  1. Case Studies of Worker Experience: Lowell, Homestead, United Farm Workers, and student lives
  2. Case Studies of Government Policy: New Deal, Great Society, Reaganomics
  3. Modern Day Work, Consumerism, and Corporate Power: Story of Stuff video, Enron Film, Amazon Trial

The unit was beginning to take shape but still felt far from coherent. I was choosing examples that spanned hundreds of years. How could I have these different contexts make sense to students? What would it take for different parts of the unit to feel connected and lead to larger insights about history, society, and students’ lived realities? As I puzzled through the design aspects of all that I was hoping to achieve, I wrote journal prompts that I could use to start class and spark discussions for different parts of the unit:

  • What different things can make work fulfilling and/or worthwhile? Do most people manage to find fulfillment through their paid work? Why or why not?
  • [In response to the song Are My Hands Clean? By Sweet Honey in the Rock] What are some of the different messages of the song? Are your hands clean? Explain why or why not.
  • In what ways have industrialization and technological advancements led to social progress? In what ways have these changes negatively impacted people’s lives?
  • In what different ways does extreme inequality influence a society? Would it be possible for the US not to have extremely rich and extremely poor people?
  • Our economic system runs according to certain assumptions. How would you articulate these “unspoken rules” that guide our society?

While the Amazon Trial would be the culminating assessment I realized that this was a unit where multiple, smaller projects relating to different topics would be necessary to structure the learning. Early in the unit I could have students write about their own experiences with work and then use an excerpt from Karl Marx’s Manuscripts of 1884 in order for students to comprehend and also question ideas of the alienation of labor. Then, students could sort through sources from the Lowell Mills in order to create mini museum exhibits focusing on specific aspects of the experience of the female mill workers. Students could present these exhibits to each other in small groups to gain a wider understanding of the mills. The documentary of the Homestead strikes and subsequent strikebreaking could lead to an Op Ed writing project. Some of these could be shared out loud and commented on by the class, leading to a larger discussion of worker organizing and corporate power. The case studies on the role of government could lead to a comparative chart to deepen understanding. These charts would then serve as a piece of evidence for the trial. Understanding how these different parts could fit together made me feel less insecure about the weeks ahead although I still had more designing and lesson planning to do in order to make the learning coherent for students.

Four weeks into the unit, we were approaching the trial, but I still had more decisions to make. I knew that the Enron documentary, The Smartest Guys in the Room, would be a helpful resource but I was concerned about the length of the unit and needed to decide which parts of the film to show so that we could begin trial prep. There were several laws and historic reference points that everyone would need to know in order to make the trial a success. Knowing that a whole class lecture would not be a very effective way for people to obtain this information, I included these sources in the trial evidence bank and would require members of each group to research and then teach the rest of their group as a checkpoint in the trial prep. (Full details of the trial charges and structure can be found in the appendix.)

On the official trial introduction day (after having alluded to the trial repeatedly throughout earlier parts of the unit,) I begin by asking students how many of them will use Amazon by the end of the day. Many hands are raised followed by many others as students pointed out that streaming a video or family members ordering things should also count. I am a little stunned. I knew that Amazon was enmeshed in all of our lives but I did not expect more than 90% of students to raise their hands.

Now is the time to introduce the trial, a moment that I hope will be a compelling start to our larger inquiry. “With the understanding that Amazon has an enormous role in our society, please listen closely to these charges. You will find out your group later this period but first I want you to share your initial thoughts about who seems to be most guilty in this trial. Keep in mind that each group’s performance during the trial will determine the actual final outcome.”

In a loud, official-sounding voice I read from the trial doc:

Amazon has dramatically shifted the nature of work and consumerism in the US. With over half a million employees and recent profits of over two and a half billion dollars in a single quarter, the corporation has changed daily lives and understandings of our economic system. There are many ways that one can claim Amazon has improved our lives. This trial is about the other side of the story.

The Charges:

Amazon has taken advantage of the people, duping them into integrating their lives into a system that is based on private profits, worker exploitation, and environmental destruction.

The following groups are on trial: Amazon Executives, US Elected Officials, US Consumers, Amazon Workers, and the System of Profit.

I pause my overview to add some commentary:

I do want to acknowledge that there are many ways one can argue that Amazon has improved lives. This would also be a very interesting debate but is not the focus of our trial. The trial is focused on the negative impacts of the growth of Amazon. At this point, please go to the trial doc, read the specific charges against each group and share your initial ideas of who is most guilty. We’ll talk as a class in 15 minutes.

Having framed the trial in this way for students, I continue to puzzle through decisions I made as I ask myself additional questions about the unit design. Why are we not spending more class time on the success of Amazon? Why not take more time to celebrate and acknowledge this ground-breaking business model? These questions help me focus on my teaching goals and encourage me to re-articulate some of my vision for the work. I remind myself that my students know about consumerism, convenience, and corporate success. These perspectives are apparent in the hundreds of ads they are exposed to every day. They know less about the reality behind the ads, the stories untold, and the alternatives unexplored. Learning about these other narratives is what opens the door to thinking about possibility and change. It is what allows students to understand the world more deeply and use their education to position themselves as agents who make independent decisions rather than subjects who act without intention.

After students have read the charges and discussed at their tables, we came together again as a whole class. In the discussion I was happy to hear the range of ideas about guilt, glad to know that I had designed the trial in a way that students did not feel the outcome was preordained. Over the next several days I created checkpoints for student groups as they do prep work on their shared group docs. Not until groups could show me that they had met research goals, including analysis of specific sources I had provided each group, did I allow them to proceed to writing opening statements and other trial components required before we would start the trial. Some groups immediately developed a cohesive work dynamic where tasks were shared. For others, I spent time sitting with them, helping them set up systems to assign tasks and share information together effectively.

During the trial days most students were highly engaged. The classroom was now configured as a courtroom with a witness stand up front facing a semicircle of tables each of which represented one of the different groups. At the beginning of classes, students began conferring as soon as they were seated, even before I reminded them of the agenda for each day, including which groups would be prosecuted first, the order of cross examinations, and ways that they should be collaborating to ensure success for their group. At times the role play becomes heated and, as judge, I have to decide how to best manage aggressive prosecutors or evasive defendants. By reminding groups that prosecution and testimony must be rooted in evidence and by regularly asking students to reference their sources, I steer the trial towards a path of accuracy although there are times when I need to intervene and offer ideas to provide clarity or a fuller account of the situation being discussed.

After the final day of the trial when a member from each group has read their closing statement, I invite students to say goodbye to their group members and move to other seats in the room. “Congratulations on successfully completing this historic trial about the role of Amazon in our society. Now is the time when we need to decide who is most guilty. You are no longer a member of any group but must be a neutral member of the jury. You have 100 points of guilt to assign and must justify the number of points you give each group, based on what happened in the trial. Go to the discussion forum for jury deliberations to see details.” Online, students see the following:

As a member of the jury you have 100 points of guilt to assign. At this point you cannot be loyal to any group but must demonstrate your ability to be an impartial member of the jury.

For each group, assign a number of points of guilt accompanied by 1-3 sentences that use specific quotes or moments from the trial to explain the amount of guilt you assigned. Points will not be counted without adequate explanations. Others may ask you to further explain your designation of guilt if your points are not adequately justified. The sum must equal 100.

The trial ends with a large tally of points of guilt on the board and a discussion of the ways our trial matched these dynamics and issues in the real world. While there are many ways the trial provided insight into our society it is important for the class to recognize the ways different groups were represented in inaccurate ways.

While there were times during the unit when I worried that the content was disjointed and that I was not doing enough for students to develop or investigate different connections, the Trial Response Paper emerged as an assignment that pushed students towards deeper understandings. By asking students to use this writing to connect to other parts of the unit, many students articulated connections that revealed the value of thematic units that connect different periods of history. The prompt for the response paper read:

Write a paper that explains at least three things that the trial revealed or that you learned from this process. At least one of the things you write about must connect to other parts of our Work Unit. You may choose to address the ways our trial accurately or inaccurately reflected different realities within our society. Use specific quotes, summaries of specific parts of the trial, and/or quotes from your research to explain and back up the points you make.

Students wrote about a range of topics, meaning that the learning was broad and often individualized. For Krystal, the most important piece of learning was about the ways power is (or isn’t) share between groups:

In our work unit we discussed about power distribution between the workers and company owners. During those discussions as a class we often spoke about how much power a group of workers have when united, and when companies meticulously ensure that unions do not exist…. Lastly in our work unit we spoke of how much power the consumers and workers have in general.

For Kevin, one of the biggest takeaways was insights about corporate taxes and deception:

It was really interesting that Amazon had paid no federal taxes in the last few years. That was something I didn’t know about and it reminded me of Enron lying about their numbers.

Monica’s focus was the role of consumers:

Another thing the trial revealed is how people are unaware of their actions. The consumers have stated that they continue to buy from Amazon because of their cheap prices, deals and convenience, but what they do not know is that they are adding fuel to the fire as they continue to let Amazon profit with poor conditions for their workers.

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