In teaching, I always do my best to make things personal. Not always in a bad way, but so that students can relate to what they are learning.
The French Revolution is no exception.
This year is the second time now that I have done this activity, and it has worked wonders in helping the students truly understand the feelings and emotions of that time period.
I always kick off my unit with this activity. They have NO clue what is going on, therefore don't necessarily get that I am "tricking" them.
For starters, I write on the board that there will be a pop quiz today. The quiz, however, will be multiple choice and on colors (this makes them stop freaking out so much). I also let them know that they will be able to "buy" the answers or the English version of the quiz at the end of our activity for certain amounts of euros.
Next, I randomly (I use cards that have "R", "P" or "N" on it, you can use what you want) assign them to three groups: Royalty, Nobles/Clergy and Peasants. I don't call them these titles because I don't want them to understand quite yet what is going on. I usually do 2 royalty, 4 nobles and the rest as peasants.
Once they are separated, I give them each 5 fake euros for starters. It makes them feel that they are starting out "fair". But then I simulate everything that is going on. This is how a "quarter" works:
1. I point out that the R's are in charge of the class. They are in charge of their well being and must be answered to if there are any problems. Because they do SO much for the class, each Peasant must give each R one euro (so they are out two total). The R's end up with roughly 20 euro apiece from this.
*I make the peasants get out of their chairs to hand the royalty the money. This simulates them working to give the money*
2. I then say that because the N's are such great students, they deserve 4 euros apiece. I take 4 euros from the "bank" in my hand and just give it to the N's. I hand the money off to them.
3. I then take 5 euros from each royal, pointing out that it costs money to run a classroom.
4. Next, I take 2 euros from each noble because they do need to make sure the electricity and heat is running in the room.
5. Finally, I give one euro to each peasant because they work SO hard. I make them come and get the euro, though, so they have to "work" for it.
I do these 5 steps THREE total times. I might change the wording or the amounts by 1 (which can indicate famine or prosperity), but in the end, the royals have roughly 30-40 euro, the nobles have 10-12 and the peasants have 1 or 2.
Once this is done, I hand out the quiz to EVERYONE. It is multiple choice and asks questions about colors. However, it is in French. I use vocabulary they do not know and ask questions they may not know the answer to (what color is Mme's car...what color is a 100 euro bill...etc). First, I ask if anyone wants to buy the answers for 20 euro (obviously only the royals can afford this). Then I ask if anyone wants to buy the English translations for 10 euro (only the nobles can afford this). Then I make them take the quiz. Hopefully nobody asks if it counts, but if they do, I just say "it is a quiz and will go in the quiz category" so I don't have to give them a direct answer.
After about 5 minutes, we grade it. I point out that 1 wrong is a B, 2 is a C, etc. The kids always get REALLY upset. But then I calm them down and say "this test does not count".
Once we are done, we discuss it (usually still without the Revolution context). I ask each group how they feel and what they would change, and then they have an open discussion about it. Eventually it catches on that this is about the Revolution and the "lightbulb" goes off.
I love this activity because it momentarily places them in the roles of the revolution without actually harming their grade or being unfair.