Shaving Cream, Supply, and Demand

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Students collaborating to learn together

By: Andrew J. Hull

Andrew Hull is a social studies teacher at Palmyra Area High in Pennsylvania. He teaches AP microeconomics, economics, and sports history and serves as the head coach for the boys’ soccer team.

When I was hired as a social studies teacher at Palmyra Area High School in 2013, the department was going through somewhat of a transformation. Two new department chairs were ushering in an evolutionary period—turning away from the traditional approach to teaching the subject matter and creating a new exploratory department filled with state-required courses as well those that demanded students to think in new ways and explore new topics.

As the new kid on the block, I struggled to find my niche. I was given a U.S. History course that was on the brink of being remodeled and economics—the subject no other social studies teacher wanted. I even took the next step of approaching my principal about the possibility of offering Advanced Placement (AP) microeconomics in the upcoming school year. If this was going to be my specialty, then I wanted to take it to the furthest extent that I could in my district. To my surprise, my principal was all for it.

In teaching the AP course, I had a preconceived notion of what my students would be like—intelligent, studious, and serious about their studies. Mine were no exception. One day, however, I wanted to mix things up with them. I had read about lessons from other teachers who had taught their students vocabulary using shaving cream. I thought, “Great! I can use that for AP micro when we study determinants of supply and demand.”

As students entered the room, they were divided into small groups and given a heaping mound of shaving cream. They spread the foam over their desks and were given various real-world economics scenarios. Already the look of bewilderment was upon them. I asked them to illustrate, using the shaving cream, how supply and demand equilibrium changes when given a real-world event, such as an increase in the number of petroleum suppliers in the market.

I expected them to have in-depth discussions with one another and to not make a mess. Fortunately, my initial expectations didn’t hold up. They were engaged in conversation and illustration. When one student would illustrate a change and voice his opinion, another would disagree and immediately immerse her hands in the shaving cream to prove an argument. They were referencing other current events to argue their case. What may have looked like chaos with shaving cream to a passerby was in fact student collaboration at its finest. They weren’t just learning, but applying the content in an effective manner—bridging the gap between the classroom and reality.

I have learned from my experiences with this course to have preconceived ideas for a lesson, but to be happily surprised when they are surpassed. I honestly believed that my principal was going to deny my request to teach AP micro, and I did not expect my AP micro students to get so engaged in the activity. As teachers, we love it when lessons and ideas go according to plan. But when the plan gets surpassed, we must welcome the change.