Nickel and Dimed: A Simulation Unit

The mind of a teacher: it’s always going one million miles a minute and we have to be twenty-five steps ahead at all times.


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So here it is, two days before I leave for Istanbul, and my mind immediately takes me to the 24th, the mere 7 hours after my returning flight lands.  My English III class will be reading our first nonfiction novel, Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich.


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Millions of Americans work full time, year round, for poverty-level wages. In 1998, Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them. She was inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that a job — any job — can be the ticket to a better life. But how does anyone survive, let alone prosper, on $6 an hour? To find out, Ehrenreich left her home, took the cheapest lodgings she could find, and accepted whatever jobs she was offered. Moving from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, she worked as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing-home aide, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. She lived in trailer parks and crumbling residential motels. Very quickly, she discovered that no job is truly “unskilled,” that even the lowliest occupations require exhausting mental and muscular effort. She also learned that one job is not enough; you need at least two if you int to live indoors.

Nickel and Dimed reveals low-rent America in all its tenacity, anxiety, and surprising generosity — a land of Big Boxes, fast food, and a thousand desperate stratagems for survival. Read it for the smoldering clarity of Ehrenreich’s perspective and for a rare view of how “prosperity” looks from the bottom. You will never see anything — from a motel bathroom to a restaurant meal — in quite the same way again.

So here is my thought about this unit:


I want the students to have a parallel experience to Barbara’s.  Of course I cannot expect them to A.) get a job, or B.) immerse themselves completely into this novel, but I do want them to try and put themselves in someone else’s shoes and possibly prepare them for their future responsibilities.  With that in mind, I want to create a simulation for the students.  There are several factors that will be included:

Jobs based upon a high school diploma:

  • Wal-Mart employee
  • Publix cashier
  • Retail Clerk
  • Office Assistant
  • Day Laborer

Weekly Income vs. Physical Toll:

This is where I want to help students realize that there is a physical as well as a mental drain that comes from working.

Creating a budget 

When I first moved out on my own and had to balance rent, insurance, a car payment, groceries, a cell phone bill, etc. I didn’t know how to handle my paycheck in relation to my responsibilities.  I was very lucky to have been able to live rent-free for the first two years of my post-college life, but that didn’t prepare me for managing my money.  I was able to go out and buy a new outfit whenever I wanted.  Once I had a significant percentage of my paycheck going to adult things, I wasn’t mature enough to handle it.  I ended up opening many credit cards and it took almost eight years to pay them off.  I want my students to have some insight into the importance of this and with Ehrenreich’s help, I believe that we can double-team them into seeing money in a more responsible way than I did.

Planning for a rainy day:

One thing that I didn’t realize until it was too late, AKA I was in credit card debt up to my eyeballs, that I had never put away any money for an emergency.  I got a flat tire and I had no money to replace it, and suddenly those new pair of shoes didn’t seem so glamorous.


I am going to be having my students return to the world of blogging.  I went there with them last semester for their Project Nerdfighter Genius Hour venture.  The blogging would have them take on the persona of the worker/budgeter created during the simulation.

One thought on “Nickel and Dimed: A Simulation Unit

  1. Pingback: Immersion Essay Project | Forever Within the Numbered Pages

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