Start your own Red Scare! Find the Communists…


I love the Cold War.  I was only alive for a few years of it (one of my first TV memories is watching the Berlin Wall being torn down), but I love exploring the culture, politics and emotional fervor of the Cold War.  When one of my colleagues told me about the Witch Hunt she does each year with her AP US course, I was inspired to create my own 1950s version.

Find the Communist!

Purpose: The purpose of this experiential learning activity was to illustrate how paranoia and suspicion impact groups of people.  To get students to care, I offered a bag of candy to the winning student or students.  For my young charges (juniors and seniors) this was more than enough to light a fire.  You might choose a different motivator for your class, depending on their personalities.

Procedure: Introduce it to the class as a game.  Beforehand, print out slips of paper that say either “You are a communist” or “You are not a communist.”  These can be very small, and should be easy to hide in one’s hand or pocket. (alternate version I tried on one class– do not give anyone a communist card)

You will want to put these rules up on the board, on an overhead or on PowerPoint:

1) There are communists in this class, and your job is to find them. You will all receive a card saying whether you are a communist or not.

2) You can win the game two ways:

a) Form the largest group of students without a single communist in your group

b) If you are a communist, you can win by infiltrating a group of non-communists

3) You may not show your card to anyone.  If you show your card to anyone, you will lose the game.

4) The winning group or individual will receive a prize (candy!)

Students will have a set amount of time (10-15 minutes) to get into groups.  All members of a group must agree before they let someone in.  Groups may split up and merge with other groups as necessary.  In the end, the communists must reveal their identity and winners are given their prizes.

Wrap-up and Discussion: Then you have students answer a few questions and discuss.  The question sheets can be collected for a grade.

1) What was your identity?  Communist/not a communist

2) Were you accused of being a communist?   How did it make you feel?

3) How did you convince people you were not a communist?  Were you successful?

4) Did you accuse anyone else of being a communist?  Why did you think they were a communist?  Were they really one?

5) How did the behavior of people in our class change?

The discussion results in the two classes I tried (one honors class, one rowdy standard level class) this on were everything I had hoped for.  Students were quick to accuse gregarious students, theater students, and other notable students of being communists.  Quieter kids always slipped under the radar.  Students were genuinely motivated to get the candy, and the tiniest seed of dissent (“Are you sure everyone in this group is okay?”  “Mon was in the school play.  Are you sure you can believe what she says?”) got people kicked out of groups.  Both classes wildly overestimated the number of communists.  In an honors class of 22 students, I assigned zero communists, but they were certain that they had identified 3.  Students reported that people raised their voices, they felt like their friends didn’t believe them, and people shut out anyone who they thought would keep them from getting candy.  Incidentally, if a quiet student was a assigned as a communist, they were rarely suspected and always earned candy.

I was worried that students would be a little traumatized by being accused by their friends and classmates, but they were laughing about it shortly after.  If your class vibe wouldn’t permit this, don’t try it, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much suspicion I could create in two cohesive, sane classes.

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2 Responses to “Start your own Red Scare! Find the Communists…”

  1. Becca Says:

    Stealing this! Totally stealing this! I think it would be a great exercise at the college level with my 19-year-olds (especially since they feel younger to me than my previous classes …). I try to get them to think about their beliefs and why they have them (Communists are bad because … everyone says they are) and I think this could be a great eye-opener, especially since they all seem so proud of being individuals and not giving in to the general opinion.

  2. scootles7 Says:

    Were students asking real communist-type questions, such as union membership or liberal viewpoints? Or was there more of a “you look sketchy” type of thinking happening? Sounds like a neat activity, might try it sometime.

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