'OCCUPY WALL STREET': A lesson for middle grades

October 6, 2011

Students learn about the Occupy Wall Street protest, discuss wealth disparity, consider some statistics, make their own charts, and find out what some of the protesters want and and why.

'We are the 99%':  Occupy Wall Street Protest


  • Students will learn the meaning of 99% and do math problems calculating 99%
  • Students will learn about the Occupy Wall Street Protest
  • Students will learn about wealth and wealth disparity 
  • Students will learn what some of the protesters want and need and why they are angry
  • Students will learn how to make an infographic


  • 100 pieces of some object 
  • "I am the 99 percent" photo/statement handouts (attached) 
  • Examples of infographics printed out (you will need color printer) or available online if interactive
  • Construction paper, markers, crayons



Many elementary schools celebrate the 100th Day of School by asking the students to bring in 100 of something (e.g. paper clips, pieces of pasta, dried beans, toothpicks, crayons) to illustrate what 100 looks and feels like. Prior to the lesson, ask students to bring in 100 of something. Or, you can bring in 100 of something. Lay it on the table and ask a student to come up and count it out loud. Then ask another student to come up and put 99% of it on one side of the table and 1% of it on the other side. This means 99 pieces will be on one side and 1 piece on the other.



What is 99%?

Write 99% in big letters on board and ask: What is 99%? Draw a circle around the "99%" and create a semantic web asking: What words describe 99%? What does it mean? How much is it? How does it feel?

Students may come up with words such as: majority, almost all, most, many, huge amount, nearly everything, etc. Then ask: What are some examples of something you would like 99% of? Can you think of examples of attributes that 99% of people (i.e. the majority) have? It may be difficult or impossible for them to think of examples. Then ask if there's anything they think 99% of people should have, feel, or need?

To give students a feel for what 99% of a group of people represents, have them compute 99% of the population of your school (e.g. if your school has 2000 students, 99% of the school population is 1980). If they are not yet able to multiply large numbers, you can do it on the board and show them the answer. Show them how much 99% (1980) is and how much the other 1% is (20). Then take the population of your city/town, or of the United States (311,000,000) and have them compute 99% of that (answer is 307,890,000).

Then ask: How about 1%? Make a similar semantic web (next to the 99% web) of 1%, recording the students' responses to words describing it such as: very few, not very much, minority, small amount, etc.


Class discussion:

Occupy Wall Street Protest

Ask: Has anyone ever been to, participated in, or heard about a protest or demonstration? Define protest as "an expression or declaration of objection, disapproval, or dissent, often in opposition to something a person is powerless to prevent or avoid: a protest against increased taxation.. Give some examples from our history that the students may know about (Montgomery Bus Boycott, March on Washington, Women's Suffrage Movement etc.). Ask: What was the protest about? What were the protesters trying to accomplish?

Then ask: Does anyone know about a protest that is going on right now? Have you heard of the "Occupy Wall Street"? (Or other "occupation" protests going on around the country?) Have students share what they know. Fill in the blanks with the background information below. 

Background: Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street is a group of activists who want to change the way money, wealth, and income are distributed in the U.S. They want to change the fact that there is a very big difference between how much money and wealth rich and poor people have. A group of them came together in New York City on September 17, 2011, and began gathering in Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan near Wall Street. Several hundred stay overnight and sleep in sleeping bags. The original idea for the protest was for them to stay there and camp out for weeks or even months.

Most of the demonstrators are in their teens or 20s, but there are many who are older. Many are students. Many don't have jobs. Others have jobs but have put their normal lives on hold to be part of the protest. At Zuccotti Park, there are information stations, a recycling center, a medical station, a media center where a gasoline generator powers computers. At the east end sits the library, labeled cardboard boxes brimming with donated books: nonfiction, fiction, poetry, legal. There is a lost and found.

The protesters are concerned about many issues, and have varied points of view. But the main focus of the protest is about inequality in our country. The protesters say: "The one thing we all have in common is that we are the 99%, and that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%." The 1% refers to the "haves": people who run banks and insurance companies and those who are very rich and often pay less taxes than other people. The 99% refers to the "have-nots": everyone else.

At this point, you may need to define the following words. First, elicit the meaning from them and then give them definition if necessary.

Activist: advocating or opposing a cause or issue vigorously, especially a political cause

Greed: excessive desire, especially for wealth or possessions

Wealth: a great quantity or store of money, valuable possessions, property, or other riches

Income: monetary payment received for goods or services

Corruption: dishonest practices such as bribery; lacking integrity

Since the occupation began, protesters have marched to police headquarters because they didn't like the way the police were treating them. They had a march over the Brooklyn Bridge where hundreds of protesters were arrested (and released that night). People inspired by the protest in New York set up similar occupations in cities across the country including Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, and Washington, DC. Celebrities, government officials, and professors have been stopping by to talk with the protesters and support their cause.

Part of the Occupy Wall Street protest is a website called "We are the 99%." On this website, people supporting the occupation post pictures of themselves and words explaining why they support the protest.

General mission statement of "We are the 99%" 
(Read aloud to students)

We are the 99 percent. We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we're working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent.

Ask: What do you think this statement means? Who is speaking? What are they saying? How are they feeling and how do you know? When the protesters say "1% is getting everything," what do they mean?

Ask: What does "wealth" mean? Explain that wealth consists of things that have financial value which people own or have such as land, houses/real estate, stocks, money in the bank, businesses, etc. Wealth is not the same as one's salary (the paycheck you bring home) but often people who have a high income also have a lot of wealth, and often those with low salaries have very little wealth. In fact people with low incomes are often in debt - they owe more than they own.

Ask: Do you think it's true that the top 1% have 99% of the wealth? Say: It's not true, but it is true that the 1% have a huge share of the wealth - more than at any time in our history. Here are some statistics. (As you are giving these numbers, draw a circle and fill in the stats to make a pie chart to show the disparity.)

The wealthiest 1% of the population now own over 44% of the financial wealth. 
The next 4% own 29% of the wealth.
The next 5% own 11% of the wealth.
The next 10 % own 10% of the wealth.
The bottom 80% (i.e. most of the people) own 7% of the wealth.

Illustrate these percentages using the beans (or whatever object you used in the gathering).

Say: The United States has the highest inequality of wealth in the industrialized world and the highest inequality of wealth in our nation's history. Ask: Why do you think this is the case? How do you feel about it?

Small Group Activity: 

Make an Infographic

To help students understand the information better, they will work in small groups and create "infographics." Infographics are picture representations of information or data. They tend to be more interesting than regular number graphs and use pictures which illustrate their point. Sometimes they are interactive. You often see them in newspapers or online.

Ask students if they have ever seen an infographic and have them explain. Show them a few examples of infographics. Here are a few samples or you could go online and find others. Ask: What is the difference between a regular number graph and an infographic?

How Different Groups Spend their Time
The Cost Efficiency of Transportation
Immigrant Explorer
Leading Causes of Death

Divide students into small groups of 3-4. Distribute markers, crayons, and construction paper. Have them look at the numbers and pie chart you created to describe the wealth statistics. Have them discuss the numbers and what they mean and then brainstorm together ideas about how they can turn these numbers into infographics. Have students report back to the whole group after they have completed their infographics.

Ask students: Did making your infographic make you see the numbers in the chart differently? If so, how?


Small Group Activity: 

"I Am 99%" Photos and Statements

Remind students about overall statement by protesters:

We are the 99 percent. We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we're working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent.

Say: To learn more about how and why the protesters are upset about wealth inequality in our country, we are going to learn about some of the individual protesters - and people who support them. Many protest supporters have written statements about why they are protesting and they took photos of themselves with their statements.

Explain that the students will be divided into groups of 3-4 and each group will get a photo and statement of one of the protesters. Groups will have 15 minutes to read the statement aloud and discuss the following questions. Decide how the group will report back to the whole class (either the whole group or one spokesperson will report). 

Questions for Groups:

a. What's going on here?
b. What does this person need?
c. How is s/he feeling?
d. What are some solutions to address their problem/situation?
e. What would you ask her/him?

Possible Photos/Statements:

Below are 7 statements and photos from the website (as pdf). See the website for more possibilities: www.wearethe99percent.tumblr.com)


After working in small groups, have each group come up to the front of the class and present their photo and statement, and their group's responses to the questions. Allow other students to ask questions of each group.

Large Group Discussion

As a class, create a list of all the issues addressed by the individual statements. This will likely include: healthcare, housing, jobs, student loans, etc. Ask: what do all of these issues have in common?

Discuss: Why do you think these people wrote these statements, photographed themselves, and put them on a website? Is that effective? What else could they do? How did you feel after reading all of the statements?




Have every student think of one word or one phrase (2-4 words) describing the protesters. Write them on the board. If possible, make into a poem.


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.org by Jinnie Spiegler. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org.