Saturday, April 4, 2015

Brown Eyes/Blue Eyes: An Experience

"The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education." 
Martin Luther King, Jr.

I open with this quote for a specific reason. Today marks the 47th anniversary of the assassination of MLK. This blog post helps illustrate both this quote and the teachings of MLK.

Raise your hand if you learned about segregation in elementary school. Good. Now raise your hand if you were able to fully comprehended the extent of segregation when you were in elementary school. Chances are, some of your hands went down. I was in a student in elementary school in the 90's, and while learned the definition of segregation, I didn't really understand it.

Fast forward 12 years, and now I am the teacher in elementary school. According to the Virginia Department of Education, as part of our Reconstruction curriculum, students are to "demonstrate knowledge of the reconstruction of Virginia following the Civil War by identifying the effects of segregation and 'Jim Crow' on life in Virginia for whites, African Americans, and American Indians." Last year, we read the textbook pages about segregation and discrimination, but I sensed that the majority of the students did not fully understand the ramifications of segregation. I teach in a predominantly white school, in an area where segregation is not a problem. The students all treat each other equally, regardless of skin color, and do not seem to care about the difference. Do not get me wrong, this is a great thing. However, I wanted students to understand segregation on a deep level, to deepen their understandings of the content, but also learn not to perpetuate segregation.

Over the weekend, I was with my girlfriend and was picking her brain for different ways I could make the content come alive for the students. She had mentioned she had seen a YouTube video about a research study in which a teacher segregated her students based on eye color. You may know this as Jane Elliott's Brown Eye/Blue Eye experience. If not, check it out here. Please be aware that there is some politically incorrect language in the video. The concept behind this was simple: students cannot control the color of their eyes, just like their skin. I saw it as a non-controversial way to illustrate segregation to students who had never experienced segregation first hand.

Notice the necklace
The next day when I arrived at school, I approached my administrators to see if this was okay with them. They fully supported me so I moved forward with my plan. I made "necklaces" out of rope for students and as they entered, I asked the students their eye color. Side note here: I am color blind, so that it why I had to ask them their eye color. If they had brown eyes, I put a necklace on them. If they had blue eyes, they proceeded with their morning work. They asked what the necklaces were for, but I smiled and told them that all would be revealed at morning meeting.

At morning meeting I let the cat out of the bag. We reviewed the concept of segregation and discrimination and I told them that they would be "living it" today. The brown eyes would be experiencing segregation, while the blue eyes would not. I laid down some parameters:
  1. Only Mr. B would be doing the segregation. While I would encourage the blue eyes to not interact with the brown eyes, I did not want the students to be mean toward each other.
  2. Everything would serve a purpose and we would be discussing it throughout the day.
  3. Regardless of how Mr. B acted today, I still cared about them all the same.
The requirements 
After they understood the guidelines, I pulled out a whiteboard that had the different requirements for each group. You can see them in the picture.

I dismissed them from morning meeting to their seats, and the game was afoot. Instantly, I saw both a brown eyed student (let's call her Jane) and a blue eyed student (let's call him Jake) were talking. To Jane I said, "Jane! Stop talking! You're acting like a typical brown eyed student,"  and to Jake, "Jake, could you please stop talking. Thank you very much." The students knew that they were in for a long day, but I knew that they would benefit.

This continued through the morning. Generally, the blue eyed students had more privileges and kindness given to them, while the other students did not. Before recess, I stopped and debriefed. I asked brown eyes how they were feeling: "Angry, sad, frustrated, like you don't like me." Some brown eyed student cried during the day. When this occurred, I would back off of them and conference with them later. I live tweeted some of their feelings throughout the day; feel free to check them out (@Mr_B_Teacher.) When I asked the blue eyes the same thing, they said they felt fine. Not a single student in the first year said they felt bad for the brown eyes. In the second year, only about one or two of the blue eyed students did.

The Recess Test
I acknowledged their feelings and said that to be fair, I would give both groups a pop quiz before recess. This was to represent a poll test before voting during Reconstruction. I passed out the tests, which are pictured here. You can easily see they were not equal. I am not even sure if the brown eyed one is solvable. Let me know in the comments below!

This continued for the entire day. We debriefed, discussed why things were happening, and how they were feeling. The brown eyes were becoming more and more frustrated, and their work also suffered. One student who usually read 135 wpm only read about 100 wpm on this day.

At the end of the day, I told the brown eyes their segregation experience was over... and it would begin for the blue eyed students the next day. The looks on both group's faces were priceless.

This year, I sent a notice home BEFORE doing our experience
One major lesson I learned in the first year was that I should have let the parents know what I was doing ahead of time. I let them know part way through the day, and one parent became very agitated. After exchanging some emails, I called them on the phone. They had misunderstood what I was doing, but after talking with them, they calmed down. Still, they didn't wish for their student to participate in the second day of the experience, so I arranged for her to do independent work in another classroom, which ironically "segregated" her from our class. Needless to say, I let the parents know well in advance this year and gave them they ability to opt out. No parents opted out this year, and the majority of parents in both years were very supportive of this.

This year, I had two major advantages that I did not have last year.

First, I asked two of my former students to come and speak with my current class about it. They reflected lots of what the current class was feeling. Out of my own curiosity, I asked them what were their top 5 memories from VA Studies last year. Both immediately responded with "Segregation Day," and had a hard time identifying anything else. These were two students who "pass advanced" their VA Studies SOL. This stuck with me. Obviously, this experience stuck with them, while other concepts had been lost. It goes to show that teaching about character will outlast much of the content we teach. I would much rather my students remember how they were treated than remember what year the Virginia Assembly began.

Skyping with Jane Elliott
Secondly, after the events of last year, I had emailed Jane Elliott. I wasn't even sure if she was still alive, and was certainly not expecting a response. I was pleasantly surprised. She thought it was a great thing that I continued her teachings, and offered to Skype with my class. By that point, it was too late in the year, but I contacted her again a few weeks ago. She was willing to Skype with my current students on Thursday, April 2, 2015. Ms. Elliott was very passionate about what she had to say, and although she sometimes went a little above the students' understanding, the students were engaged with her anecdotes. One important lesson that she brought up was that I did not physically force any student to go along with my plan, nor did any student speak out about it. The blue eyes and the brown eyes both found that it was easier to do what I said, just because I was in charge. I think this opened their eyes to realize that "The Man" is not always right. (I'm hoping this doesn't blow up in my face!) I personally learned a lot from her, including her inspiration behind the experience and how her family was ostracized for her actions. She reinforced what I was trying to teach them: My students were going to be better people through experiencing this lesson.

I feel that this was a great experience. I had originally called it an experiment, but Ms. Elliott recommended I call it an experience. If I called it an experiment, I indicated that segregation was OK by experimenting on people's lives. Obviously, this is the opposite of what I was trying to teach, and I am grateful for this mini lesson. I hope that my students will remember how it felt and stand up against this injustice. I'll close with my final thoughts I gave to the students:

"You experienced 'segregation' in a minor way in a controlled environment for 7 hours. 
I did not physically harm you and you knew it was ending at the end of the day. 
Imagine living even worse than that every single day for your entire life."

I would love to discuss this with anyone further. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!


  1. I am very interested in this project. Our school is composed of a lot of "well-off" students who know nothing of segregation other than the definition. I will get with you in the near future to chat about this. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Hey Richard,
      I would definitely recommend doing it, especially since you are in the midst of studying Reconstruction. Definitely opens their eyes and deepens understanding. Maybe we could do another GHO when you have done it to discuss experiences. We'll talk soon!

  2. My daughter is a current student in Mr. Birckbichler's 4th grade class. I would like to attest to the profound learning experience and insight she gained through the blue/green eyed vs brown eyed segregation experimention, no experience. 😉. She was able to understand in a conceptual and personal way how segregation and discrimination affected people of all races. She cried both days of the experience. (She is very sensitive.😊) She was upset by the unfair treatment of herself and others. She hated being treated unfairly, but she hated the unfair treatment of others even more. She didn't even like being "privileged" for a day. She said that it made her feel so bad for her peers. She wanted to stand up for them but she knew she couldn't. She discussed the experience in detail for many days. She wrote about her experience in her journal. She asked questions and researched. She shared her thoughts and feelings about segregation and discrimination with other family members. She made very powerful connections between our history and our present. She voiced her concerns and how she would like to make a change in the world. She wants to make sure that awful time in our nation's history never repeats itself. Thank you, Mr. B, for the profound learning experience you gave my daughter and the other children. Yes, you taught the information well(as evidenced by her 100% score on her Reconstruction assessment). But, you did far more than that. You gave the children a real world, conceptual understanding of segregation and discrimination that cannot be obtained through reading pages of a history book. Furthermore, as educators, we know and understand that the value of life lessons that teach and demonstrate character and competence are far more important and fundamental than any test could ever be. So, I thank you for the privilege to be the mother of a student in your class and a coworker.

    1. Hey Carrie,
      Thank you very much for your feedback and words of encouragement. Your daughter definitely was one who wanted to stand up for the rights of others and I know she will continue to do so as she grows older. Her knowledge of segregation will definitely stick with her and I am confident she will be an advocate for social justice. I firmly agree with your comment about the value of life lessons. In this age of high stakes testing, it can be easy to be swept up in the craze of teaching solely content. You and I believe that we have an innate responsibility to educate their character first, followed by content. I am honored to teach and grow alongside you.