"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|
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:
- 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.
- Everything would serve a purpose and we would be discussing it throughout the day.
- Regardless of how Mr. B acted today, I still cared about them all the same.
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|
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|
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|
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!