Teaching about prejudice and racism calls for more than just direct instruction and lecture. Using inductive teaching strategies is crucial to grabbing students’ attention. Some of the most memorable lessons that I have taught incorporated some authentic role-playing on my part.
The best example of authentic role-playing by a teachers is featured in the PBS Frontline film, “A Class Divided.” Jane Elliott divided her class into two groups: those with brown eyes and those with blue eyes. She introduced her simulation as a way of teaching about discrimination in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr’s death. She purposefully treated blue eyed students better than the brown eyed students and gave one group more rights than the other.
The students were given a concrete experience of racism that they would never forget. This group of all white students were now able to put themselves in the shoes of people who suffer from discrimination and racism, even if it was only for a short time.
I tried this with my students in conjunction with showing the PBS film. For the first fifteen minutes of class, they were separated into brown eyed students and blue eyed students. Surprisingly, a group of high school juniors actually believed that I held blue eyed people in higher esteem, even though I had been their teacher for months.
It all made sense when watching the movie. They could put themselves in the shoes of the students (and more importantly those who suffered and continue to suffer the effects of racism in our world). It was one of the lessons that the kids were talking about in the halls. One girl came into the class later that day for a different session and said, “I heard we have a great class planned today. What are we doing?” She had blue eyes, so I praised her for asking such an astute question.
Try this or another inductive teaching simulation. Instead of leading with the facts in an organized, structured way (deductive teaching), lead with a story, an experience, an authentic role-play, or a simulation (inductive teaching). Use this concrete experience throughout the unit as a teaching tool.
Showing the PBS Frontline Movie: A Class Divided
This movie is available for free at PBS Frontline (you need an Internet connection). When I first showed it, I used the copy that we had in the school library, but I’m not able to find a good location to purchase the DVD online.
Disclaimer: Make sure you provide a disclaimer to the video. Because of the time period in with it was shot, there is some language that is offensive to us today.
A Class Divided Video Discussion Questions
- What was it like to be a blue eyed student?
- How do you think you would react in their situation?
- Who suffers discrimination in our country today? How is their experience similar to this film?
- What caused the kids to be so mean to one another? What would you say is the cause of racism?
- How did things change once the kids roles were switched?
(I just found a great follow-up activity. Send your students to the PBS website (Join the Discussion) and have them enter their reactions to viewing the movie online. Have the click “share your thoughts” and enter in their responses.)
Filed Under: Social Justice, Teaching StrategiesTagged With: prejudice, racism, video
Where can I get a copy of A Class Divided?
You can watch the program here on this web site and you can also purchase a videotape through ShopPBS for Teachers.
Have other films been made about Jane Elliott’s blue-eyed/brown-eyed lesson in discrimination?
The very first documentary about Elliott’s exercise was made by William Peters in 1970 for ABC News. He filmed Elliott conducting her exercise with her third-grade class in Riceville, Iowa. The program was called Eye of the Storm.
In 1985 Peters produced A Class Divided for FRONTLINE. This film included original footage from Eye of the Storm and also chronicled a 1984 mini-reunion of Elliott’s third graders, now young adults, who talk about the effect her lesson has had on their lives. It also showed Elliott teaching her lesson to adult employees of Iowa’s prison system and documented how their reactions to her exercise were similar to those of the children.
In the years which followed, four more films about the exercise were produced: a German filmmaker made Blue Eyed, which showed Jane Elliott conducting the exercise with Kansas City adults; the film Eye of the Beholder documented the exercise in Miami, Florida; the 2000 video The Angry Eye showed Elliott conducting her exercise with another group of adults; and in 2001 an Australian producer chronicled the exercise in a program called Stolen Eye. Finally, in 2003, there is an American made-for-TV movie in development which will star Susan Sarandon as Jane Elliott.
What has been the impact of A Class Divided?
A Class Divided is one of the most-requested programs in FRONTLINE’s 20-year history and is in high demand by educators, organizations, corporations and diversity trainers throughout the United States. The program also has been televised in many countries, including Australia, Japan, Canada, England, France, Germany, Sweden, Russia, Trinidad, Barbados, Norway, Denmark, Belgium and the former Yugoslavia.
Following the broadcasts of Eye of the Storm and A Class Divided Jane Elliott was asked to appear on several television shows, was interviewed by many newspapers and magazines, and a book about her became a bestseller. But unfortunately, many in her Iowa hometown were not happy with what she had done. Teachers resented the attention she received, some in the community complained that blacks might be attracted to the town, and Jane Elliott’s children were taunted by other children.
What is Jane Elliott doing today?
Having retired from teaching several years ago, she now travels frequently throughout North America and abroad giving lectures. Her longtime crusade continues — to teach about the meaning of discrimination, what it feels like, and how it can change a person. In some of her appearances, she also conducts her exercise with adults in the audience. For more about Jane Elliott today, read her interview with FRONTLINE.
Originally published January 2003