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The MLK lesson gone wrong? or Right?

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Lead from the Start: The MLK lesson gone wrong? or Right?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The MLK lesson gone wrong? or Right?

At Summit Elementary School in Idaho some Fifth grade teachers put together some hands on learning about old Jim Crow.
Teachers randomly assigned students green or yellow colors and one group was told not to talk to the other group. Bathrooms were also segregated.
Some students had trouble dealing with the experiment. From reading comments on the story in the online paper, the local community seems to support the school and teachers decisions.

Trisha Castillo: " As parent of a child who was in this exercise, I felt she retained great information that she may not have otherwise retained. My daughter felt that maybe some of the children that have used racial slurs towards her may now understand how their comments effect others and was very MATURE in the way she precieved the lesson we need to give our children more credit, they get more then you think. "
Mickey Tanner: This out-cry from parents is the reason teacher(sic) are afraid to teach outside the box or to offer up new ideas about learning. Jerome school teacher's who made any attempt to provide an educational lesson about racism or Martin Luther King, should be commended not damned.

The lesson was either very effective at portraying what it felt to be black in the south during Jim Crow or it spun into the gray area of the Stanford Prison Experiment. In that notorious experiment college students took on the roles of prisoners and guards with the experiment called off because guards became sadistic and prisoners became depressed.

The school, which opened January 7th, is home to about 450 4th and 5th grade students. The students and teachers moved to the school together, students carrying books and helping to move their desks out of their old school. This means that there are no educational statistics on Summit. But, using some old fashioned type and click investigative journalism I figure the school to be made up of a student population similar to the previous 4th - 6th grade school in Jerome.
This chart of Central Elementary in Jerome is from the National Center for Educational Statistics.

AmerInd/ALaskann Asian
Students 1 1 2 224 418

This student make-up is not at all like the school where I work. In my school the 2 students are white, 2 are Hispanic and the other 550 are African-American. Students in my school know what it feels like to be the color that no one will talk to. If that is not enough I work with an 84 year-old volunteer foster grandparent who can tell the kids what it was like before the end of Jim Crow.

What is really funny is a 36 year old white man (me) explaining to 19 African-American 4-year-olds about how the mean white man bus driver tried to make Rosa go to the back of the bus. It cracks us all up. Most of the kids don't even realize I am white until I bring up black history for the first time.

Truthfully, I am not sure Jim Crow ever left town. I think he just changed his name. Segregation is still with us in the "local" school movement and some, but definitely not all, private and charter school experiments. Now days Jim cares more about money and less about color but the prejudice is still the same.

If there was a poor decision made in the activity it was to move a 6th grade lesson down to 5th grade lesson. Students at this age may not have been emotionally mature enough to handle the "dramatization." But, if even one of those kids is less likely to judge another for the color of their skin the teachers' lesson met its' objective.

Maybe they could have taught a more modern/less emotional lesson in tolerance by allowing kids to buy their color.


At 3:34 AM, Blogger john m said...

"Maybe they could have taught a more modern/less emotional lesson in tolerance by allowing kids to buy their color."

Or by where they sit in the class.

At 11:55 AM, Blogger Melissa Rasberry said...


Thank you for posting about this story. When I taught 3rd grade, I did a similar lesson demonstrating the struggle between Native Americans and White settlers. It was interesting to see the emotional reaction of my students. Since they were younger, I only allowed the difference in treatment to last about 10-15 minutes, after which we engaged in an enlightening discussion about what it felt like to have your "territory" taken away. It was truly amazing to see the light bulbs go on in their young minds. I would stand by that lesson any day because I know it helped them to see someone else's perspective in a way they could not have experienced by listening to a lecture or reading a story.

Kudos to you, John, for pointing out the importance of lessons like these. And hurray to your students for having such a wonderful teacher!

Melissa Rasberry - CTQ/TLN

At 4:39 AM, Blogger j m holland said...

My TLN friend Michelle emailed me this personal comment I thought I would share.

Thanks John M. and Melissa for your comments.
I wonder if this objective is part of their state curriculum.

Michelle said:
This goes back to the NB(National Board) standard - know your students/know your community. I have had lessons that were wonderful most years, but when you have a sensitive student or parent you have to make changes. I've always felt like it is our job as teachers to adapt our teaching to our students, not the other way around.

I've done variations of this lesson with 2nd and 3rd grade classes without problems. I can think of a handful of students I've had (and parents) who I would never consider this lesson for, as well.

Once again - know your students, know your community, know your parents.

Michelle Wise Capen, MC-Gen
Curr Coach, NC

At 5:35 PM, Blogger j m holland said...

This story gets at the heart of why teachers are professionals and must be
prepared and trusted to make decisions. A curriculum can never make the
decision, "Is this lesson appropriate for these students at this time?"
Or make the value judgment, "Is this the best way to communicate what
students need to know and be able to do?"

While reading that article I kept thinking, "Is this the most effective way
to teach this content?" while at the same time practicing what some of us
had talked about as a teachers' Hippocratic oath?

I don't necessarily believe that learning is without frustration, fear, or
discomfort. The process of incorporating new thoughts into your personal
understanding of the world can be jarring and "violent" in that past beliefs
are replaced, usurped, and denied. This process of accommodation is not

In reading the parents comments on the story from Idaho I did see that
students and parents were notified and were able to opt out. Also not all of
the teachers participated. Does this "opt out" option change any of the
ethics on the parents, teachers, or students parts?

Another question is, if learning can be a jarring or discomforting process,
can we always "First do no harm?"

I have actually encountered something of this problem when we have acted out
the story of Rosa Parks. My (4 year old) students, who had been told the
story briefly before the activity were having fun acting out the story.
Then, one child did not want to be the white bus driver. She started to cry.
At my kids age you can't always figure out why they react the way they do so
I quickly substituted a student who was more than eager to be the bus
driver.(they were jumping up and down) I never figured out why the first
student cried but I knew that process was not the most effective way to
understand and remember the story for that child. I comforted her and
communicated with her mother that afternoon. Was my students' acting out the
specific story of Rosa Parks, different than having students role play
racists? I hope so but I am not so sure now.

At 3:44 AM, Blogger loonyhiker said...

Great story. I wonder how much communication with the community and parents went on before the lesson. Maybe this would have alleviated some fears and prevented some negative reactions.

At 9:12 AM, Blogger Jose said...

Well let me just say how refreshing it is to hear about truly concerned teachers doing their best to help students understand the effects of racism in this country. I also see the stratification of blacks and latinos still existing within the educational system, and thus, our country. Yet, people would prefer to think that MLK's dream was not deferred because it relieves them of the responsibility from owning up to the legacy of racism that still benefits them to this day. Thanks for the post ...


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