A Class Divided: An Attention Grabbing Lesson on Prejudice and Racism

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.

A Class Divided PBS Frontline Film

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

  1. What was it like to be a blue eyed student?
  2. How do you think you would react in their situation?
  3. Who suffers discrimination in our country today? How is their experience similar to this film?
  4. What caused the kids to be so mean to one another? What would you say is the cause of racism?
  5. 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.)

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About Jared Dees

Jared Dees is the creator of The Religion Teacher and has worked in catechetical ministry for over ten years. He is the Digital Publishing Specialist at Ave Maria Press and the author of 31 Days to Becoming a Better Religious Educator.

Comments

  1. Love this lesson!!! It was very controversial when I was in school. :)

    You might also want to include a discussion about treating people with disabilites differently as well as the use of “retard” and “retarded” with regards to those with Developmental Disabilites – and how offensive it is. Junior high and High School are the perfect times for those discussions.

    I firmly believe that you can’t stand up for one group while continuing to degrade another. Keep up the good work!

    Here is a site for R word discussion as well. http://www.r-word.org

    • I’m so glad you brought this up. I was adamant about this with my kids at both the junior high and high school levels. It was on the list of words that I forbid in the classroom from day one of each school year.

      • I’m so glad you brought this up. I was admamnt about this with my kids at both the junior high and high school levels. It was on the list of words that i forbid in the classroom from day one of each school year so im glad you brought this is becuase i was talking about it to my kids today.

  2. Concord Media, a Quaker charity in Britain, holds world rights (excluding USA) for DVD distribution of ‘A Class Divided’. DVDs in PAP or NTSC can be bought from us.

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