Today we did another lesson on Martin Luther King, Jr. (I teach Science or Social Studies every Tuesday and Thursday.) Our kids were starting to remember the stories, but I didn't think they'd really gotten just how unfair everything was.
I started out by doing a read-aloud, but on the SmartBoard. I called students to sit by what color they were wearing. I told them, "Well, red shirts are the best, so if you have a red shirt, come sit in the front row." A couple of kids looked at me quizzically, but they went with it. "Blue shirts, I guess you're okay. Come on up in the second row. Remember, only red shirts are good enough to be in front." Then I continued. "Everyone else..."
The other kids started to stand up, but I said, "You have to stay at your seats." There were a couple of angry faces, but only one spoke out and I shushed him quickly. "Now I need someone to go turn off the lights." Hands shot up. "But it's an important job, so I want someone with a red shirt."
We went on to read this book, and when I had a question to ask, I only called on kids with red shirts. One time I said another student's name, but stopped myself and said, "Oh, wait, I need to choose someone with a red shirt. Those are the smartest kids." The girl I had almost called on was indignant, and I heard some surprised gasps, but I kept moving with the lesson and at the end, called everyone down to the carpet.
I talked about how Martin Luther King, Jr. didn't like that people were judged by the color of their skin, and then I asked the kids what I had been judging them by. Some of the kids- especially those in the back of the room- had hands in the air immediately. I explained that I didn't really think shirt color mattered, but we talked about how it made people feel when I pretended it did.
A few minutes later, we finished the book, with everyone sitting together. I felt like it had gone well, and the kids really seemed to have understood on an emotional level (not just a cognitive one) how it would feel to be judged on an arbitrary characteristic. (A lot of teachers do this with eye color, but I didn't think I had enough variation in our class to make it useful.)
I noticed at the end of the story, one girl was crying. It was the girl I had almost called on but then stopped to call on someone with a red shirt. I felt terrible- even though I'd meant to make the situation feel unfair, I didn't want her still upset! Especially because she's not one of those kids who cries often.
We all went back to our seats, and I immediately went over to her. As she sat down, I told her that I hadn't really meant that she wasn't smart enough to answer the question, that I was sure she knew the answer, and that I was only trying to show how unfair things used to be. She nodded. I asked her if she was mad at me, and she said, "No."
I was confused. "What's wrong?"
She looked up at me, wiping away one of her last tears, and just said simply, "I'm sad that someone killed Martin Luther King."
I don't know if it was the shirt color segregation or what, but something hit home.