How I Made my Students Really Mad

This semester, I am back to teaching a composition course for college freshmen. Apart from learning in-depth about research writing, we also read the play A Raisin in the Sun in College Writing II.  This play took stage in 1959, and it focused on an African American family in Chicago. It showed what life was like for blacks in the 50’s and 60’s. I wanted my students to know a little more about the civil rights movement and also the discrimination and segregation of this time period in American history.

To begin the lesson, I asked everyone with blue or green eyes to sit on the left side of the room and everyone with brown eyes to sit on the right side of the room. They were expecting a quiz on the introduction to the book, so they were very confused about what I was doing. I explained that instead of a quiz, we would be working on something else for which they would receive points. I gave the blue/green eyed students a page copied from the dictionary and told them they had to copy it letter-for-letter, word-for-word. They all glared at me with a look that seemed to say -Uh, are you serious? The brown-eyed students seemed scared to get their assignment next. However, they were relieved when I told them they would be working on a word search puzzle about pizza. As they were working, I told them to be sure and find the word pepperoni. I went over to the other side of the room and told that students that they better finish the whole page. I let this go on for about 3 minutes, then I finally allowed them to stop. I asked them how they felt knowing that the other half of the room was working on a different assignment. The light-eyed group said they felt angry at me and at the other group of students. They said they wondered what they did to deserve the terrible assignment. The brown-eyed group said they felt badly but not badly enough to exchange assignments with anyone or to even ask questions about why the assignments were different. I did have one blue-eyed guy ask me why he had to do the dictionary assignment and not the pizza one. It all worked perfectly. I asked my students to relate their feelings and the way I treated them to how Africa-Americans felt in the past. I think it really hit home with them and made a good point.

I then went on to show 2 YouTube videos. This first video really makes me emotional. I really can’t believe this happened so recently in my own country. I can’t fathom why people thought they were better solely based on their skin color. This video is a general overview of everything that happened. It’s about 5 minutes long.

The second video is about Bull Connor, who greatly influenced the civil rights movement, because of the terrible things he allowed to happen in Birmingham, Alabama while he was the commissioner of public safety for the city. It’s about 10 minutes long and really worth the watch.

After the activity, the videos, and a discussion, I really felt my students were ready to read A Raisin in the Sun and fully understand the context and the time period. I hope that no matter the grade level, this recap of my lesson might be helpful for you to teach about the civil rights movement, especially since it is black history month. Share with me some ideas you’ve used to teach this same topic.


3 thoughts on “How I Made my Students Really Mad

  1. Hi Ashley
    Great job on teaching your students so creatively!! Your post got me thinking about how racism has affected people. It’s still very much alive in my part of the world. People get better jobs because of their skin colour. People get better opportunities because of their skin colour. People get looked upon differently because of their skin colour. The worst thing about this whole thing is people don’t talk about it-racism.
    I personally have made a decision to not see colour. I have refused the colour of my skin to determine my destiny.
    What I am trying to get at is this, I was encouraged when you shared this post because you are speaking, teaching your children the right way. Challenging them to see things differently and think differently when it comes to colour. We need more people like you……..

    Could you please tell me the name of the two you tube clips you shared…..
    Great post…..


  2. Wow – that was a very brave assignment! I’m hoping to teach Freshmen Composition next school year (fingers crossed I get the job!), and this is a wonderful idea to bring into a classroom about civil rights. Where are you teaching?

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Sounds like you did a great variation to Jane Elliot’s classic experiment. Good for you! And talk about setting the context to the reading!

    Have you watched 12 Years a Slave, yet? Highly recommend. Not for the faint hearted.

    Also my friend Edward Coen wrote about his experience growing up Jewish in the American South. Slightly different perspective, but great read: The Peddler’s Grandson: Growing Up Jewish in Mississippi.

    Cheers Ashley 🙂

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