Over the past month, fellow middle school humanities teacher Melissa Andersen and I have been engaged with the 5th and 6th graders in some challenging, thoughtful work around race and racism in our society. It began with our field trip to the RACE: Are We So Different? exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota, something I recommend that everyone go and see. Before the field trip, we did some preview activities in class to help students start reflecting on the idea of race and racial differences and on what race means in their own lives.

Students had a very profound experience at the exhibit. Melissa and I both commented that this was the best behaved group we’ve taken on a field trip, and we think it’s because they were so engaged and moved by what they were learning.

Some key questions the exhibit addressed were:

  • Is sickle cell a “black” disease?
  • Should sports teams use Indians as mascots?
  • Should the U.S. continue to ask a question about race on the U.S. Census?
  • What causes the various colors of skin?
  • What are Jim Crow laws?

Some of the big ideas they came away with:

  • Race is a social construct.
  • How we define race and categorize people into racial and ethnic groups has changed over time.
  • Racism still exists today and institutional racism can often determine where you live and how much wealth you can accumulate.

We also saw a short performance associated with the exhibit that brought to light how difficult it can be to have honest conversations about race and how the idea of race impacts different people. Students got to share their reactions to the exhibit and performance, using the prompt, “This is a world in which…”

Some of their comments were: “This is a world in which…”

  • “…the color of your skin can limit your opportunities.”
  • “…some people judge you on what you look like instead of who you are.”
  • “…life’s not fair.”
  • “…some people are more privileged than others.”
  • “…having a conversation can change everything.”
  • “…one person can make a difference.”

Learning that racism still exists today and how different people are affected by race was eye opening for many students, and some expressed that it was “depressing,” a “downer,” or “uncomfortable.”

As a FSMN is Quaker, progressive education school with a commitment to social justice, Melissa and I were able to make space in our curriculum for the themes, issues, and ideas that emerged  from this field trip and that arose out of student interests and needs. We decided to take a break from our Minnesota history studies to spend more time on the issues of race and racism. Our challenge as educators was then to figure out how to deepen students’ understandings of these issues while also imbuing a sense of hope for the future and empowering them to make positive change in our world.

Through a partnership with the Science Museum, Penumbra Theater Company came to school the following week and conducted a race workshop with students that built on what they learned from the exhibit. The two actors/educators from Penumbra helped students explore the ideas of empathy, stereotypes, and identity through movement and theater. Some questions students considered during the activities were:

  • What does it mean to look someone in the eye, and how can we develop empathy by really looking at each other?
  • How do we “read” a situation? What does a person or group intend to communicate, and how do others add their own perceptions and meaning that might change how that message is received?
  • What do you know about someone just from looking at him/her? What does what you assume about a person by looking at them actually say about you?
  • How do you self-identify? When did you first realize you were ___________?

Students also spent some time journaling and reflecting about how they see themselves and their identities. Following the workshop, Melissa and I each created a poster with two statements: I identify as a white person; I think other people see me as a white person. Each student got two colored dots and placed their dots along a spectrum of yes/no under each statement. It was very interesting to see how the dots were placed, and students noticed that the lines differed in how students see themselves and how others may see them.

In class, we learned more about the U.S. census, how the categories of races and ethnicities included on the census changed over time, and the pros and cons of placing people into such categories.

Students participated in the Starpower Simulation, a game which creates a three-tiered society based on differential wealth. During three trading sessions, students traded chips of different colors worth different points with the goal of increasing their individual wealth and social status. For the third trading session, the group with the most points, the Squares, got to make the trading rules for everyone else, which favored the Squares and made it even harder for students in the lower groups to move up. Throughout the simulation, it became clear that it was very difficult to move up to the next group without bonus chips.

In our discussion of the simulation, students had very thoughtful observations and reflections. Some comments and questions were:

  • When you start with less, it’s hard to move up. It’s hard to trade when you have less to offer.
  • Who should we entrust with power?
  • Is it better to have one person in power or shared power amongst a group?
  • Who gets to make decisions for the group?
  • Loyalty to your group is important – how can you use bonus chips to keep people from having to move to a group below or to promote one group member on behalf of the group?
  • Was success based on luck, skill, merit, strategy?
  • What do people do to keep power? Does power corrupt?
  • People who have power think the system is fair.
  • “Power made me think we were worth more.”
  • “Life isn’t fair, so the game wasn’t fair.”

We then had a great discussion about how stratified societies like ours are created and maintained through unequal distribution of resources, the difference between ascribed vs. achieved status, and the various belief systems or ideologies that help justify a stratified society (luck, meritocracy, blame the victim, etc.).

We connected the simulation to our work on race/racism by showing students the story of “A Tale of Two Families” from the Race: The Power of Illusion website. This story/activity shows the lives of a black family and a white family at the same starting point and how the white family is able to accumulate more wealth over the years because of institutional racism and white privilege. Students’ comments and questions about resources and power became more profound when applied to the real life inequity between blacks and whites.

This week, the 5th and 6th graders are creating their Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration presentation for our annual all-school performance on January 16, 2015 (free and open to the public.) They are drawing from all the things they learned, discussed, and reflected on during this unit on race and racism. As a whole group, we constructed the message that they wanted to convey to the audience.

  • Race shouldn’t matter because race is just a social construct.
  • Racial categories can define us in ways we don’t want.
  • We want to be able to define ourselves however we want .
  • It is okay to notice differences, but we shouldn’t treat each other better or worse based on those differences.
  • We each have the power of our own voice to stand up against racism.

I look forward to seeing how their presentation comes together and am so proud of this group for digging in to this challenging, thought-provoking work.

–Rebecca Slaby, middle school humanities teacher, Friends School of Minnesota