What would it be like to be judged by something over which you have no control? Imagine people forming opinions about you because of your shoe size, the color of your eyes, or perhaps your height.
Jane Elliott wanted her students to know how this feels. Elliott taught white elementary school students in a small, rural town by the name of Riceville , Iowa . One day in November of 1968, Elliott walked into her classroom and proceeded to divide her students into two groups based on the color of their eyes. The blue-eyed students were told to put a collar around their neck so that they could be easily identified. Elliott made it clear to the brown eyes that they were smarter, more trustworthy, and followed directions better than the blue eyes.
Throughout the course of that day, the blue-eyed children were made to feel inferior. Whenever she had a chance, Elliott criticized, belittled, and isolated them. The brown eyed students did not want to talk to the blue eyes, eat with them during lunch, or play with them during recess. As the day wore on, the emotional toll on the blue-eyed students could be seen in their faces. Interestingly, their schoolwork suffered as well. When she asked her students why their performance was not up to par that day, they said they kept thinking about their collars.
The following day, Elliott informed her students that she had made a terrible mistake the day before. The blue eyes were actually the superior students, while the brown eyes were inferior. Therefore, she instructed her blue-eyed students to take their collars off and put them around the necks of the brown-eyed students. Needless to say, her blue-eyed students were thrilled at the prospect of getting back at their tormentors and being the superior group. That day, the blue eyes were just as mean and insulting as the brown eyes had been the day before.
Elliott's lesson plan became national news. The teacher and her students were the subject of news reports, and Elliott even appeared on the Johnny Carson show. When asked why she did this, she put it very simply. She wanted them to feel what it was like to be seen as inferior to someone else.
Have you ever felt that life was unfair? A few weeks ago, a group of about one-hundred racially and ethnically mixed students were asked this question as part of the “Student in Action Summit” at West Middle School . Specifically, students were asked if they thought they were sometimes treated unfairly because of their appearance, race, gender, clothes, smarts, age, disability, or for some other reason. In essence, these students were wrestling with the same lesson plan that Elliott had made famous almost forty years ago.
A recent editorial in The Carroll County Times stated, “the pressures and problems facing students today are far different from generations past.” While this is true, many of the issues remain the same. Elliott's students wrestled with largely the same biases as students at West Middle. While Elliott's and West Middle's methodologies were different, their goals were the same.
Elliott turned her small classroom into a classroom laboratory, so they could experience prejudice and discrimination first hand, both as perpetrators and targets. At West Middle, they talked about their encounters with bullying, ostracism, and hurtful remarks. Moreover, they discussed the importance of holding themselves and others accountable for doing something when intolerance arises.
For Aurora Pagulayan, West Middle Assistant Principal, promoting the social development of her students has always been a priority. According to Ms. Paugulayan, expectations among students are changing. Students are more apt to take a stand, speak out, and problem-solve when they witness intolerance. But change of this nature does not just happen. It needs to become an integral part of what are students are learning from their teachers, administrators, other students, and the community.
When Jane Elliott conducted her “experiment” and word leaked out to the community, there was an immediate response both locally and nationally. According to Elliott, her own children were taunted. She became known as the school's “N----- lover.” The following year, any number of parents made it clear they did not want their children in Elliott's class. At West Middle, the community's reaction was positive. Many of the students went home that night and discussed what they learned with their parents. Moreover, a number of community members participated in the Summit , helping students collaborate, engage in critical thinking, and problem-solve. Most importantly, they showed the students they cared.
The value of what took place at West Middle and Riceville Elementary School can only be measured by the test of time. Interestingly, Elliott's students got together in 1988, some twenty years after her now famous “experiment.” This small group of students were asked if this lesson stayed with them. Each of them answered yes without hesitation. Elliott's students are almost 50 years old now.
What lessons will remain with the West Middle students? My hope is that down the road, these students will intervene when they encounter bullying, name-calling, harassment, and stereotyping. When they themselves start to prejudge someone, my hope is that they will think twice and reflect back on something that resonated with them at the leadership summit. Additionally, my hope is that other schools will follow suit and do something of this nature on a regular basis.
For initiatives like this to have any staying power, the Superintendent, the Board of Education, and principals throughout the county have to understand the bottom-line importance of what took place at West Middle and Riceville Elementary School. When problems such as racism, anti-Semitism, classism, and homophobia rear their ugly head in Carroll County Schools, students and teachers alike are affected. Student achievement and MSA scores suffer. The so-called “achievement gap” widens. Students feel they cannot be themselves. They come to school feeling hurt. When they get to school, they are distracted and have a difficult time focusing on their studies. And there are those students who do not even come to school out of fear and frustration.
Lately, new school buildings, a new financial literacy class, and the upcoming election for school board members have been getting most of the attention in our County. The social development and cultural awareness of our students is every bit as important as these educational issues. Unless leaders in Carroll pick up where the West Middle students left off, programs like the one at West Middle will continue to be offered only at certain schools to a few, select students. Perhaps the Board should invite some of the student leaders from West Middle to their next meeting. My guess is they could benefit greatly from this experience. Additionally, maybe the Board members should consider participating in one of Ms. Elliott's workshops. With her teaching days behind her, she now conducts workshops for adults. And yes, she still uses the collars and divides people by the color of their eyes.