Civil Rights in First Grade

This month 1st graders have been fully immersed in our civil rights unit. We have heard the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and done our best to emulate his powerful voice as we prepare for the MLK assembly. We have read, My Brother Martin, written by Dr. King’s sister, and compared ourselves to the civil rights icon to discover how much we have in common. We read, This is the Dream, and wrote our own dreams for a better world, including “…that people will not use guns“ and “…that there would be no more homelessness.” (Check out our stunning bulletin board in the main hall to see what else 1st graders are dreaming about for a better future.)

One of the most dramatic lessons was our segregation simulation. First graders walked into a segregated classroom. Students were shocked to see signs at the water fountain saying, “Red and blue groups only. No yellow and green groups.” During morning meeting, blue group sat in the chairs and green group was relegated to the floor. At snack, the segregated tables turned and the green group was given graham crackers while the blue group was given nothing. It went on like this for most of the day in both 1st grade classrooms—the red, yellow, blue, and green color groups switching back and forth throughout the day, allowing 1st graders to experience privilege as well as discrimination.

Many of the students responded as expected. They cried out, “No fair!” when they were discriminated against and taunted the others when they were given privileges. But there were some exceptions. There were students who immediately identified the problem, “This is segregation.” And then there were a few who demonstrated great empathy, and even when they were in the privileged group they recognized the inequality, and declared, “That’s not right,” on behalf of their friends. There were a couple of students who tried to defy the laws of the day and sat down at the prohibited tables or drank from the water fountains banning them. But most moving for me were the students who gave up their privileges, leaving the beautifully decorated tables for the dirty ones to join their deprived friends. When teachers urged them to go enjoy the benefits of the ruling class, they refused. When asked why, one particularly sweet and quiet little girl put her hands on her hips and said defiantly, “Because it’s not fair!”

As GDS teachers, we have the opportunity to plant these seeds of justice, equity, and morality by allowing them to experience a little taste of inequality in a loving and supportive environment. We are charged with exposing them to the stories of civil rights heroes like King, Rosa Parks, and Ruby Bridges as role models of courage. And we are expected to build upon these lessons each year, allowing our students to delve deeper and deeper into the complex issues of civil and human rights.

As I watch our 1st graders struggle to comprehend the actions of those that came before them, analyzing and summarizing the events in the language of a 6-year-old, stating simply, “that’s not fair,” I am encouraged to think that this generation will grow up to truly understand that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (MLK). And thus, the dream will one day become reality.

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