BY MICHAEL WALTON
TRAVERSE CITY — Students will learn about Martin Luther King, Jr. throughout the coming month as Traverse City Area Public Schools celebrate his life and work.
But West Senior High School social studies teacher Ben Zenner delivered a lesson about diversity and tolerance that centered around a bold social exercise conducted by a third grade teacher more than 40 years ago.
"They get so much of that every year," Zenner said of King's "I Have a Dream" speech. "I wanted to actually tackle and look at 'how does that impact me.'"
Zenner, whose classroom walls display posters of King, Malcolm X, and Tommie Smith's and John Carlos' raised fist statement at the 1968 Olympic Games medal ceremony, challenged his students on Jan. 18 to think about stereotypes and their effect on others.
He anchored his message around a PBS Frontline clip about Jane Elliott and the brown-eyed, blue-eyed exercise she conducted in Riceville, Iowa the day after King's assassination in 1968.
Elliott segregated her young students by eye color and designated blue-eyed students as the "superior" group.
Blue-eyed students received certain privileges throughout the school day, like longer recess and extra helpings of food at lunch. Elliott reversed the groups' roles the next day, granting special privileges to students with brown eyes.
Elliott quickly noticed changes in her students as the exercise progressed.
"I watched what had been marvelous, cooperative, wonderful, thoughtful children turn in to nasty, vicious, discriminating little third graders in the span of 15 minutes," Elliott said in the clip.
She also saw a change in her students' performances on a phonics flashcard game: students took roughly twice as long to complete the card game when they belonged to the group labelled inferior.
"One day, one morning and look what happened to their performance," Zenner said.
Simply being labelled inferior seemed to negatively affect the motivation, performance and ability of Elliott's third graders.
Elliott asked her students at the end of the clip, "should the color of someone's eyes affect the way you treat them?"
"No," the students shouted.
"Then should the color of their skin?" Elliott said.
The young children shouted no again.
"Often times we can learn a lot from kids," Zenner said.
Zenner acknowledged everyone carries stereotypes about certain groups of people. But he asked his students to leave his classroom cognizant of how stereotypes — even seemingly harmless prejudices like only girls play with dolls — can be hurtful. He challenged students to remember one thing when thinking about others.
"I'm going to make sure I give them a fair shake," he said. "I am going to judge them on them, not a stereotype."
Amanda Huang, a freshman honors U.S. history student, said Zenner's lesson reached her and her classmates.
"I guess we never really thought how (stereotypes) could hurt," she said.
TCAPS schools are closed on Jan. 21 in observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. A full list of TCAPS activities honoring King can be found at www.tcaps.net.