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Originally published Monday, January 17, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Brown eyes, blue eyes: teaching tolerance in America

Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in April 1968. One teacher in a small town in Iowa decided to do something to help her students fathom the shocking event. She understood, more than...

Special to The Times

Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in April 1968. One teacher in a small town in Iowa decided to do something to help her students fathom the shocking event. She understood, more than most, the power of good teaching. Her lesson plan rocked the nation.

Jane Elliott divided her elementary school class by eye color — blue eyes and brown eyes. On day one of the lesson, she told the blue-eyed children they were smarter, nicer, neater and better than those with brown eyes. All day that first day, Elliott praised the blue-eyed children and gave them extra privileges.

The brown-eyed children had to wear collars around their necks and their behavior and performance were criticized and ridiculed. On day two of the lesson, the roles were changed. On the second day, the brown-eyed children were made to feel superior and the blue-eyed children were criticized and ridiculed.

On both days, the students assigned to the "inferior" group acquired the look and behavior of genuinely inferior students. Their body language was defensive, their former friends tormented them and their academic performance dropped.

The students assigned to the "superior" group, who were kind and tolerant before the experiment, became mean and appeared to enjoy discriminating against the "inferior" group. Their jokes and actions became focused on the "inferior" students.

At the end of the experiment, Elliott spent days discussing with her students what it felt like to be one of those labeled "inferior." The kids described their anger and confusion. They talked about their frustration, pain and loneliness as the "superior" students were treated better and given extra privileges.

Almost 40 years later, Elliott's former students are still spreading the knowledge and insight they gained from their powerful experience. Elliott's lesson was repeated, filmed and became a symbol both of what is wrong with our country and what can be right. Her lesson showed every teacher in every classroom in the nation the kind of power they have.

Elliott was a teacher who had faith in education and faith in the students she taught. She did not think about television or journal articles or fame. She thought about something important: a terrible act killing a man of peace. She did what all good teachers do when faced with a national crisis. She sat down and created a good lesson plan.

Like King, she taught students and the nation the horror of racism and discrimination. She taught the power of tolerance and kindness. People in Elliott's third-grade classes, people in prison, people in corporations, people watching television learned from Elliott that all humans have value. They learned that judging people by the color of their skin is an especially virulent form of evil and ignorance.

According to the American Council on Education, in 2002, 39.2 percent of white women and 32.6 percent of white men graduated from college. Only 18.2 percent of African-American women and 18 percent of African-American men graduated from college. And it gets worse if your skin is brown rather than black. Only 9.7 percent of Hispanic women and 8.3 percent of Hispanic men graduated from college.

We are not just failing to motivate and educate our minority citizens. We are failing to motivate and educate all of our citizens. We are failing Jane Elliott, who taught all of us that every student, brown-eyed and blue-eyed, deserves respect and education. We are failing Martin Luther King Jr., who dreamed of a nation in which children "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

There is an image from the recent tsunami disaster that is haunting. It shows 10 children swimming and clinging to debris behind a large abutment, trying desperately to stay out of the raging torrent only inches away. Trees, buses and buildings float by the children as the brown water churns and pulls them. After a few seconds, at the end of the video clip, only three of the 10 children remain. The others are swept away.

One can do nothing watching this image except wonder at the terrible loss of those seven children. Who were they? What would they have become? Who can calculate the loss we suffered on that day? What can one individual do when faced with overwhelming tragedy?

One teacher, faced with the overwhelming tragedy of the assassination of Martin Luther King, responded by creating a lesson for her third-grade class. By helping her students understand, she helped the nation understand. By doing her job as a teacher, she educated a nation. We need to remember Jane Elliott. We need to remember Martin Luther King Jr.

As we watch in horror at the loss of children we cannot help, we need to remember our responsibility to the children we can help. We owe that to Jane Elliott. We owe that to Dr. King.

Steven W. Simpson is a writer, editor and teacher. He teaches at Crest Learning Center, the alternative high school in the Mercer Island School District. He publishes a weekly online education newsletter (Ed.Net, www.edbriefs.com). Write to him at simpson@edbriefs.com

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