Revisiting "The Eye of the Storm" by John Gifford, Head of Middle School
I remember how jarring “The Eye of the Storm” was when I first saw it. I was introduced to Frontline’s rebroadcast and updated version of the 1970 documentary while I was a student at Tufts University. “The Eye of the Storm” is the story of Jane Elliot’s “brown-eyed/blue eyed” exercise. Elliot was an elementary school teacher in rural Iowa. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, she decided to tackle racism with her third grade class in an unusual way.
At the start of the class, Elliot informed the third graders that all those students with brown eyes were superior in every way to those with blue eyes. She then praised the brown-eyed students for their intelligence and good looks. She promised them second helpings of food at lunch and extra minutes of recess.
She sarcastically pitied the blue-eyed students for the amount of time it took them to get their books out for a lesson. The blue-eyed students were asked to wear a black collar so that, even from a distance, their “handicap” was clear for all to see.
The documentary filmmakers captured an immediate shift in how each group acted and seemed to feel. Blue-eyed students appeared crestfallen, often looking down at their desk and avoiding eye contact. Students in the dominant brown-eyed group seemed more at ease; they enjoyed the attention and privileges.
Those (very few) brown-eyed students who pushed back at the idea and defended their blue-eyed classmates were told they were wrong in a matter-of-fact tone. They gave up.
That same afternoon when the students returned from their afternoon recess, we learn that an altercation had broken out. A boy with tears in his eyes explained to Ms. Elliot that a classmate, whom he’d been good friends with in the morning, had called him “blue-eyes” and it resulted in a fist fight. The controversial activity would serve as the foundation for Elliot’s career in diversity training.
I showed parts of the documentary to my civics class on the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Their first reaction was the same as mine had been some 20 years earlier. They felt that it was cruel to put these young children through such an ordeal.
For these third graders, what started out feeling like a game quickly became deeply personal and painful. Those who disapproved of Elliot’s tactics felt that the benefits of the class (which they said were hard to chart and prove) were outweighed by the possible psychological harm.
And yet students in my class also felt that it must have had an impact. One went as far to say that in spite of how difficult it would have been, she wished that she’d been through an experience like that. She felt that it would have made a lasting impression. She wondered; how could you not change the way in which you approach the world after feeling the pain of prejudice in such a visceral way?
We discussed the term “prejudice”. In common usage, the roots of pre-judging can become lost and yet that is all that it is: an act of deciding that you know another person before you really do. As with most things, it probably has its evolutionary roots in a strategy that may have proved beneficial at one point in our development. Perhaps it led our knuckle dragging ancestors to show more caution when encountering the unknown, but it feels unfair and unproductive in modern society.
Try as we might, pre-judgment happens all too easily. Perhaps with such obvious attributes as race but also with characteristics like a person’s interests or different ways of talking. Most anything that we don’t understand in another individual we seem nervous about. In the Middle School, students are both nervous about what they don’t understand and petrified to represent difference from the normal status quo.
Jane Elliot understood that there is something to the famous Sioux Indian prayer, “Great Spirit, help me never to judge another until I have walked in his moccasins”. While we don’t create an elaborate farce to illustrate our point, I suppose that Empathy Week which runs the week before March vacation includes some of the same principles. We have been running Empathy Week for over decade and while the activities have changed over time, its root goal has remained the same: to develop in students in Class Six deeper understanding of others.
Students have simulated what it must feel like to not have enough to eat (with many going home hungry) with the Oxfam Hunger Banquet. We have invited citizens currently without a safe shelter to explain the often complex series of events that lead to their homelessness. These deeply personal and “hands-on” experiences have a greater impact than an impersonal or simply academic conversation. They involve learning by doing. They demand engagement and it should be no surprise that, when done well, they can be as impactful an experience as a young person can have.
I’m excited to see how the EXCEL (Experiential & Community Engaged Learning) program at Nobles will continue to unfold. The Middle School has been a successful petri dish of experiential learning for some time. In addition to the Class Five Washington DC trip and Empathy week, projects like ‘RTW, the Solar Car project, the Who Am I? video and the archival photo project are all excellent examples of experiential soul searching and problem solving.
Without pushing too far, (as some say Jane Elliot did) I hope that the Middle School program allows students some deep introspection while dressed in some unfamiliar moccasins.