“Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars.
Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small.
You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.”
-- from The Sneetches, by Dr. Seuss
This week, in honor of Martin Luther King day, Mary Rossman, a second grade teacher at Riley Elementary School in Great Bend, hopes to teach her students what he and others like him went through in the days before desegregation. On Tuesday, Rossman allowed some students to do special activities throughout the day, while others could not. When they arrived at school Tuesday morning, some students were asked to wear ribbons and allowed to sit in the front rows of the classroom.
“I’m hoping to make a lasting impression on them that they can carry into the future,” Rossman said.
During a teacher’s inservice several years ago, Rossman watched a video about a similar activity performed in a fifth grade classroom.
“When I saw it, I thought this is what should be taught in the classroom,” she said. She was inspired to create a milder version of the exercise for her second graders.
In the morning, Rossman gave special treatment to ribbon wearers. They were the only ones allowed to help, and were the only ones called on in class. She allowed them to stand in line and get drinks from the water fountain first. She also allowed them to play games while those without had to work on classwork. She only allowed ribbon wearers to go to recess, while those without had to do other activities.
She made herself available to help students who needed it, but did not offer any special treatment to them. Even when students asked why she was doing this, she kept tight lipped, intending to let them in on the secret later.
“One boy said he didn’t want to play at recess because it isn’t fair to those without ribbons,” Rossman said. This is exactly what she had hoped would happen.
Though some of the students became frustrated, the activity helped students to understand what discrimination felt like, something students of 50 or more years ago experienced on a daily basis, especially throughout the southern United States.
Rossman talked with other teachers and lunchroom personnel ahead of time. Some students attend reading groups with other teachers, so she wanted to make sure they did not remove their ribbons. She left it up to the teachers to decide if they wanted to continue the exercise or simply ignore it. Before they broke for lunch, she had each student write in their journal how they felt. Those who wore ribbons reported being happy, and those who did not reported feeling sad or mad, and commented that they were treated unfairly.
“During lunch, some of the kids complained to the lunch ladies,” Rossman said.
“When the Plain-Belly Sneetches popped out, they had stars!
They actually did. They had stars upon thars!”
When they returned from lunch, Rossman switched the ribbons, and continued to give ribbon wearers special treatment.
“If a student wearing a ribbon wanted to play with something a non-ribbon wearer was playing with, they had to give it to them and go play with something else,” she said.
In the afternoon, Rossman gathered the students for story time.
“Students with ribbons, you may sit in the front row,” she said. Once they were seated, “those without ribbons, you may sit in the second row.”
She read The Sneetches, by Dr. Suess. The story is about two groups of characters called Sneetches, one set with stars on their bellies, and one set without. The two sets attempt to set themselves apart by alternating between first adding stars to their bellies and removing stars from their bellies, until finally they go broke and decide to accept one another despite the stars.
“Quote from Suess book,” she read.
Students in began to look at one another, making the connection between the story and the day’s exercise.
Then, students again were asked to journal how they felt. While most of the students reported feeling the opposite of how they felt in the morning, some said they were also sad when they had the ribbons because they could not play with a best friend, and they still felt the treatment was unfair.
The second graders talked of recent lessons about racism and the civil rights movement, and Rossman put into perspective what segregated schools had been like for whites and for blacks. She asked them to consider what it would be like if instead of ribbon, they had a marking that could not be removed. Then, it was time to line up for computer class.
“The Sneetches got really quite smart on that day.
The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches.
And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.”
“Okay, those with ribbons, you may get in line first,” Rossman said. Right away, the students began protesting. Then she allowed non-ribbon wearers to get in line second.
“That’s not fair,” one girl said.
“Oh, well, then those without get in line first,” Rossman said. Again, the students protested.
“Well, then, what would be fair?” she asked. The students offered suggestions, and ultimately agreed that “lunch line order” was best. Rossman agreed, and the students lined up and were released to the next class.
Rossman has been doing the exercise for several years now. She said normally she does it on Martin Luther King day, but if a test is planned, she will do it on another day. This year, she waited because on Monday, Jan. 21, USD 428 celebrated the 100th day of school, and she did not want to ruin anyone’s fun.
Will her students remember the exercise? Rossman is confident they will.
“I recently heard from a fifth grade teacher who had one of my former students,” she said. “Even now, that student remembers the exercise. It’s one that sticks.”