This post reports on how we worked some time ago with a group of fifth graders (A1 level students, 10 years old) using Norman Rockwell’s “The problem we all live with”. The aims were to:
- collaboratively build a story with prompts
- raise awareness of intolerance and racism
- practise Past tenses (Past Simple, Past Progressive)
- develop viewing, observing and description skills
- encourage note-taking
- link to Art, History, and Geography
“The problem we all live with” is an iconic image of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA. It depicts Ruby Bridges. She was the first African-American child to attend the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana during the New Orleans school desegregation crisis in 1960.
Building the story
I framed the procedure as a viewing/describing activity towards collaboratively building a story with prompts. For the prompts I used the typical journalistic questions: Who? What? Where? How? Why?
I first introduced the painting by saying: Well, this is Ruby…,and then invited the children to go on with the story, prompting them to respond by providing full answers to my questions:
- Who was she?
- What was she doing/carrying/wearing?
- Where do you think she was going?
- How did she look?
- Was she alone?
- Who was with her?
The students were speaking, they listened to their classmates’ ideas and took notes. As the story was gradually built, individual students narrated it, adding each time the new elements, so that they could get an as good as possible grasp of it. They came up with descriptive pieces of writing based on their notes and class discussion.
Students were very happy with Ruby’s story. They liked the painting and they also liked this beautiful little black girl. They thought that the four policemen were walking with Ruby and protecting her because she was an important person. They made associations with the former USA president.
What more can we find? Ruby’s real story unfolds
Then I started drawing their attention to other details in the painting by asking:
- Look carefully, what more can we find?
We started developing the real story. They first noticed the tomato splash on the wall and the tomato on the ground. I asked them:
- What do you think about that?
- What was happening?
Students were surprised to realise that “Oh! people were throwing tomatoes”. Then they noticed the word Nigger on the wall above Ruby and they asked: “What is a Nigger?” I explained in simple terms that this is a racist word to talk about black people. They finally noticed the letters KKK on the top left corner of the painting and again they wanted to know what these stand for. I said that it is an organization in the USA that terrorizes black people. All this was added to our initial notes about Ruby. It was at this moment that the students were shocked, sad and angry. They had grown to like Ruby so much that when the actual story unfolded in front of their eyes, they felt it was unfair. It was an apt moment to ask:
- Why do you think that people were reacting like that?
It came very natural to children to say that this had happened because she wasn’t white, she was different.
I then provided them with the geographical and historical context of the incident.
We also moved from racial intolerance in general to the racism of our everyday life. I asked them to look at each other and notice how different we are, whether that means height, weight, whether we are strong or less strong, and the things we like. We are all different. It was about raising awareness of intolerance towards difference: the more “different” the other is perceived, the stronger the fears and negative feelings tend to be.
Interactive work on Ruby’s story
Following classroom work on Ruby’s story, I developed a course presentation with interactive slides to give students the chance to further practise vocabulary and grammatical structures involved in the lesson. It comprises of 12 micro-activities, each one dealt with in a different slide:
- drag and drop vocabulary activity
- reading, part i
- reading quiz- answer 5 questions
- reading part ii
- reading comprehension gap fill
- focus on language structures: Past Progressive identification
- focus on language structures: Past Simple & Past Progressive gap fill
- Interactive video (hotspots with questions and information): Ruby Bridges talks about herself and the painting.
Choose one of the following 2 activities:
- Work in groups of 3. One of you must get in the shoes of Ruby, one in the shoes of a US Marshal, and one in the shoes of one of the people in the crowd. From your point of view, answer the questions: What do you think? How do you feel? What do you care about? These questions build understanding of multiple perspectives.
- Watch the trailer from a film about Ruby Bridges. Answer the questions: How is the trailer similar to the painting? How is it different? How do you feel? Why? What new things did you learn about Ruby’s story?
Choose one of the following 2 activities:
- Visit GoogleEarth – Louisiana (make sure you open your browser in Google Chrome). Prepare a word doc or a ppt presentation about 3 things that you find interesting about Louisiana.
- Prepare a word doc or a ppt presentation about Norman Rockwell.
Ruby’s story triggered students’ curiosity and evoked self-initiated work and further research. They made little booklets with illustrations, handmade word clouds, little posters. I think what happened to Ruby spoke highly to children’s hearts and minds.
The interactive work was created using H5P, an online tool for creating, sharing and reusing interactive HTML5 content.