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School Desegregation Pioneers

In this lesson, students will learn about the challenges faced by the first students to desegregate Southern schools, such as racism, verbal harassment, and physical threats. They will hear oral histories telling the story of desegregation pioneers in Alabama and North Carolina, and critically analyze images of school desegregation. Students will then write a narrative from the point of view of a black student desegregating a white school, exploring how the student may have felt about the experience.

Grade 6 - English Language Arts

Classroom Time Needed: 2-3 class periods, plus time for students to write narrative

Learning Outcomes
Curriculum Alignment
Materials and Resources
Additional Web Sites

Learning Outcomes

Students will know about the early desegregation of American schools, in particular the experiences of students who first desegregated them.

Students will critically analyze images, determining the creator’s purpose, the image’s message, and its effect on viewers.

Students will gain practice writing a narrative, using detail, organization, and other writing strategies to effectively tell the story of students experiencing desegregation.

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Curriculum Alignment

North Carolina Standard Course of Study - Grade 6 English Language Arts

Goal 1: The learner will use language to express individual perspectives drawn from personal or related experience.

  • Objective 1.01 - Narrate an expressive account (eg, fictional or autobiographical) which:
    • uses a coherent organizing structure appropriate to purpose, audience, and context.
    • tells a story or establishes the significance of an event or events
    • uses remembered feelings and specific details
    • uses a range of appropriate strategies (e.g., dialogue, suspense, movement, gestures, expressions).

Goal 4: The learner will use critical thinking skills and create criteria to evaluate print and non-print materials.

  • Objective 4.01 - Determine the purpose of the author or creator by:
    • monitoring comprehension for understanding of what is read, heard and/or viewed.
    • exploring any bias, apparent or hidden messages, emotional factors, or propaganda techniques.
    • identifying and exploring the underlying assumptions of the author/creator.
    • analyzing the effects of the author's craft on the reader/viewer/listener.

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Materials and Resources


Technology Resources

  • Computer and Internet connection, if streaming oral history excerpts from this site
  • Speakers
  • CD player, if burning a CD of oral history excerpts

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Teachers should listen to the oral history excerpts and review discussion questions.

Teachers should prepare to project three images for all students to view, either by projecting them using a computer set-up or printing the images on overhead transparencies. Alternatively, teachers may print out a paper copy of each image for students, or schedule a time for all students to have access to a computer to view the online images.

Students should have basic background knowledge of segregation and the Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954. If needed, review the basics of the case with them, and explain the controversy and protests that resulted in several Southern states (more information is included in Additional Web Sites).

Class One: Listening to the Oral Histories

Introduce the concept of an oral history, and discuss their value as we study important events. Mention that oral histories provide a chance for the "regular person" to record his or her experiences, not just the well-known or famous people often recorded in written history. Ask students to come up with more reasons we should value oral histories—such as allowing minority groups to record and publicize their experiences, making connections between generations, passing on the art of storytelling, etc.

Hand out the oral history transcripts to students, and encourage them to take notes as they listen.

Instruct students to read the introduction to the first oral history, by Madge Hopkins, or read it aloud. Play the Hopkins excerpt and discuss:

  • How did Madge Hopkins know Dorothy Counts?
  • Why do you think Ms. Hopkins wouldn't have wanted to be the first student to desegregate a school?

Instruct students to read the introduction to the second oral history, from Sheila Florence, or read it aloud. Play the Florence excerpt and discuss:

  • Why did Sheila Florence dress up on her first day of attening an integrated school?
  • What do you think Ms. Florence may have been scared of encountering on her first day?
  • What were some of the difficult experiences she had at the new school?

Instruct students to read the introduction to the third oral history, from Daisy Bates, or read it aloud. Play the Bates excerpt and discuss:

  • Why did Minnie get expelled?
  • Why do you think she was punished, but the boys who harassed her weren't?
  • How would you have reacted in Minnie's place?

Class Two: Analyzing Images of School Desegregation

Hand out 3 copies of the Image Analysis handout to each student.

Instruct students to view the first image, a photograph of Dorothy Counts integrating a Charlotte high school in 1957. Give enough time for students to complete the analysis handout for this image.

Repeat the procedure for the second image, a photograph of Gus Roberts, who also integrated Charlotte schools in 1957.

Instruct students to view the third image, the Norman Rockwell painting The Problem We All Live With (1964). Explain that the painting is based on the experience of Ruby Bridges, who integrated New Orleans schools at age six in 1960. Give students time to answer the analysis questions. What do they think is “the problem we all live with”? Do we still live with this problem?

Come together as a class to discuss their answers. Are there common themes or emotions in the three images? Do students think the artists had similar or different motivations in creating the images?

Class Three: Writing the Narrative

Ask students to imagine themselves as pioneers of school desegregation. As they got ready to attend a segregated school, what thoughts and feelings would they experience? Based on the oral histories and images they’ve analyzed, what events would likely take place during the first days of desegregation? How would students react to these events? Teachers may have students take notes during this thinking process.

After students have had time to record some of their thoughts, explain to the class that they will be writing a narrative from the point of view of a desegregation pioneer. Students may choose to write as if they are Dorothy Counts, Ruby Bridges, one of the Little Rock Nine, or another “real life” student, or they may choose to create their own narrator. Students will narrate the first few days of school desegregation, using details from the oral histories and images to support their narrative as well as explaining the narrator’s feelings throughout the story.

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Teachers will assess how well students have organized their narratives to tell the desegregation story. Students should use details from the oral histories and images, and should explain the emotions the narrator would be experiencing.


English-language learners or other students who may not be able to write a full-length narrative can create a "desegregation scrapbook" using images to help tell the story. Students may want to read the book Through My Eyes, Ruby Bridges's narrative of her desegregation experience, which uses photos to illustrate her experiences. Students can create their own images to illustrate their narratives, using the photographs in Through my Eyes as inspiration. These images will be integrated with the narrative to create a kind of "scrapbook" of words and illustrations

Alternative Assessment

Students should still write a narrative using detail and emotions, but it can be shorter than the full-length narratives. Students should have created 2-3 illustrations, using pencil, markers, crayons, paint, collage, or other materials, to highlight the events of school desegregation.

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Additional Web Sites

Images for Analysis

Dorothy Counts
Gus Roberts
The Problem We All Live With (1964) by Norman Rockwell

Further Information about Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

Brown V. Board: An American Legacy - Summary of the history of the case from Teaching Tolerance
"With an Even Hand:" Brown v. Board at Fifty - Online multimedia exhibit from the Library of Congress

Complete Oral Histories

Madge Hopkins oral history
Sheila Florence oral history
Daisy Bates oral history
Documenting the American South - More oral histories about desegregation and civil rights across the Southern U.S.

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