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Brown v. Board of Ed: the Decision that Changed America

Jordan Catapano

Brown v. Board of Ed: The Decision that Changed AmericaOn May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision in the Brown vs. Board of Education case, declaring it unconstitutional to establish separate public schools for students on the basis of race.  The Court's decision was unanimous and it changed the face of public education, and dismantled the legal framework that made it okay to segregate races in other public spaces.

Today’s students are often unaware of this incredible step forward in the history of education in America, but fortunately there are easy ways for us to teach them about this ground-breaking event.

We've pulled together a list of 12 classroom activities that will help your students learn more about this historic Court decision. Introduce students to the case by showing them the clip from this Video Writing Prompt. Then, pick and choose activities from the list below.

  1. Have students discuss how their school would be different if different races had to attend different schools. What would change about their school? What advantages or disadvantages would this create?

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  1. Have students read about Plessy vs. Ferguson (the 1896 case that established the constitutionality of separate schools). After research is complete, ask your students to examine the differences between the rulings and consider what it reflects about each era.

  1. Is segregation gone from American schools? Have students discuss and then research how modern public schools still may inadvertently be segregated.

  1. Have students write arguments on both sides of the Brown v. Board of Education debate. What would those in favor of and opposed to the change in the school system say in defense of their argument? After writing, you can have them read one another’s works and even show them actual arguments made during the landmark trial.

  1. Create an education-law timeline. Have students research various laws in America’s history related to education, and post the decisions and years on a timeline to show their relationship.  Laws may be related to who receives education, religion’s role in education, freedoms in schools, and so on.

  1. Is education better in a racially combined setting? Ask students to discuss what the benefits are, who benefits the most, and how we can take advantage of this landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.

  1. What was society’s reaction to the Supreme Court decision? Have students look at it from a variety of perspectives. Ask them to make predictions about how Blacks, Whites, poor, wealthy, urban, and so on might have viewed the decision. Then ask them to do research to see if their predictions are accurate or not.

  1. Provide students with pictures from the 1950’s that display the different school buildings, classrooms, and materials students from black and white schools had (you can start with the Smithsonian National Museum of American History website - they have a small photo gallery from their Separate is Not Equal exhibit). Ask students to make observations and inferences based on the images.

  1. Connect readings on the Brown v. Board of Education decision to classroom fiction pieces, such as To Kill a Mockingbird.

  1. Compare and contrast the impact of court decisions. Have students look up other Supreme Court decisions related to education, including student rights, religion, funding, private schools, and so on. Then ask students to rank those decisions in order of most impactful to least, providing reasons for their rankings. The United States Courts website has a great list of Supreme Court decisions that affect students.

  1. There are many political cartoons involved with the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Reveal several to students and ask them to interpret the meaning of the cartoon. Have students create their own political cartoons based on current news events or local happenings.

  1. Provide a summary, or show photos of the conflict in Little Rock at Central High School. Ask students to write about that first day of integration from multiple perspectives: from white students, from the black students, from soldiers, from neighborhood members, from administrators, and so on.

It's your turn! Tell us how you teach students about watershed moments in America's history. Leave your replies in the comment section, below.