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Opportunity and Social Mobility #1: Remember, by Toni Morrison

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Lesson Overview:

In this lesson, students are confronted with evidence of vast inequalities between black and white people in the United States during the time leading up to the Civil Rights Era, which began in the 1960s.  Using period photographs, Toni Morrison pens words that might have been in the minds or hearts of the subjects of the photographs.  Both powerful and disturbing, this lesson will show young people what inequality looked like in the U.S. in the recent past.

Lesson Plan:

Suggested Grades:

4 and above. The content is too difficult and perhaps too mature for younger students.


To understand what social inequality and lack of opportunity looks like and to imagine what it feels like in the minds of those experiencing it.  (AASL 2.3.1, “Connect understanding to the real world.”)

Suggested Time:

40-50 minutes

Success Criteria:

Each student will be able to explain some of the inequalities between black and white people in the United States in the years leading up to the Civil Rights Era, which began in the 1960s.  Each student will also complete a reflection assignment to show their understanding and thinking about the subject.

Lesson Outline:

1. Introduction:

Ask the students what their new Unit of Inquiry is about.  Hopefully they will be able to say something general about access to education and opportunities.

Explain that today we will be working from a text that will show them in some detail what limited opportunities looked like and felt like in the United States as recently as 50 or 60 years ago.  Tell the students that some of the images are shocking and the inequities very disturbing.  Ask them for their full attention and explain that this is not an easy topic to teach or learn about.

2. Main:

Show the cover of Toni Morrison’s Remember: The Journey to School Integration.  Ask the children if they know what integration means.  They probably won’t know, so quickly teach the concept of segregation according to race.  Racial segregation was legal in the U.S. and based on the doctrine of “separate but equal” until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The pictures in the text will show that in many places, separate was not equal!

Share a few of the pictures and lines.  Below I’ve listed several that I’ve used and feel comfortable working with.  I’ve noted the starting point and some of the possible comments/content you may wish to point out.

Pages 12-13, which begin, “Her name was Betty when she belonged to my cousin.”

  • The doll had two owners before this little girl got her.
  • The doll no longer has any clothes.
  • The doll’s voice is broken.
  • The doll does not resemble the child playing with her.

Pages 14-15, which begin, “Outside the grass is tall and full of bees and butterflies.”

  • No desks
  • No school supplies
  • Dark
  • Cold in the winter

Pages 16-17, which begin, “Our parents sued the Board of Education not because they hate them, but because they love us.”

  • Brown vs the Board of Education was the court ruling that destroyed the “separate but equal” doctrine.  It was highly controversial at the time.
  • What did black parents want for their children? What does any parent want for his or her child?
  • How could access to education change these children’s lives?

Pages 32-33, which begin, “No, no, they said.  You can’t come in here.”

  • Have you ever been kept out of a place because of your gender?  Skin color?  What does that feel like?
  • What does it feel like to be left out of something important, something good?
  • How would you feel if you knew that your Mom or Dad did not have a good job and would never have a good job because of his/her skin color?

Page 40, which begins, “I eat alone.”

  • The effects of racial segregation went on even after the laws changed. Here we see a girl at school, but it is still not a healthy environment for her.  Why not?
  • What would make this girl’s school experience better?
  • Have you ever seen someone sitting alone? What have you done?

Pages 44-45, which begin, “They are trying to scare me. I guess they don’t have any children of their own.”

  • Would you be scared if you were the one walking into a school where many people did not want you?
  • Would you be scared if you had to walk past people with guns to get to school?
  • Would you be scared if people with guns had to protect you while you were going to school? If appropriate, share Normal Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With to highlight how school integration was such a controversial public issue.

3. Conclusion:

Emphasize that racial discrimination, segregation based on race, or any policy or practice that purposefully limits access to basic human rights is abhorrent.

Explain that these practices are still in effect in too many places in the world today, and that learning about them and raising awareness can help put an end to these practices.  Inform the children that throughout the unit we’ll be looking at more examples of people and efforts being made to ensure equal access to basic human rights as well as opportunities for advancement.

To end on a more hopeful note, play the short excerpt from Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

  1. Remember: The Journey to School Integration by Toni Morrison
  2. Norman Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With, found here: Normal Rockwell Painting of Ruby Bridges and her Federal Marshall Escorts
  3. I Have a Dream speech excerpt, Dr. Martin Luther King, found here: I Have a Dream Excerpt
  4. Student Assignment Sheet (attached)
  5. Additional age-appropriate items from your library’s collection about school segregation, desegregation, and race relations.

It is rare that I issue a warning with a lesson, but you need to be careful with this one.  Remember is perfect for what we need it to do, but some of the images are not appropriate for elementary students because of the violence or hatred represented in them.  Spend time with the text, study it, and carefully choose the images you will use.

For some students, especially in an international school setting, seeing these images paired with Morrison’s words may be the first time they are confronted with racism.  I have taught this lesson to children who, figuratively speaking, lost their innocence as a result of what they learned.  I remember distinctly one little boy asking me, “But why did the skin color matter?”  He was both dismayed and perplexed by the problems for which, from one perspective, I was grateful.  Used to playmates of all colors and races from all over the world, the issue of racism had simply never occurred to him.  I wish that this were true for all children.

Also, be sure that you talk this lesson over with the classroom teacher before you teach it.  It is best if the classroom teacher is present when this lesson is taught so that there can be some continuity between what is covered in the lesson and follow-up throughout the unit.  If you choose to use the images of Ruby Bridges and Rosa Parks, their stories will need to be shared at some point later in the unit.

I’ve used Remember in two separate international schools.  Each time I have planned the lesson, I have received complete support from my teachers.  They were thrilled to know that this text was available and pleased with the way it prompts discussion.

I’ve left the lesson intentionally unstructured.  That is because the lesson is provocative.  The children will respond to the pictures and text, and the course of the lesson depends entirely on their comments and questions.  I’m always prepared with six of the images starting with the little girl and her doll on pp. 12-13.  From there, I follow the children’s lead.  If the material proves to be too much for them (this has not happened to me yet), transition into Ruby Bridges or Rosa Parks’s stories that can be followed through to a positive conclusion.  If the children have some exposure to the subject, let them share what they know.

This lesson focuses on the United States because plenty of materials exist to show and discuss racial discrimination in that country.  However, you could just as effectively use South Africa’s experience with Apartheid, the caste system in India, or any place in the world where race has played a role in oppression.  Sadly, there are many examples to choose from.

Most important is that the children understand that limited access to education, jobs, health care, food/nutrition housing, travel, nature (and many others), has devastating effects on human development and thus devastating effects on our society.

Don’t shy away from this lesson.  Teach it, but do so realizing that you really must be prepared and that you need to make a positive impression on the children in terms of their responsibility to treat all people equally and treat all human beings with dignity and respect.  This is fundamental to the IB philosophy and to international education.

Recommended books for this lesson: 
  1. Remember: The Journey to School Integration by Toni Morrison.
  2. The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles and illustrated by George Ford.  (Optional)
  3. Rosa Parks by Cynthia Amoroso and Robert B. Noyed.  (Optional)
  4. A Picture Book of Rosa Parks by David A. Adler, illustrated by Robert Casilla.  (Optional)
Key Terms:

School integration, Discrimination in education, African-Americans


Student Assignment, Remember, by Toni Morrison