Lesson Study: Continuity and Change, Plessy and Brown

“When we look at 1952, the answer is obvious.  But when we look at today…”

Participating student

The Lesson Study experience is at least as important to consider in terms of process (how did teachers perspectives change as a result of student response?) as product (what is the resulting lesson plan?)  Here, I’ll discuss one group of teachers’ journey through a lesson.  I hope that this entry changes as a result of all of those teachers’ input; in order to get the ball rolling, though, I’m going to publish it in this form expecting that it will maintain some continuity yet change over time.
As part of The Causes of Conflict “Reading History Workshop” series, high school teachers Dennis Weber (Longview School District), Jerri Patten (Kelso), Eric Low and Kathryn Dugovitch (Winlock) met to develop and implement a lesson.  Their background with each other prior to the grouping was varied:  Eric and Jerri had collaborated in a Professional Learning Team organized by the Constitutional Connections TAH grant; Jerri and Dennis’ lives had crossed through both professional and family interactions; Eric and Kathryn work in the same building.  After considering various options, the group decided to focus on considering Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board, and the 14th Amendment.

They asked:
Student Question:  How did the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment change over time?
Teacher Question:  Given the arguments of Plessy and Brown cases, can students, through analyzing and presenting main points from the arguments, understand and enunciate the court’s shift in their interpretation of what it means to be equal under the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment?
The first version of the lesson, taught in fall 2008 in Dennis’ class, largely followed two activities from the Landmark Cases site:  Does Treating People Equally Mean Treating Them the Same? and Classifying Arguments for Each Side of the Case.  While teachers found the demonstration lesson interesting, they felt that the tasks the students were asked to do were not sufficiently sophisticated to evaluate student understanding.  Furthermore, the group felt that the statements in the classification exercise would have been better had they been primary documents rather than broad summaries.

Dennis and Jerri met again in the spring to plan a second iteration of the lesson (Eric was unable to join with the planning but did attend the demonstration lesson and the debrief; Kathryn attended neither.)  This new version would be taught to a class of AP Juniors.

In developing the new lesson, Jerri and Dennis decided to make the focus be on change and continuity over time.  They wanted to develop a lesson asking the students:
1.    In what ways do these two Supreme Court decisions apply the 14th Amendment’s to issues of social equity?
2.    In what ways do these two Supreme Court decisions view the court’s role in social change? and

3.    To what do you account these changes?

Students started the lesson by writing their initial thoughts about the question, “What should be the role of the courts in advancing social policy?”  As they were writing, a series of slides were projected on the screen dealing with contemporary issues (such as gun control, gay marriage, abortion, censorship), thus complicating their responses.  Students alternated between writing and being drawn in by the issues.  Students seemed to be drawn in by the slides enough to be asking for more – they wanted them to slow down and wanted to ask about the images.  In our debrief session, Eric said that he would have preferred time set aside to write and other time to look:  he felt it was too difficult to write and look at the same time.   The power of the contemporary images when dealing with a historically “resolved” was clear, though:  As one student told us, “When we look at 1952, the answer is obvious.  But when we look at today…”  Another student said that, as a result of the lesson, she realized that the question did not only apply to African American rights.

Next, students were asked to discuss their responses to the question, first in small groups then as an entire class.  The student’s discussion was wide ranging, including the following ideas:

•    the courts should protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority
•    the courts should interpret law, not make it
•    the courts have the opportunity to be free of politics, allowing them to do “what is right”
•    the courts should stick with original intent
•    the courts should move to reflect public attitude

Then, Jerri led the students toward arguing Brown v. Board.  First, she reviewed their prior knowledge regarding the set of cases.  Then, she told students that they would be receiving documents and would need to decide whether they are a better argument for the plaintiff or the defendants.

Note:  In a later discussion, several students said that they wished they had longer documents that they were given more time with.  “Having the document the night before would have helped – it’s nice to have a rough idea of what you’re going to be hit in the face with.”  In some cases, the docs I’ve attached here are longer versions; in others, they remain short.  We’ll look forward to hearing other teachers discuss their experiences with them:  Do you merely give your students the pertinent paragraph?  Do you provide the entire document with the part you want to direct their attention to highlighted?  Do you give them the entire document and have them find what they think is significant?

Students scanned their documents fairly quickly and moved to one side of the room or the other based on whether they thought it a better argument for or against school desegregation.  Some students found themselves rejected by the side they initially moved to, encouraged to read their argument as a better one for the opposition; others found their document could be used for either side and hopped back and forth.

The competing sides discussed their “jigsawed” documents and planned an order for their argument.  Interestingly, the group that I observed (the Board of Ed group) decided that because they thought that the enumeration of powers described in the 10th Amendment was their strongest argument, they wouldn’t lead with it and would hold back and “drop the bomb” later.
As can often be the case with student (and adult!) group strategizing, I thought that this meeting of about 8 students was largely dominated by two to three students with 2 additional students marginally contributing and the remaining 3-4 largely silent or blocked off by conversation gatekeepers.  A student later said, “I felt myself taking over the argument on my side.  I overpowered it and I need a reminder some times.”

In listening to the group discussing the Board’s discussion, I noted that one of the students was deeply uncomfortable speaking for the Board.  “I feel so horrible doing this,” she said, blushing.  “But if we’re really white supremacists, we might as well argue that…”  The cultural makeup of the class of 16 students was relatively diverse, with one Latina, one Russian, one German exchange student and one student from the Czech Republic.  However, there were no African American students in the mix.   I wondered about this.  How might I work this role play in a more diverse classroom?  In the end, though, I think that that discomfort was not without value:  I spoke with the student who seemed most pained by it and she told me that it helped her see the complexity of the case and the Board’s perspective.

Jerri then asked the students to debate the case.  The students seemed to be well practiced in debating issues:  Jerri merely reminded them of their rules of engagement (to be polite active listeners, demonstrating understanding of the previous statement before moving on to their point.)  Surely, another class would have needed a lot of instruction as to how to engage in this conversation:  not so Jerri’s.

I was shocked when one of the quieter students on the Board’s side – one who had largely been marginalized in their planning – jumped out and began presenting their argument (from a very different point than the “decided” order for the argument.)  Jerri later said that this was the first time she had seized the floor all year; she was thrilled.  The argument was wide ranging and covered most of the main points in the documents well.  Surprises included:

1.    Even though the documents were sitting in front of the students, they chose to speak in general statements rather than citing or quoting the specific documents.
2.    One student who did specifically cite a document quoted information included in the introduction to the document as being from the document itself.   While during our debrief Jerri thought that she may have been doing this deceitfully in order to strengthen her argument, when we talked to her afterward she seemed to be truly confused.  As a result, we’ve tried to format the introductions in a way that makes it stand out from the documents.
3.    The Cold War argument represented by the amicus brief never made it into the Brown argument.  We’re hoping that the questions at the bottom of the pages will help scaffold students’ thinking in a way that will get all arguments into the fray.
4.    The power of the graphs was immense.  When a student from the Brown side went to the projector to make a point through showing the graphs, all the students seemed to get energized and find different points that could be made using them.  This also brings students to specificity in their arguments.  It was suggested that students be encouraged to bring more of  their documents to put under the projector in order to encourage all students’ engagement with the information contained in the documents.
A student suggested that, in a larger class, assigning one group as judges would have been a good idea.

After they argued the case, Jerri showed scenes 18 & 19 from the Separate But Equal dvd.  These scenes showed Earl Warren’s efforts to get a unanimous decision passed and gave voice to several of the competing arguments.  While we questioned the amount of time given to the video, students said that the video “showed the personal struggle.”   Added to the previous debate, it was essential in challenging one of their fundamental misconceptions about Brown: After their own experience of presenting the arguments, the students realized that the case for the Board of Education was not based entirely on the opinions of racists, but by a group of concerned citizens with valid points.  This further showed the struggle of the judges regarding the possible social implications of their decision. “It was a tough decision,” one student said.  “Just because it was unanimous doesn’t mean that it was easy.”  At least one student had a hard time understanding what was happening in the video and suggested that it should have been introduced as demonstrating Warren’s efforts for unanimity.

Next, students were given excerpts from the Plessy Majority Decision (taken from the Landmark Cases site) to compare with the Brown decision.  They were asked to highlight examples of continuity and change in the two documents.  Students were then asked to share what they discovered in pairs, then “brain dump” all the things which had changed during the half-century between the decisions.  They shared those changes as a whole class.  Their contributions were remarkably far ranging:  a great review for the AP test of 50 years of US history.
Finally, students were asked to write about the role of the courts in promoting social change.

Students were enthusiastic about the lesson.  Some of their comments:
•    This lesson showed the progress from Plessy to Brown – everything had to change.
•    I’m struck by how this was part of one big master plan built over years.
•    It struck me how the opposition had some valid views.
•    It made me realize that the question (about the courts) is bigger than just impacting African Americans.
•    It made us think about the purpose of the court in general – not just this case.
•    When we look at 1952, the answer is obvious.  But when we look at today…

Without the time the group put into this lesson – and the sense of shared responsibility built over time – the lesson clearly would not have been as strong.  More importantly, the time spent debriefing took a lesson that was unsatisfying in the fall to a much more satisfying spot in the spring.  Most importantly, the collegiality and conversation encouraged teachers to test and consider results from new approaches.  While the end product, the lesson plans, remains to be tested and tweaked in other classrooms, the conversations engendered will find life throughout these teachers’ professional lives.

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One response to “Lesson Study: Continuity and Change, Plessy and Brown

  1. Wow! Thank you for your observations over the course of the lesson, so honest and insightful. Everything you did and learned will really help me when I try the same or similar project noting the pitfalls–students not quoting the documents, students citing the introduction rather than the document. Thank you so much!

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