Jane Elliott started the well-known "Blue Eye, Brown Eye" exercise more than 40 year ago in Riceville, Iowa. It was the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April of 1968. She wanted to show her third grade students what King stood for. She also wanted her class of all white students to understand what it felt like to be judged based on an uncontrollable part of their physical appearance.
"I couldn't think of any way to explain to my brown eye, blue eye, to my students in all white, all Christian, Riceville, Iowa what it was Martin Luther King, Jr. was protesting, why he was protesting, and why anyone would feel like they had the right to kill him for protesting," Elliott said, speaking in her home more than 44 years later.
Elliott decided to split her class into two sections, students who had blue eyes and students who had brown eyes.
"I was going to do what we do in this country, I was going to base my judgment of them on a physical characteristic over which they had absolutely no control," Elliott said.
On the first day, the students with blue eyes received preferential treatment. On the second day the treatment was reversed. Students were told that one eye color was better than the other. And before long, that belief impacted how the students treated each other, even outside of the classroom.
"I was shocked. I was dismayed, and by recess time, I was out in the hall with my head against the locker crying because of what my kids were saying and doing to one another and what I was learning. I didn't want to learn what I learned that day," Elliott said.
Elliott says the behavior modeled by the students in the exercise was a reflection of what had been modeled for them in their real lives.
"I didn't know that I was a racist until I watched my students exhibit the behaviors that I had modeled for them and that their parents, and that their ministers, and that their other instructors and their administrator had modeled for them," Elliott said.
Not only did the students change their behavior towards each other, but Elliott says their demeanor and academic performance changed depending on their status during the exercise.
"I watched a brilliant, blue-eyed girl, who came into my room in February, reading at the sixth grade level, become a child during that exercise who walked with her shoulders hunched...She made mistakes in reading, she made mistakes in spelling, and she forgot how to multiply," Elliott said.
Elliott says other students that had previously struggled in class actually excelled during the exercise on the day they received preferential treatment.
She did the exercise almost every year she taught from 1968 to about 1984, influencing hundreds of students, including Rex Kozak.
"She just started off and started her lesson and to be honest with you, nobody knew what was about to happen," Kozak said.
Kozak was part of the second class to go through the exercise. He was also part of the class filmed by ABC for a special called "Eye of the Storm."
"It wasn't just in the room that you were treated this way. When you went through the lunch line, when you sat down to eat your dinner, the proportions were different. The attitudes toward people were different," Kozak said.
Kozak is now a principal at East Marshall High School in LeGrand, Iowa. Elliot says the exercise taught her students will live up to your expectations, no matter how high or high low. And that's what Kozak remembers.
"What Jane does, the basis is, it doesn't matter who you are, what you are, you have the potential to deliver and make a difference. And for me that's probably the biggest part, to go out and make a difference," Kozak said.
After an appearance on the Johnny Carson Show, Elliott and her exercise received national attention. Elliott repeated the exercise every year until she retired. In Elliott's opinion, racism isn't about skin color, it's about ignorance.
"I'm not proud of the exercise. I am proud of the students who have gone through the exercise and come out better educated people. By the end of that first day of that exercise. my third graders were less ignorant than any teacher in that building after one day. That's called education," Elliott said.
Elliott now travels to businesses, organizations, and schools to do the exercise as a diversity trainer.
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