I was recently invited to work with a group of middle school students as part of their Junior Young Friends Retreat on the topic of privilege and social identifiers. Knowing I needed to provide multi-modalities of instruction, I began with experiential learning and divided the students into small groups and gave each one a pile of Legos. In addition to Legos, some groups received mittens, gloves, tongs and blindfolds. Some members of groups were not allowed to speak and some groups had no restrictions at all. Each group was asked to complete the task of building a shape that I had provided but only having the “builder” was allowed touch the Legos. Once completed, group members switched roles and built new shapes. As I walked around, I heard students make comments such as “pick up the blue Lego” to a student who was blindfolded or “move it to the left” when they were sitting across from each other and the left for one was the right for the other. These kinds of comments were then corrected by the direction giver becoming “feel for the long skinny Lego” and “move your hand to your right”. The significance of these minor shifts in directions is that they take the direction giver out of his/her privilege status and moves them to an equal partnership with the person who is tasked with building the shape.
Once every group had completed its task, we then gathered together and discussed the questions “What was challenging?”, “What was easy?” and “What did we think about some groups have hindrances and others not having them?" As one might predict, the groups who had mittens, gloves, blindfolds and/or tongs found it more difficult to complete the task. Feelings of frustration emerged as we explored the experience of the groups with obstacles. These feelings were compounded when talking about how the obstacles were imposed upon them rather than assumed by them. Quickly students were able to make the connection that privilege status, or lack thereof, is often imposed rather than earned. When listening to the group with no obstacles, I found they were hesitant to talk about how easy the task was, mimicking the guilt often felt by those in privilege positions. Having these groups listen to each other was key in building the foundation for the rest of the day’s work discussing stereotypes and social identifiers. While I am always surprised by new insights raised when working with middle schoolers, what never surprises me is how insightful they are when looking at these complex matters. As evidenced by that they were willing to talk and work together for over two hours and then continued their conversations as they gathered for snacks.
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