Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, teacher Jane Elliott knew she had to do something. Riceville, Iowa, the town in which she lived, was totally homogeneous and, as a result, she realized that her students had no firsthand experience with discrimination. A Class Divided: Then and Now chronicles Elliott's courageous experiment and the life-altering impact it had on her students.
On the day after King's assassination, Elliott segregated her class according to eye color. Students with brown eyes were considered superior to those with blue eyes. They were afforded extra time at recess, a second helping at lunch and the sense of self-worth that goes along with feeling above everyone else. The blue-eyed students wore collars so that their eye color could be distinguished from afar. The following day, Elliott turned the tables by giving the blue-eyed students privileges and making the brown-eyed students second class citizens. Elliott watched with fascination as her classroom became a microcosm of society. The superior group quickly embraced their elite status and turned on the inferior group. They readily adopted the "propaganda" Elliott spouted about the other group's habits and ethics. Word of Elliott's lesson spread, and in 1970, she found herself with a camera crew in her classroom to document what few other teachers of the day were willing to confront.
In 1984, the class reunited to watch the documentary and talk about the life lessons they learned fourteen years earlier. Elliott's former students spoke of how they are accepting of others in a town where discrimination still reared its ugly head. They talked about teaching their children tolerance and acceptance in a town where those values were not standard practice. The book and documentary also record Elliott's training of guards in the Iowa Department of Corrections. It is fascinating to learn that adults fall right into the same pattern of discrimination as the third graders had.
Author William Peters penned A Class Divided: Then and Now (1987) several years after the first edition of A Class Divided (1971) was published. The book is based on the 1970 ABC News documentary The Eye of the Storm. The book and the documentary are still widely used today in schools across America.