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Roots of Terrorism
teachers guide

After Viewing the Documentary

Depending on your subject area, you may want to follow viewing with one or more of the following activities:

First Reactions

  • A Note to Teachers

  • Pre-Viewing Preparation

    Viewing the Documentary

    Post-Viewing Lesson Plans
  • First Reactions
  • Exploring Privilege
  • Meritocracy
  • Language
  • Taking Action

  • Internet and Other Resources

    Student Assignment Sheet
  • Definitions and Discussion Prompts
  • Lesson Objective

    Students will be afforded the opportunity to reflect on the issues raised in the film.

    Time Needed

    Flexible, but at least one full class period is recommended.


    In a journal free-write or discussion immediately following viewing, ask students to consider any or all of the following:

    General Reactions

    • What did you learn?
    • What scene or scenes do you think you'll still remember a month from now and why those scenes?
    • Did any part of the film surprise you? Do you think someone of a different race, ethnicity, or religion would also find it surprising?

    Following Up on the Pre-Viewing Questions

    • How was the exercise that Elliott designed a response to the children's question, "Why would anyone want to murder Martin Luther King?" Did the film provide an answer to the question? Can you answer the question?
    • Census categories have changed over time to reflect the complexities of American demographics and identities. Consider how some of the following groups experience racism differently:
      • People who are bi- or multi-racial.
      • People who have black skin, but are from very different places (e.g., a 13th generation descendant of African slaves, a recent immigrant from Jamaica, a third generation Cuban, a political refugee from Somalia, etc.).
      • People "of color" who are not black (e.g., Asians, Pacific Islanders, Latino/as, etc.)

    Impact of Discrimination

    • What did the children's body language indicate about the impact of discrimination?
    • How did the negative and positive labels placed on a group become self-fulfilling prophecies?
    • In the prison seminar, one of the white women asserts that all people face some kind of discrimination. Another woman challenges her, claiming that whites can't really know what it's like to face discrimination every minute of every day. What do you think?
    • Both Elliott and her former students talk about whether or not this exercise should be done with all children. What do you think? If the exercise could be harmful to children, as Elliott suggests, what do you think actual discrimination might do?

    Looking at the Structures that Nurture Bias

    • What features did Elliott ascribe to the superior and inferior groups and how did those characteristics reflect stereotypes about blacks and whites?
    • How did Elliott's discrimination create no-win situations for those placed in the inferior group? How did she selectively interpret behavior to confirm the stereotypes she had assigned?
    • It's easy to understand why third-graders might not refuse to obey their teacher, but when the exercise is done with the prison guards, why don't any of the adults object?

    Looking for Answers

    • At recess, two of the boys from different groups get in a fight. Elliott asks the one who was teased if responding with violence made him feel better or made the teasing stop. What does the answer suggest about the use of violence as a political strategy? At the time, who was using violence for political purposes and why?
    • How is the blue eyes/brown eyes exercise related to the Sioux prayer, "Help me not judge a person until I have walked in his shoes"?

    Exploring Privilege

    Lesson Objective

    Students will deepen their understanding of privilege and assess where they stand in relation to privileges granted to white-skinned people in a racist society.

    (Note: This lesson is most appropriate for advanced-level students. Before guiding them through it, take a moment to review the discussion facilitation tips.)

    Time Needed

    If the entire activity is done in class, 80 minutes. If the reading and scoring is done as homework and then discussed in class, 40 minutes.


    Briefly review the kinds of privileges that Jane Elliott created for her third-graders. Things like extra recess time, getting to go back for seconds at lunch, and being first in line were fitting rewards for her 8 year olds. To explore what kinds of privileges exist in the adult world, assign students to read Peggy McIntosh's classic article "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," available at http://www.departments.bucknell.edu/res_colleges/socjust/Readings/McIntosh.html.

    Instruct them to pay special attention to McIntosh's checklist and to use the checklist as self-reflection, asking "Can you count on this?" A "yes" answer scores 1 point. For a "no," subtract 1 point. Score nothing for "does not apply to me." The higher the score, the greater the degree of privilege one has in the context of living in the United States today.

    (Note: The checklist was written for an adult audience. You may want to edit or delete items that could not apply to students.)

    After students have read the article and scored themselves on the checklist, encourage them to share their reactions. Were they surprised by their score, or did it confirm what they already knew? Why is privilege normally invisible and what does it feel like to make it visible? If you have an integrated class, was the exercise different for white students than for students of color? For black students than for Asian, Indian, Latino/a students, or other students of color?

    Continue the discussion by asking for opinions on McIntosh's argument that the word "privilege" is misleading.

    Conclude the discussion by relating what McIntosh says to Jane Elliott's explanations in the documentary of why she created the blue eyes/brown eyes activity. How are they connected? How are they different?

    As an extension, you might want to have students examine how white privilege has influenced and continues to influence life in other countries. Places that have been colonized by whites, such as South Africa or India, would be good places to begin.

    Method of Evaluation

    Ask students to summarize McIntosh's article in one or two sentences and add one of their own conditions to McIntosh's checklist.


    Lesson Objective

    Students will understand the prerequisite conditions for meritocracy and assess whether or not those conditions exist (or have ever existed) in the U.S.

    Time Needed

    30 minutes


    Introduce the term "meritocracy" and explain that through much of American history, schools, churches and the government have promoted the notion that anyone who works hard enough can achieve the American dream. Ask students to evaluate this notion in light of the testing results they see in the film, where third-graders perform better on a phonics task when they are in the group labeled superior than when those same students are in the group designated as inferior.

    Then ask students to compare and contrast, either in writing or as part of class discussion, the quote below with the mythical rags-to-riches heroes of Horatio Alger's novels, whose perseverance, hard work, and integrity were always rewarded with financial success.

    "An understanding of racism as a system of advantage presents a serious challenge to the notion of the United States as a just society where rewards are based solely on one's merits." Beverly Daniel Tatum, Harvard Educational Review (Spring 1992, p. 6)

    Conclude the discussion with a review of historical instances in which groups of Americans have been prevented from achieving Horatio Alger-style success (e.g., forcible removal of Indians onto reservations, slavery, internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, red-lining neighborhoods to keep out Jews or people of color, etc.). Ask students to think of examples in their own school or community.

    As an extension, you might want to have students use what they learn about meritocracy to conduct a debate on current laws governing affirmative action, the movement to require passing a standardized test to be promoted to the next grade or graduate from high school, or the use of tracking in schools.

    Method of Evaluation

    Students should be able to define "meritocracy," and use what they know about racial, religious, and ethnic discrimination to make a case that the United States is or is not a "meritocracy."


    Lesson Objective

    Students will:

    • think about the impact of word choice;
    • consider whether or not racism is embedded in the phrases they use, hear, or read.

    Time Needed

    30 minutes


    Share with students the following quote:

    "Cultural racism is racism that is so much a part of the mainstream culture that it looks 'normal.' It outlives any single individual and pervades the thinking, speech, and actions of whole groups of people. In the English language, for example, many of our positive definitions and connotations of the word white and negative connotations of the word black reinforce notions of white superiority and black inferiority." Source: Burgest, 1973, cited in Frances Kendall, Diversity in the Classroom, 1996)

    Divide students into small groups and assign them to test the author's assertion by brainstorming a list of words and phrases that includes the words "black," "dark," "white," and "light," and then sorting the list into "positive," "negative," or "neutral" columns. Examples might include things like "blacklisted," "black market," or "white lie."

    If time allows, students might investigate the origins of the words and phrases on their list. For additional background, you might have students read and discuss Robert B. Moore's article, "Racism in the English Language" in Beyond Heroes and Holidays.

    Ask students to discuss the power of language and the choice of words and whether or not they think that continuing to use things on their "negative" list is racist.

    Method of Evaluation

    Ask each group to share their list and compile the results into one large list. A group's ability to generate examples of words and phrases should be considered evidence that they understand the concept of subtle meaning.

    Taking Action

    Lesson Objective

    Students will:

    • see that they have the capacity to do something to combat racism;
    • choose one or more actions to try;
    • learn what others are already doing in their community.

    Time Needed

    40-60 minutes, more if you choose to bring in a guest speaker, plus an additional 80 minutes for evaluation if you have students present their work to one another.


    The final chapter of "One America in the 21st Century," the 1998 report of President Bill Clinton's Initiative on Race, chaired by John Hope Franklin, lists 10 things that every American should do to promote racial reconciliation. Review the list with your students. Add anything they think is missing.

    Use the Internet, phone book, and/or community or campus diversity specialists to help students identify which actions are already being taken in their school or community and to facilitate students' volunteering for organizations of interest to them. If time allows, you might want to invite guest speakers from relevant groups to describe what their group does. Ask each student to check off those things they think they could do and to commit to try at least one item in the list.

    Method of Evaluation

    At the end of the semester or after another appropriate period of time, ask students to report on what they did, how it felt, whether or not they think they were successful (and why), and whether they think the impact will be lasting (either on themselves or on others). Reports can be given only to you or to the entire class, depending on time constraints. Consider allowing for flexibility in reporting format, e.g., written, oral, videotape, webpage or multimedia report, etc.

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