Instead of leaping into Beals' memoir as an unproblematic celebration of Brown, I want to give students a sense of the discussions that might have happened over dinner tables, in barbershops, or at church socials as Little Rock community members argued about integrating Central High School. I wrote a role play so before students began reading the book they could understand how different groups in the city might have responded to integration. I started with the question: Should Central High School be integrated? To be honest, as an English literature major, I was appallingly ignorant about much of U.S. history. However, my lack of knowledge helped me understand the gaps in historical information that students might have. For example, I was surprised that some African Americans did not want to integrate schools for a variety of reasons, including a fundamental distrust in a government that had never taken their well-being into account. I didn't really know the history of the struggle. I knew the big stuff. I had a basic understanding of the Supreme Court decision and Thurgood Marshall's role, and I had the visual images of Elizabeth Eckford and the mob; but to teach this book effectively, I needed details. I read, I researched, and I wrote the roles.
Before I begin the role play, I construct a definition of the terms "segregation" and "integration" with students. They divide into small groups and generate their own definitions and examples for the two words. When we come back together as a large group, students share their knowledge. When I first started the unit, I just jumped in, assuming they all knew these key concepts. My omission put students, especially English Language Learners, at a disadvantage before we even opened the book or started the role play.
In the role play the Little Rock School Board asks five groups, who hold a variety of opinions on integration, to make suggestions about how to proceed with desegregating Little Rock's schools following the Brown decision. Each group has an opportunity to persuade the school board (me) to agree with their resolution and to question their opponents.
After informing students of their responsibilities, I divide them into the five groups: Families of the Little Rock Nine, African Americans Opposing Integration, Governor Faubus, Local Business Owners, and the NAACP. [For a complete copy of the role play, see www.rethinkingschools.org/brown.] Then I give students a menu of resolutions to present to the school board—or the choice to create their own:
Central High School should be immediately opened up for any African American who wants to attend.