Sunday, April 14, 2024

Ruby Bridges – My Best Lesson

by Mark Warner
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Ages: 5-11
Mathew Sullivan

When I was asked to write about my ‘best lesson’, my mind instantly (and naturally, for those who know me well) leapt to comic-based literacy lessons, times when I’d taught through Lego, sessions on superhero stories and one of many awesome animation projects.

However, once this wash of geeky over-enthusiasm had subsided, I started to really reminisce. I thought about the lessons which had the greatest impact on pupils – ones that were packed with the buzz of learning, as well as plenty of those lightbulb moments that we live for as teachers. I thought about lessons I’d enjoyed teaching so much that I had repeated – not only with different classes but across different year groups – each time yielding the same kind of positive results. I thought about the lesson that got me my first teaching job while I was still studying for my PGCE at the school in which I still work to this day.

I thought about the mystery of Ruby Bridges.

The question, ‘Who is Ruby Bridges?’ was the hook in one of just two lessons presented as part of a crash course in history teaching during my time at Manchester Metropolitan University. Annoyingly, I can’t remember the name of the tutor who delivered this session – which is a shame, as he most definitely deserves credit for showing me, from a very early stage, what inspirational teaching actually looked like. He delivered the lesson as if we were the class, and I delivered it in exactly the same way during my job interview. It went something like this…

Ruby Bridges

Having been told that they were going to be ‘History Detectives’ for the day, pupils were presented with this image. They received the picture in an envelope marked ‘Evidence 1’. They were given a few basic questions to prompt discussion and then set to work in pairs or groups to discuss what they could infer. They talked about the age of the girl, where she was going, how she was feeling, the age of the image itself, and anything else that could be garnered from this initial, limited view.

The group then shared their findings, modifying their ideas in the light of suggestions from others and forming a general consensus about what they thought was going on.

Ruby Bridges

After that, a second envelope was handed out. It contained another piece of evidence which fit together with the first like a jigsaw puzzle. (I have since taught this lesson using a whiteboard slideshow, but there is definitely something to be said for handling and piecing together the clues physically.)

The conversation that followed shifted the dynamic of the investigation entirely. Pupils recognised the symbols of authority that the men in the picture wore, and this led to discussions about the kind of trouble this little girl could have been in. Had she broken the law? Was she the daughter of someone important? Had something bad happened to her – so bad that she needed the protection of the police? Once again, the class reconvened to share their new ideas and modify their collective thoughts regarding the mystery of this little girl.

At this point, the anticipation of the final piece of the puzzle was palpable. The discussion, reasoning, visual literacy and close analysis skills on display had been tremendous, and every pupil was thoroughly engaged, contributing at the peak of their own ability.

Ruby Bridges

The last piece of evidence completed the image. Pupils were now sure that whatever situation Ruby Bridges was in, it was a serious one. What had once been assumed to be a school or a house was now thought to be a police station. Some pupils even understood the term U.S. Marshall and knew that the involvement of these men pointed towards something very important indeed.

Having garnered as much as they could from the visual evidence, pupils were then asked to use their listening skills to examine a piece of auditory evidence: the story of Ruby Bridges, told in her own words. They were asked, in particular, to pick out the moment where the two pieces of evidence interlinked. Every single time I have taught this lesson, you could hear a pin drop during the reading of this story; every pupil was utterly focused on every detail – and it is a story that deserves that kind of attention.

Ruby Bridges was one of the first black children in America to attend an integrated school in 1960. At the age of six, she had to walk through protests every day on the way to class, flanked at all times by U.S. Marshalls. Many of the white parents removed their children from the school, and Ruby was left being the only child in her class, taught by a teacher named Mrs Henry. In her story, Ruby recounts days on end spent in Mrs Henry’s room. It was just the two of them, learning lessons and doing exercises and playing games. She tells of how Mrs Henry tried to explain some people’s reticence when it came to integration and assured her that not everyone was like them. Ruby describes how she and her teacher discussed equality and the importance of treating others as they would want to be treated. She also describes the power of prayer and how she used faith as a shield to protect her from the hurtful things the crowd would shout each day. In a final depiction, Ruby describes a time when Mrs Henry had asked her why she had stopped one day in the middle of the mob and appeared to have been talking to them…

“I wasn’t talking to them, I told her. I was praying for them. Usually, I prayed in the car on the way to school, but that day I’d forgotten until I was in the crowd. Please be with me, I’d asked God, and be with those people too. Forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing.

Ruby Nell, you are truly someone special, Mrs. Henry whispered, giving me an even bigger hug than usual. She had this look on her face like my mother would get when I’d done something to make her proud.”

The teaching points that arise from this lesson are near-innumerable. It covers issues such as race, the history of civil rights, the power of faith, the ability of children to be world-changers, and so much more. It is a History lesson, an R.E. lesson, a comprehension lesson and a P.S.H.E lesson, all in one. And in the end, one thing is for sure – the pupils all knew and remembered who Ruby Bridges is and why she is so important.

Mathew is a teacher and speaker. He is also the author of the wonderful book Melvin McGee: Zombie Hunter.

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