Woodstock first-graders experience segregation

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Woodstock - posted Mon., Jan. 21, 2013
Herb Cortiss talks to students in his first-grade class. Photos by D. Coffey.
Herb Cortiss talks to students in his first-grade class. Photos by D. Coffey.

Students in Herb Cortiss' first-grade classroom at Woodstock Elementary School learned difficult lessons in the lead-up to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Cortiss spent 15 minutes a day for a week teaching about the civil rights leader and the contributions he made to the country. It will take years for the 6- and 7-year-old students to fully appreciate the import of segregation, integration and civil rights legislation, but Cortiss was laying the groundwork. In daily sessions, students were given an opportunity to learn about King and how he shaped the civil rights movement in America.

“Let's get out our booklets,” Cortiss said for his first session of the day on Jan. 18. Nineteen pairs of hands reached into small desks and pulled out notebooks. From inside, they took a packet Cortiss had put together. Friday's lesson included coloring a cut-out of the preacher from Montgomery, Ala. “Make sure you get all three pages,” Cortiss said. “Now let's take a look at Martin Luther King, Jr.,” he said.

One page had King's head and torso, another his two arms, the third his legs. The students had to color in his suit, shirt, tie, hair, face and shoes. Then they had to cut out the pieces and put Dr. King together for a bulletin board display the class was working on. In the process, Cortiss wove in vocabulary lessons: “How do you spell 'shirt?'” he asked. Several hands went up. “Sound it out,” he encouraged the youngster when he had difficulty getting the entire word right. He reinforced math lessons. “Remember yesterday in math we did pairs,” Cortiss said. “What do you have to add to the end of the word, 'pair?'”

He talked with his students about color, about feelings, about following directions. And he shared with them some of the darker moments of our country's history.

“I just feel it's important to show some of our American history, whether it's good or bad,” said Cortiss. “And this was a bad section. We've talked about boycotts. I try to introduce them to as much vocabulary as possible and I try to make sure that they understand. I know they are 6 and 7, but you have to make sure they understand.”

Perhaps the most effective lessons in segregation were the two days that Cortiss had his students pretend to be African-Americans back in the 1940s. For one entire day, all the girls in the class were “black.” They went to lunch last. They were ignored when they raised their hands to answer questions. The boys, all “white” for the day, went to lunch first and had more time to eat. They were given an extra break. They had extra privileges. Then Cortiss reversed the roles the next day. The boys were “black” and they went to lunch last and were ignored when they raised their hands. On that day, the girls had the extra break and privileges.

“I felt that they really internalized what segregation was through the practice of going first or last,” Cortiss said. “There was no respect. No matter how old a man was, he was still called a ‘boy.’ And respectful titles like ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs.’ weren't afforded women. It was so demeaning.” Cortiss said the kids picked up on it quite well. “They didn't like it,” said Cortiss. “We had tears.”

“I didn't like it because people made fun of me,” said 6-year-old Thea Sullivan. “Ethyn kept walking around me and saying, ‘What, what, what?’ He was annoying me.”

Cortiss made sure to talk with his students about their feelings. “I told them, 'I understand your feelings. Now you can understand why black people were so upset during Martin Luther King, Jr.'s time. You can understand why they wanted to change things.'”

The segregation lesson didn't affect everyone the same, however. “Being last wasn't so bad because I'm always usually last,” said 7-year-old Gabe Cooke. The youngest of four, his brothers are 12, 23 and 25. He doesn't have a sister, unless you count the dog, and even she is older than Gabe. “In dog years she's 14,” he said. Still there were things Gabe didn't like. He wasn't happy to learn that African Americans weren't treated like white people. “We should treat people good,” he said.

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