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What One Teacher Has Done,Part I:

Role-Play in the Classroom

by Jane Califf

“What do you know about Indian people?” I asked a class of first graders.

“They kill people.”

“They tie people to a stake and burn them.”

“They chase people from their homes.”


I was shocked.  Somehow, I thought that six-year-olds are too young to have internalized such stereotypes, but I had underestimated the power of TV, books and comics.  Most assuredly, the children’s responses did not fit into my lesson plan.  I had come to class prepared to talk about the everyday life of the Lenni Lenape, who had once lived in the part of New Jersey where I was then teaching.  I wanted to instill in my students a respect for the harmonious way the Lenni Lenape coexisted with nature, their ingenious use of plants and animals, the care with which they raised their children, their sharing of food and work, how they made medicines from certain plants, and their beautiful craftwork.


I thought that if my students could appreciate these aspects of Lenni Lenape life, I would be helping them to understand and respect Native Americans.  However, I realized that all of this would not be enough to counteract the false impressions the children in my class had of Native Americans as “savages” and “killers.”  I would try again.


I invited a Native American parent to visit the class and help me put on a skit to demonstrate why Native Americans fought the white settlers.  I introduced the parent as a member of the Penobscot Indian Nation.  An excited murmur echoed through the room at the thought of seeing a “real live Indian.”


Setting the stage for the skit, I told the children that our guest would pretend to be a Lenni Lenape and that he and I were about to put on a play about the Native Americans who were the first people to live in and around Plainfield, New Jersey, where the school was situated.  I described how different the area looked then.  I took the role of the people from across the ocean who, because they were poor, unemployed and landless, were coming to find a better life for themselves.  I told the class to pretend that the hall was the ocean and the classroom was where the settlers landed.


I went out into the hall after explaining that when I reappeared, it meant I had just completed a long ocean voyage and would need a place to live.


When I entered the classroom, I asked, “Who’s that?” pointing to the Native American parent.  “An Indian!” “Well, I’m going to see if he will give me some land.” I explained my need in pantomime since we didn’t know each other’s language, and he graciously let me use one-fourth of the room.  Meanwhile, he showed me what animals to hunt, how to hunt, what vegetables to eat and how to plant them.


Children Get Involved


Another boat came; the act was repeated. Several times this happened until my collaborator was standing in the corner of the classroom with one square foot of space left.


I said, “I think I hear something again.“  “Not another boat!” several children exclaimed and ran to the door to check.  “Yes, there’s another boat!” they said, thoroughly caught up in the drama.


“Come on over,” I called, and 50 more phantom settlers entered the room.  I asked the class, “Should the Lenni Lenape give up his space in the corner for these new people?” “No,” one boy said seriously, “because then he would be in the closet.” The class laughed.  A girl jumped up. “If he has to give up all that little piece of land, then he won’t have any land at all, and that’s no laughing matter.”


“Let’s take sides then,” I suggested. “Some of you be Lenni Lenape people, and some of you be settlers with me. We’ll have to discuss this problem.”  They chose sides. A “settler” on my side began, “We’re going to take all your land.” “No, you’re not!” said a young “Lenni Lenape,” stamping her foot.


Suddenly and spontaneously, a “war” broke out.  Children pushed, shoved, leapt over desks and ran around the room defending their side in a mock battle.  They became so caught up in the action that we were able to bring the drama to a close only with some difficulty.


“What happened?” we then asked.  “There was a fight!” “Why?” “Because they were going to take all of the Lenni Lenape’s land, and that wasn’t fair.”


We then summarized the point of the skit, suggesting that the next time they watched a TV show in which Native American people were fighting settlers, they would understand a little better why.  It was not that Native Americans liked to kill people, but that despite their hospitality to the newcomers, their land and homes were being taken away and they had to fight back. I did not pursue this any further except to say that most of the Native Americans’ land was eventually taken from them by force.  Native Americans fought back but lost, I told my class, and now there are only a few places left that they can call their own.


I could have added, but did not, that denial of Native American rights to land that they claim by treaty continues to this day.  The occupation of Wounded Knee occurred about this time, and TV news programs were filled with the latest events in the battle between U.S. troops and descendants of the Sioux people, many of whom had been massacred in that same location 80 years before.  But since I thought it would be too difficult to explain what was happening to six-year-olds, I never discussed it with them.


A month later, a substitute teacher took the class and the subject of Native Americans came up.  In describing our classroom drama, one child shouted, “And then he was standing over there in the corner!”; the teacher asked, “And what was that called?” Answered one child: “Bandaged Knee.”


For Older Children


I learned much from this incident.  This child had made a connection between contemporary events on the TV screen and the drama that had unfolded in our classroom four weeks earlier.  Yet, I had not helped the children make the connection, having underestimated their capacities—a common failing among teachers.


With older children, I have varied the drama.  Usually a simple confrontation between Native Americans and settlers, in which each side presents its views, is enough to make clear the legitimate anger of the Native Americans over the theft of their land.  One second grader thought an Indian was “a person who stands on a rock, and when a cowboy walks by he goes POW! on his head with a tomahawk.” “Why?” I asked.  “I don’t know,” he replied.  In the role-playing situation, I chose him to be a Native American defending his people’s right to their land.  He put up a good defense, and it was clear his attitude had changed as a result of participating in the role-play.


One of the criticisms now being leveled at our teaching about Native Americans is that we relegate them to the past.  Efforts should be made to counteract this.  One possibility might be a follow-up skit in which one of the children takes the role of Native American child today and tells how she or he would feel about seeing the skit described above.


Critical Thinking


In addition, from time to time, I have elementary school children act out scenes from recent events as one method of countering stereotypes.  Events or concepts which may seem remote when merely discussed, become real and meaningful to children who act them out and to those who watch.  As they are compelled by the roles they play to think and respond, children are stimulated to think more critically and carefully.  As they see stereotyped attitudes and behavior portrayed and challenged, the error of these attitudes and behavior becomes clearer.  It also becomes clearer that racism should not be overlooked or passively accepted.


The apparent effectiveness of the approach which I have described was brought home to me forcefully some time later.  A seven-year-old who felt keenly the injustices Native Americans have suffered, told me that one night he was watching a TV program in which he saw Native Americans portrayed as wildly attacking peaceful settlers. “I went right up to the TV and turned it off. I told my mother and father that that wasn’t a fair movie.”


By Jane Califf, as Published in: Unlearning “Indian” Stereotypes, A Teaching Unit for Elementary Teacher and Children’s Librarians, Council on Interracial Books for Children, 1977, p.32-33.

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