This lesson is part of the following unit:
Identity & Community: An Introduction to 6th Grade Social Studies
Communities, like Memphis, are made up of distinct groups of people such as students, business people, musicians, and city employees. At the same time, the community of Memphis is situated within a larger network of places such as other cities in Tennessee or the United States. This lesson focuses on how we categorize people within our communities as well as how we place labels on members of other communities. In both of these situations, individuals are making choices about who belongs and who does not belong. Psychologist Deborah Tannen writes that categorizing people is a basic part of human behavior:
We all know that we are unique individuals but we tend to see ourselves as representatives of groups. It’s a natural tendency; since we must see the world in patterns in order to make sense of it; we wouldn’t be able to deal with the daily onslaught of people and objects if we couldn’t predict a lot about them and feel that we know who or what they are.
Throughout history, communities have classified people into groups in order to establish boundaries on membership. Understanding these communities (or societies) demands an awareness of who is included and who is excluded, as well as what factors are used to make the decisions about who belongs. Membership has been based on family, tribe, nationality, race, class, religion, gender, and even skills; and organizing people into categories has served many functions (e.g., political, economic, and social). For example, in India, the caste system created strict rules about membership based on family. It was once impossible for someone to become a member of a different caste. In the Middle Ages, groups of people with similar trades formed guilds. Membership often required serving an apprenticeship and proving one’s skill. In the history of the United States, race has been used to classify people into groups with different rights and privileges.
In this lesson, students will read the classic Dr. Seuss story “The Sneetches.” In this tale, Sneetches with stars on their bellies have more status than those without stars. Yet even when the plain-bellied Sneetches get stars on their bellies, they are still denied entrance to the elite community of star-bellied Sneetches. Ultimately the Sneetches learn that, stars or no stars, they are all members of the same community. This poem has been used for decades as a warning against discrimination and prejudice. Dr. Seuss wrote a shorter version of “The Sneetches” in 1953, when the Supreme Court was hearing testimony in Brown v. Board of Education. He completed the longer version of the poem, with illustrations, in 1961. Many scholars believe Dr. Seuss wrote this poem to express his opposition to discrimination against Jewish people in Europe.*
Throughout history, cultures have resolved tensions between communities in the same way as the Sneetches, by extending membership to a wider range of people. For example, the Romans tried to assimilate many of the people they conquered into their society.
Students will also learn about communities that maintained strict boundaries on membership. Thus, the story of the Sneetches can serve as a touchstone throughout your course: It can be a way to begin a conversation about how a specific culture makes decisions about who belongs and who doesn’t. This story also provides a window into students’ relationships with others in the class and in the school. Adolescents are known for forming cliques. This story may help students think more deeply about the purpose and fairness of “in” groups and “out” groups.
As communities set boundaries on membership, they create distinctions of we and they. In the poem “We and They,” Rudyard Kipling writes about how people judge those outside their community as “other.” His experience as a British boy growing up in Bombay, India, inspires the ideas in this poem. He writes about how the British label the eating habits of Indians as “scandalous,” whereas the Indians find it disgusting that the British eat the meat of a cow, an animal considered sacred by Hindus. Thus this poem provides an effective way to introduce students to the idea of perspective, an important concept for any student of history. Especially in world history, where the content focuses on cultures so distant from students’ lives, both geographically and temporally, students should be aware of how their perspective influences their ideas about the cultures they are studying. Similarly, as students encounter classmates from other schools, backgrounds, and neighborhoods, they should be aware that labels of “normal,” “strange,” and “different” are matters of perspective rather than fact.
Begin class by having students share what they learned about the history of Memphis from interviewing someone in their community. You can structure this as a timeline exercise. As students share information about the history of Memphis, record the events they describe at the appropriate place on the timeline, noting whether an event represents a moment of unity or division in Memphis. The concept that communities change over time—with moments of cohesion and separateness—is a theme students will explore in the main activity.
The story of the star-bellied Sneetches provides an opportunity for students to talk about how communities can break down when members are told they do not belong or they are inferior. You can read students the book or show them the video, pausing at two key moments to check for comprehension and to allow students a few minutes to discuss the issues of membership and belonging. (You can borrow The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss from your local library if your school does not have copies. You can also find print and animated versions of the story online.)
Pause #1: Before Sylvester McMonkey McBean enters the scene (page 8)
- Why do you think the star-bellied Sneetches decide to remove their stars?
- How have the rules of membership changed? Why have they changed?
- What do you think will happen next?
- After you finish the story, ask students to meet in small groups to discuss what the story tells them about membership and belonging. Each group can be responsible for responding to particular questions:
- What are three ideas this story reveals about communities, membership, and belonging?
- The media always depicts teenagers as forming cliques. Compare the way the Sneetches treat each other to the way teenagers treat each other. What is the same? What is different?
- Whom do you respect more, the Sneetches at the beginning of the story or the Sneetches at the end? Explain why.
- Often stories are written to express a moral or teach a lesson. What is the moral of this story?
Curriculum connections: Many of the questions above can be used to help students better understand societies they will study in world history. You can use these questions while also making reference to the Sneetches. For example, as students study a particular society, ask them to compare that society to the Sneetches. Students can identify the communities that act like the star-bellied Sneetches and those that are like the plain-bellied Sneetches.
When students understand how communities make choices regarding membership, they are ready to think about how belonging to a community shapes the way people view the world, especially how they view people who live outside of their community. The poem “We and They” by Rudyard Kipling reinforces the idea of in-groups and out-groups that is a central theme in The Sneetches, while also introducing the concept of perspective.
Distribute the poem to students. Read it aloud or ask students to volunteer to read a stanza. After you read the poem, have students create a list of the words Kipling uses to describe we as well as the words he uses to describe they. Encourage students to notice verbs as well as nouns and adjectives. Students can use their lists to help answer the question, “What is the difference between we and they, according to the poet?” The “We and They” Worksheet included with this lesson is designed to guide students’ analysis of the poem.;
Next, write the word perspective on the board. See if any students can define this term. Or you can give them the following definition: Perspective is your point of view. Perspective is how you see and understand the world and the people around you. Explain that we each have a perspective that is influenced by our unique identity as well as the communities to which we belong.Before students think about how their identities and communal affiliations influence their own perspective, ask them to apply the concept of perspective to Kipling’s poem. Tell half of the class to imagine that they are members of the we community described in the poem and the other half to imagine that they are members of the they community. Then have all students answer the following questions: Whose practices are proper? Whose practices are disgusting? After students representing the we group and the they group share their responses, as a class you can discuss the meaning of the final stanza of the poem:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!
Perspective assignment: Have students identify a group or a community. It could be a sports team, a school, a family, a neighborhood, a religion, or a nation. Next, ask students to select an object or event that represents this group’s experience. The students’ assignment is to write a paragraph describing this object or event from the perspective of a member of that group (the we perspective). Then, have students write another paragraph in which they describe the same object or event from the perspective of someone who is not a member of that group (the they perspective).
Journal assignment: Identify a community to which you belong. How might your ideas be different from those of people who are not part of this community? How does being a member of this community shape the way you view those outside of your community? How do you think people from other communities view the ideas or practices of your community?