Biographical / Historical
Jane Elliott, school teacher, anti-racism activist and educator, and creator of one of the most controversial sociological exercises in the United States of America in the 20th century, was born outside Riceville, Iowa in 1933. The fourth of seven children born to Lloyd Jennison and Margaret Benson Jennison, she grew up helping on the family farm and attended a one-room schoolhouse until high school. Upon graduating from high school in 1952 she attended Iowa State Teachers College (now the University of Northern Iowa), where she completed a five-quarter emergency elementary teaching certificate and began teaching in a one-room school in Randall, Iowa, in 1953. Elliott married Darald Elliott and left teaching for a time to raise their family. The Elliotts lived in Waterloo for a time, where the National Tea food store that Darald ran was the first store picketed by the NAACP in the city. To escape the tension in Waterloo, the family moved back to Riceville, where Jane Elliott took over her sister's job teaching third grade in 1963. Early in her time at Riceville, Elliott developed an interest in assisting dyslexic children learn to read, which grew upon realizing that her own son, Brian, suffered from the condition, and that it was severely under-recognized in the population in general. After a number of years teaching the third grade, she moved to teaching reading and remedial reading at the junior high level, before retiring from teaching in 1984 to conduct diversity sensitivity training exercises and workshops around the world. Jane Elliott is most famous for the Blue-Eyed, Brown-Eyed exercise, first conducted in her third-grade class in 1968. Inspired by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., she attempted to discuss the event, and racism in general, with her class the next day; Elliott became discouraged when she did not seem to be getting through to the students. Inspired by the memory of reading Mila 18, by Leon Uris, and her father's reactions to newsreels about the Holocaust during World War II, Elliott decided to create a miniature climate of discrimination among her all-white students, separating them by eye color, and designating one color as second-class citizens; she hoped to help the children understand discrimination and prejudice and empathize with persons who had to face those issues. Elliott's classroom activity caused some upset among her colleagues, but did not raise much attention until it was picked up by the Associated Press and featured on the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. Subsequently, and again after the American Broadcasting Company ran a documentary on her, Jane Elliott began to receive a lot of response, primarily negative. She has said that her family suffered from the publicity and negative feeling surrounding the activity. To this day, the topic of Jane Elliott and her Blue-Eyed, Brown-Eyed exercise arouses strong, mixed feelings in Riceville. In December 1970, Elliott was invited to attend the White House Conference on Children, where she staged her activity for adults, primarily educators, physicians, social workers, and others whose professional work involved children. Despite criticism of her methods and the field of diversity training that she helped pioneer, Elliott continues to teach her exercise in workshops.