Tolerance and Forgiveness

An Interdisciplinary Lesson on Civic Efficacy


Angelo Vincent Ciardiello

History is boring! Nothing but dry facts.” How often have I heard this complaint about social studies instruction? Stanford University professor Elliot Eisner uses the term “eviscerated of affect” to describe the lifeless quality of a curriculum dominated by the dull material found in many history textbooks.1 But history does not have to be a narrow study of dates and places; it is part of social studies, the “integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence.”2 Effective social studies focuses on “powerfu#148; teaching that integrates material from several disciplines and is values based. This kind of civic instruction recognizes the persistence and reality of community tensions, but promotes harmonious human relationships based on a willingness to search for the common good.3

Children are interested in interpersonal conflict. When a historical figure caught up in a social conflict is also a child, students often show a new interest in the subject. Even more interesting is an example of a young person being confronted with conflict and then making a reasonable decision about what to do. Civil efficacy is “the readiness and willingness to assume citizenship responsibilities.”4 There are many opportunities for even young children to experience civil efficacy in situations that arise in the school or neighborhood—and on rare occasions, on the national stage.

I have written a two-period lesson for the third grade that embodies these essential elements of powerful teaching. The topic is the desegregation of schools in the Southern United States in the early 1960s, told in part through the words and drawings of a six year old African-American girl named Ruby Bridges. The resources used in this lesson include Ruby’s autobiographical narrative, some of the drawings she made as a child, a famous painting, children’s literature, and brief clips from a videotape. By integrating the arts and literature, this social studies lesson enlarges the ideal of social responsibility and makes the means of achieving it more vivid. As Eisner has said, using the arts expands the resources through which meaning can be broadened.5

As a child, Ruby Bridges set an example of tolerance and forgiveness, saying a prayer of forgiveness as she stood before a mob blocking her entrance into the newly desegregated William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1960. As an adult, Ruby recounted that she was inspired by her mother and pastor, who always said that you have to pray for your enemies and people who do you wrong.

The National Standards for Civics and Government state that students should be able to understand how conflicts about diversity can be prevented or managed.6 Thus, teachers need to help students identify the common beliefs and ideals on which our nation was founded, such as the protection of the rights of the individual and the promotion of the common good. Teachers need to show students examples of young people bringing these beliefs and ideals to life. Americans are united by such shared values and beliefs, which are at the heart of this lesson. G


Lesson Plan: Desegregation of Schools in the South, 1960


At the end of this lesson, students should be able to


Thematic Strands

This lesson refers to several Thematic Strands of the social studies standards:7

1 Culture (America is made up of many different ethnic groups. Overcoming intolerance is part of our history, and is still part of everyday life)

2 Time, Continuity, and Change (Ruby Bridges’ efforts dramatized the struggle against school segregation in the South in 1960. The social turmoil and resulting reform of that era helped to create the society we have today).

4 Individual Development and Identity (Ruby demonstrated courage in the face of personal threats and other hostilities from adults and children alike)

10 Civic Ideals and Practices (Ruby was just one person, but she took a risky action for the common good, the right of all children to a free education of good quality, and the right to be considered a citizen equal to any other).


Academic Disciplines

The social studies disciplines of sociology and psychology as well as history are called upon in this lesson. In addition, various humanities (such as literature, the visual arts, and religion) are part of the material of the lesson. The information is presented at an elementary level, but the issues dealt with in the lesson (social exclusion, courage in the face of hostility, and social change) are of interest to citizens of all ages.


Materials and Resources

Ruby Bridges, Through My Eyes.8 This autobiographical narrative won a 2000 Carter G. Woodson Award at the elementary level as “a social studies book dealing with ethnicity in the United States.” It offers many possibilities for use in the classroom.

Robert Coles, The Story of Ruby Bridges.9 This is a picture book for children. Robert Coles is a notable child psychologist and author, who interviewed Ruby Bridges not long after the confrontation in 1960.

Norman Rockwell, The Problem We Live With.10 This is a painting of Ruby Bridges being escorted into school under the protection of U.S. Marshals. It is available from the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts for $16. Call 800-742-9450 or send a message by Internet to

Copies of crayon drawings Ruby Bridges made as a child of her desegregation experience. From pages 10 and 11 in Robert Coles’ Their Eyes Meeting the World.11

Film clips of the Ruby Bridges incident in New Orleans, 1960 from the video Listening to Children.12



Ask the class: “Have you ever experienced a time in your life when you were all alone and you felt a bit scared or in danger? Describe the situation and your feelings at that time.” The teacher may need to recall a slightly scary experience from his or her own childhood to get the discussion rolling. Take time to hear answers to this question from several students (it can be interesting to hear what children perceive as a “dangerous” situation).

Tell the students, “We are going to read a story about a child who faced a frightening experience. She is all grown up today and is happy to share her story with children. There is a lot that we might learn from her story.”


Activities and Procedure

Read aloud Ruby’s prayer.

“Please God, try to forgive those people. Because even if they say those bad things, They don’t know what they’re doing.”7

Discuss the influence of family life on Ruby’s attitude toward her enemies as related in her autobiographical narrative, Through My Eyes. Ask: “Why do you think this young girl was praying for her enemies? Would you have behaved the same way if you were in her place? How important was religious teaching to Ruby?”


Concluding Question and Assignment




Further Activities





1. Elliot Eisner, “Art, Music, and Literature within Social Studies,” in James P. Shaver, ed., Handbook of Research on Social Studies Teaching and Learning (New York: Macmillan, 1991): 551-558.

2. National Council for the Social Studies, “ A Vision of Powerful Teaching and Learning in the Social Studies: Building Social Understanding and Civic Efficacy,” Social Education 57, no. 5 (1993): 213-223.

3. Jere Brophy and Janet Alleman, Powerful Social Studies for Elementary Students (Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace, 1996).

4. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, DC: NCSS, 1994): 157.

5. E. Eisner.

6. Center for Civic Education, National Standards for Civics and Government (Calabasa, CA: CCE, 1994).

7. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, DC: NCSS, 1994).

8. Ruby Bridges, Through My Eyes (New York: Scholastic, 1999).

9. Robert Coles, The Story of Ruby Bridges (New York: Scholastic, 1995).

 10. Norman Rockwel#146;s famous painting of Ruby Bridges, which appeared on the cover of Look Magazine, January 14, 1964, can also be found in Walt Reed, ed., The Illustrator in America (New York: Reinhold Publishing Co., 1966): 105.

11. The artwork of Ruby Bridges can be found in Robert Coles, Their Eyes Meeting the World: Listening to Children: The Drawings and Paintings of Children (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992): 10 -11.

12. Listening to Children: A Moral Journey with Robert Coles (90 minute videocassette, New York: Social Media Productions, 1995).

13. Betty Collier Thomas and V. P. Franklin, My Soul is a Witness: A Chronology of the Civil Rights Era, 1954 -1968 (New York: Henry Holt, 1999).

14. John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America (New York: Viking Penguin, 1962).


Angelo Vincent Ciardiello has taught social studies for more than three decades in the public schools of New York City. He is currently an assistant professor of social studies education at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York.