Jackie Robinson – a new Ken Burns Documentary
Jack Roosevelt Robinson rose from humble origins to cross baseball’s color line and become one of the most beloved men in America. A fierce integrationist, Robinson used his immense fame to speak out against the discrimination he saw on and off the field, angering fans, the press, and even teammates who had once celebrated him for “turning the other cheek.” After baseball, he was a widely read newspaper columnist, divisive political activist and tireless advocate for civil rights, who later struggled to remain relevant as diabetes crippled his body and a new generation of leaders set a more militant course for the civil rights movement.
Often overlooked, Jackie Robinson Day is the perfect time for you to teach your students about diversity and determination. It’s also your chance to bring sports—something many of your students love—into the conversation. Plan ahead by choosing one or more of these activities, intended for grades 7–12, that will teach your students about values, tenacity and the famous No. 42.
1. Living in Jim Crow America. Show your students video clips that explore Jackie Robinson’s life, including growing up with the Jim Crow laws. How did Robinson cope with racism? What were the effects? Analyze with your class.
2. Play Ball. Bring baseball inside. Have your students spread out in the classroom and gently pass a baseball to one another. When students catch the ball, have them explain an occasion when they used determination or tenacity to conquer a problem.
3. Journey Back to Separate but Equal Conditions. Teach your students about Brown v. Board of Education by showing them video clips of the Supreme Court’s decision. Have them review the first clause in the 14th Amendment and discuss the amendment’s extent and limitations in providing equal rights to all citizens.
4. Integration or Separation? Jackie Robinson found himself out of touch with many younger people of his race as the push for desegregation plodded along. Watch the new PBS documentary with your students to explore African Americans’ frustration with the lack of progress in social justice. Then discuss whether race relations for minorities are better or worse now than they were in the 1960s and explain why or why not.
5. For the Love of Athletes. Have your students think about their favorite athletes. Ask them to imagine how different the sport would be without that specific athlete, regardless of his or her race or ethnicity. Talk about the importance of Jackie Robinson’s transition from the Negro Leagues to the integrated Major Leagues.
6. The Role of African Americans in Baseball. Robinson’s story was documented in the 2013 biographical sports film 42. Two former Negro League players and Jackie Robinson biographer Jonathan Eig reflect on Robinson’s accomplishments in this Chicago Tonight video. Have your students watch the video and discuss the importance of having a support system during trying times.
7. Guessing Game. Demonstrate the impact Jackie Robinson still has today by having your students guess how much a baseball signed by Robinson and three other Negro Dodgers players in 1953 would be worth today. Show them the history of the ball in this video (pause at 3:10 to avoid spoilers!) and turn it into an educational guessing game.
8. Story Time. When was the last time you felt excluded? Start by sharing a short story with your class about a time either you or someone around you was excluded and how the situation could have been prevented. Encourage your students to reciprocate.
9. Taking the Measure of the Man. Explore the issue of bullying with your students as they watch video clips of the unique conditions Jackie Robinson faced as he entered Major League Baseball. Ask your students for different ways they would address the situations, and have a discussion around it.
10. Jackie’s Jar. Ask your students: What do you think others think when they first see you? Have them jot down their responses and add them anonymously to the jar. Pre-populate the jar with answers related to Robinson and how people misjudged him. Read the answers out loud to fuel a discussion on misconceptions.
11. Movie Time. Encourage your students to watch Jackie Robinson, a documentary by Ken Burns. It explores the legacy of Robinson’s exemplary life, which continues to be a major influence on the lives of Americans. It airs on PBS in April and is available here.