New Kids on the Block

Fifth graders use Judy Blume's novel Iggie's House to think about racism, anti-racism, and the importance of acting for justice

By Robin Cooley

Illustrator: Gale

Illustration: Gale

“I can’t believe the story ended this way. Winnie never spoke up and said anything to her parents. They acted like nothing ever happened. The ending is so unsatisfying!”

“I really liked this Judy Blume book until the ending. Winnie changed into such a strong character, but I don’t think I could call her an ally in the end and that stinks.”

“What do you mean Winnie and her parents are still racists? They decided not to move, didn’t they? Doesn’t that make them anti-racist?”

These are a sample of the reactions my fifth graders shared after we finished studying Iggie’s House by Judy Blume. Iggie’s House is a story about an 11-year-old girl named Winnie Barringer who lives in an all-white suburb in the late 1960s. Her best friend Iggie moves away, and a new family moves into the house. The Garbers are the first black family on an all-white block. Although Winnie makes friends with the three Garber children, the rest of the neighborhood isn’t so welcoming—including Winnie’s parents. She struggles with what to do because she doesn’t understand why her neighbors don’t like the Garbers just because they’re black. I use Iggie’s House as a way to teach my students about racism. When I taught this unit, the racial composition of my class was four African-American students, two Latinos, two Native Americans, and 10 white students.

I teach in a school district that is actively working to create an anti-bias/anti-racist school environment. Beginning in second grade, students are taught anti-bias terms, such as prejudice, stereotype, and ally.

In our study of Iggie’s House we discussed racism, passive racism, and anti-racism.The characters in Iggie’s House helped my students understand why it is not possible to be a passive anti-racist.

Charting Actions

To help facilitate discussion throughout the story, I have a large graphic organizer on chart paper at the front of the room that indicates whether the characters’ actions place them in one of three categories: active racism, passive racism, and anti-racism. (See box, page 50.) I also give the students their own copies to help me see where their thinking is about the characters. I have all of the characters’ names on Velcro so I can place them in different boxes when their racist or anti-racist behavior changes.

My fifth graders have the easiest time categorizing the characters whose behavior is actively racist. The most obvious racist in the story is Winnie’s neighbor, Mrs. Landon. Mrs. Landon does not want the Garbers living in “her” neighborhood and starts a petition to get the family to leave, letting the Garbers know they are not wanted. “Now, I have nothing against the Garbers personally. I just want our lovely neighborhood to stay the way it is. As I’m sure you do.” She also hammers a sign into the front lawn of the Garber’s house that said, “GO BACK WHERE YOU BELONG. WE DON’T WANT YOUR KIND AROUND HERE!!!!!!” Because Mrs. Landon says and does these things, my students had an easy time identifying her racism. Mrs. Landon never moves from the “active racism” category.

Mrs. Landon’s daughter, Clarice, also shows active racist behaviors in the story. We had a lively discussion on where to place Clarice’s name. Some students did not want to put Clarice in the “active racism” box because they think her actions are her mother’s fault. They wanted to put her in the passive box. But some students argued that because Clarice actually says to the Garber children, “My mother says I can’t play with any colored kids,” and she helps her mother hammer the sign into the lawn, that makes her behavior actively racist.

Throughout the story we see that Winnie’s mom, Mrs. Barringer, is also actively racist. At the beginning of the book when Winnie tells her mother she is going to meet the new family, Mrs. Barringer says she will bake some brownies for Winnie to bring to them. But after she finds out they’re black, she “forgets” to bake them. At this point in the story, some students inferred that Mrs. Barringer forgot on purpose and put her name in the “active racism” category. Other students argued that we didn’t know enough about why the mom forgot to bake the brownies, and they put her name in the “passive racism” section. In the middle of the book, when Winnie asks her mother why she doesn’t do something to help the Garbers, her mother replies, “Because it really isn’t any of our business, Winnie. Your father and I don’t believe in getting mixed up in other people’s lives. These things will work themselves out. Daddy and I are not crusaders.” The students agreed that her comment constituted racism, but disagreed on whether it was active or passive. But when Mrs. Barringer decides she wants to sign Mrs. Landon’s petition, and considers moving rather than having to live on the same block with a black family, they all agreed to move her to the “active racism” category.

We also had lively discussions around Winnie’s father, because his behaviors required the most inferencing. At first, students were eager to put him in the “active anti-racism” category because he refuses to sign Mrs. Landon’s petition. When I asked the class to explain why he did not sign it, one student exclaimed, “Because he wants to do the right thing. He doesn’t want to make a family move out of the neighborhood just because they’re black.” When I asked the students to go back into the text and find the paragraph that supports this, they couldn’t do it. They realized that we do not know Mr. Barringer’s motivation for not signing it. Most of the students agreed to put his name in the “passive racism” category. Even later in the story, when Mr. Barringer organizes a block meeting, the class agreed that he couldn’t be moved into the “active anti-racism” category because it’s not clear his motives for organizing the block party meeting have anything to do with helping the Garbers.


The last character we look at in the story is Winnie. When we examined Winnie’s actions at the end of the story, my students felt frustrated and unsatisfied. Winnie never leaves the “passive racism” box. They wanted Winnie to be an ally, a heroine, someone who spoke up to actively change the unequal situation. Throughout the story, we know that Winnie likes the Garbers and doesn’t care that they are different from her. We know that she wants to make the world a better place but doesn’t know how. But she never confronts her parents’ ambivalence. In the last chapter, when her parents tell her that they have decided not to move, Winnie exclaims, “Great! Then maybe we can have the Garbers over for dinner or something.” Her mother explains that just because they are not moving doesn’t mean they’re going to be best friends with the Garbers. Winnie tries to speak up to her mother and says, “Oh, I thought you changed your mind.”

Mrs. Barringer responds, “Changed my mind about what?” At this point, one student blurted out in frustration, “I can’t believe Winnie isn’t saying anything to her parents! Why doesn’t she tell them that she thought they changed their minds and realized that the Garbers are human beings and deserve our respect. That it shouldn’t matter that their skin color is different from ours. She isn’t asking her parents to be best friends with them. She’s just asking them to be welcoming and respectful neighbors.”

What Winnie says to her mother instead is, “Well, we’re not moving so I thought you changed your mind about
. . . you know . . .”

“Moving is just too much trouble,” Ms. Barringer says. And Winnie drops the subject. Therefore, after much discussion, most students kept Winnie in the “passive racism” category. She wants to do the right thing, but she doesn’t actively try to change the situation. Students agree that Winnie could have made a difference even though she’s a kid.

I reminded my students that in the ongoing struggle for social justice, just thinking about the right thing to do, or feeling frustrated with people around you who are actively racist, is not enough. Allied behavior involves taking a risk. You need to actually do something. None of the white characters in Iggie’s House are actively doing or saying anything to help the Garbers.

When we finished the book, my students wanted to rewrite the ending. They felt the need for Winnie to speak up and say something. The students formed groups of three and rewrote the last chapter with Winnie and her parents in script form and acted it out. It was important to them that Winnie speak up to her parents and help her parents recognize that their actions are just as racist and prejudiced as Mrs. Landon’s.

I want students to become more critically aware of the possible roles they can take when confronted with unjust situations. For me, integrating an anti-racist curriculum has given me a clear and important focus. I tell my students that I hope they will take a more active role when they witness bullying on the playground, or hear one student calling another student a derogatory name in the hallway. I explain to them that it is my hope that if they ever find themselves in a difficult situation, that they’ll think about the choices they have.

Notes for Next Time

One wonderful thing about teaching is that you get to reflect upon the lesson or unit you taught and think about how to teach it differently the next year. As I look back, there are many things I would have done differently. Since one of my goals was to get students to think about and classify the behaviors of the characters in the story, I would spend more time discussing the kinds of experiences that shape people’s behaviors. Being able to move characters among the active and passive boxes helped students to see that our attitudes and behaviors are not fixed but are malleable. What I didn’t do is facilitate discussions about the possible causes of active or passive behaviors. For example, we could look at Mrs. Landon’s character, and through discussion, brainstorm reasons for her active racist behaviors. I could ask my students, “Why do you think Mrs. Landon put such a mean sign on the Garber’s lawn? What prevents people like Mrs. Landon from wanting black neighbors? What experiences do you think might help Mrs. Landon to change?” I neglected
to help my students understand the things that shape people’s attitudes and behaviors, and it is only through this kind of analysis that one can attempt to positively shape others’ attitudes and behaviors.

Another thing I would have done differently is to have students share some of their personal experiences. I could ask my class, “Did you ever have a time when you witnessed bullying or heard a friend or relative say something that you didn’t agree with, and you didn’t speak up? What holds you back? What prevents someone from acting as an ally? Why do you think Clarice didn’t stand up to her mother? What would you have done if you were in Clarice’s shoes?” Equally important, I would ask my students to share times when they did behave as allies or active anti-racists. And we might invent situations and do role plays to model what it’s like to speak up in a situation when you encounter racism or bias.

Finally, looking back, I realize that my lessons may have mirrored some of the biases in Judy Blume’s story. Although the story is about race relations, Iggie’s House neglects to present the point of view of the Garbers, the only black family in the book. Given the structure of the lesson in charting characters’ changes of attitude, this meant that the class never considered the Garbers—what were they thinking and feeling; how did they interpret the actions of people in the neighborhood; what kind of “help” did they want or did they not want from white neighbors? I want my students to recognize that an author makes choices about whose lives to focus on and whose to ignore. I think the structure of my lesson followed Blume’s narrative choices too closely, and thus unintentionally reinforced those choices. Next time I teach this, we’ll talk more about the Garbers, and perhaps write interior monologues as a way of making their lives central to the lesson—even if they weren’t central to Iggie’s House. We might read The Jacket by Andrew Clements and Mayfield Crossing by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, which both give black characters’points of view.

Using literature is a safe and straightforward way to teach about topics that are difficult to discuss. It’s important to remind students that this is a story, and it is not real. This is one way an author constructed reality. However, through literature, we can think about why characters behave the way they do, and make connections to our own lives and what’s happening in the world around us. I hope I’ve helped my students understand that it is all of our responsibility to take action to foster social change and to challenge inequality. It is powerful when children understand that doing or saying nothing (being passive) is still racism. The only way to be an anti-racist is to actively do or say something when confronted with an unequal situation. I hope they understand that there will be situations where they might decide not to speak up or do anything. But if they are willing to take a stand and be active anti-racists, my hope is that they’ll have access to actions and to language that may have a positive impact.

I like to display quotes in my classroom. Two quotes I read out loud to my class at the end of the book were: “Hope becomes hopelessness if you are not active,” from the great Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, and the Chinese proverb, “Be not afraid of going slowly; be only afraid of standing still.”

Robin Cooley ( currently teaches fourth grade in Newton, Massachusetts. Her article “Beyond Pink and Blue,” appeared in the Winter 2003 issue of Rethinking Schools.