It Ain't Necessarily So
Procedures for Teachers is divided into four sections:
-- Preparing for the Lesson.
-- Conducting the Lesson.
-- Alternate Activities for your Consideration.
-- Managing Resources and Student Activities.
If possible, students should view the opera PORGY AND BESS, or listen to the soundtrack. A recording of the original cast soundtrack is available for purchase at CD Universe
. Other versions of the soundtrack may be available elsewhere.
The following sites should be bookmarked:
PORGY AND BESS
A fairly thorough overview of the opera.
GREAT PERFORMANCES: Creating America's Opera
More on PORGY AND BESS's origins and permutations. Look here for suggestions that
imply the authors may have had a romanticized or patronizing view of African-Americans.
Goat Cart Sam a.k.a. Porgy: Edwin Dubose Heyward's Icon of Southern Innocence
A critical essay on Heyward's portrayal of the African-American denizens of Charleston's
Another article critical of the characterizations in Heyward's novel.
You will need at least one computer with Internet access to complete this lesson. While
many configurations will work, we recommend:
-- Modem: 28.8 Kbps or faster.
-- Browser: Netscape Navigator 3.0 or above or Internet Explorer 3.0 or
-- Macintosh computer: System 7.0 or above and at least 16 MB of RAM.
-- IBM-compatible computer: 386 or higher processor with at least 16 MB
of RAM, running Windows 3.1. Or, a 486/66 or Pentium with at least 16 MB of
RAM, running Windows 95.
For more information, visit What You Need to Get Connected in wNetSchool's Internet Primer.
Introduce students to the opera PORGY AND BESS using wNetStation's
GREAT PERFORMANCES Web piece, Porgy and Bess: An American Voice. Begin with a
brief discussion on the genesis and history of the piece.
Tell students that while the Gershwin opera has inarguable artistic merit, there has been an
ongoing controversy surrounding its depiction of the African-American characters.
Allow students to discuss their ideas and experiences related to issues of bias
and stereotypes. Ask, "What is a stereotype?" List some stereotypes on the board. (Try to
keep the discussion from getting too volatile by examining non-ethnic or racial
stereotypes. These might include nerds, blondes, airplane pilots, models, New Yorkers, or
Californians.) After establishing interest and relevance, bring the students back to the
discussion of the ongoing controversy about PORGY AND BESS.
Distribute Student Pathway 1 found in Organizers for Students. Using those Web
resources as a starting point, have students conduct their own research on the debate about
PORGY AND BESS and write a one-page summary of the conflict. As they write their
summaries, have students consider the Reflection Questions listed in Organizers for Students.
After students have written their summaries, engage the class in a discussion
on the topic. Ask students to raise their hands if they included the word "stereotype" in their
essays. List some ways in which people are stereotyped. These may include race, gender,
age, religion, job, looks, culture, or position in a family, e.g., mother. Explain that issues
surrounding stereotypes are complex. Questions for students to consider at this stage
- Are all stereotypes negative?
- How do we learn stereotypes?
- Where do they come from?
- What influences the generation -- and perpetuation -- of stereotypes?
- Is it ever acceptable to include stereotypical traits in a characterization? Why or
After a class discussion of these thorny issues, have the class explore the
characterizations of African-Americans in PORGY AND BESS in greater depth. The opera
sprang from Edwin Dubose Heyward's 1924 novel, PORGY. In turn, the book came
about because of a newspaper clipping Heyward read about a real-life denizen of South
Carolina's Catfish Row. Heyward embellished this news account about a crime of passion
committed by a crippled beggar with folkloric elements and memories culled from his own
experiences on Charleston's waterfront.
Gershwin biographers Robert Kimball and Alfred Simon wrote:
"It is astonishing today how innovative the treatment of black life in PORGY was.
Heyward wrote not out of pity for an exploited race, nor with any desire to propagandize;
rather it was his intention to dramatize a way of life which he found strange and admirable
and worthy of serious artistic expression."
Pass out Assignment and Student Pathway 2. Students' task is to analyze the quote and
conduct research that will help them either affirm or contradict the authors' perspective.
Have them research portraits of black life devised by Heyward's contemporaries. Ask the
class which search words would facilitate their online investigation. List these on the
board. Some Boolean search ideas might be:
(Because Heyward wrote at the beginning of this century, document searches using the
term Negro might produce more relevant results than the more modern term African-American.)
- Negro AND literature
- Stereotypes AND Negro
- Negro AND folklore
- Black writers + folklore
The following sites (also listed on Assignment and Student Pathway 2 in the student
organizer) will help students get acquainted with the ways in which African-American life
was portrayed at the beginning of this century.
HYPE: Center for Media and the Black Experience
The Harlem Renaissance: White Exploitation of Black Self-Expression
Images of Black Women in Zora Neale Hurston's THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD
Uncle Remus Critique
Students have now looked at some of the diverse ways in which African-
Americans have been portrayed in literature, popular culture, and even in America's most
As a culminating project, have students engage in an activity that combines both
investigation and creation. Students may research positive examples in art, literature, and
mass culture from the first half of this century that demonstrate depth and diversity of
African-American characterization and culture. Authors and folklorists such as Zora Neale
Hurston ( http://www.nku.edu/~diesmanj/hurston.html#essay) offer much-needed
counterbalances to Caucasian authors' sometimes negative, often condescending
portrayals. Using the Web, students will look into African-American culture and life
between the two World Wars. They may write their own fictional stories using African-American characters from that period, or they may choose to write a satirical piece,
purposefully using stereotypes to highlight the simplicity of such one-dimensional
characters. Or, if they choose, students may create a mock periodical (either in print form
or online) that illuminates African-American rural or urban life of that period.
English and Social Studies teachers: You may choose to have your students study and write
critiques or analyses of other works in the American canon that, although they have
undisputed artistic merit, may (or may not) promulgate stereotypes. Have students consider
the historical, social, and cultural contexts in which the works were created. You may
conduct debates on some disputed topics, e.g.: Is Huckleberry Finn a racist work?
Give students an opportunity to examine a number of texts and images portraying a variety
of ethnic, religious, and social stereotypes from diverse media, including literature,
newspapers, magazines, film, comic books, advertising, and television. Have them analyze
the overt and covert messages conveyed and explore the relationship between these
messages and the prevailing social and economic climates of the historical periods that
produced them. Classes can investigate the social and psychological significance of these
messages within specific cultural contexts in order to try and understand the forces that
instigate, shape, and perpetuate racial and ethnic fallacies. Units on stereotypes may
Have students investigate the historical or literary origins of select stereotypes and
caricatures. Have them follow-up by examining the often-implicit messages about ethnic,
religious, racial, and other groups in modern day media. Students can look at the impact
these messages -- and the thinking they shape -- can have on human behavior and social
To supplement the texts, activities can be used to promote student analysis and discussion.
In addition to historical footage and images culled from a variety of media, teachers can
screen the documentary BLUE EYES, BROWN EYES to elaborate on the role stereotypes and
other fallacious information can play to shape the imagination, behavior, and self-image of
individuals and societies.
In addition to analyzing the origins and content of the messages themselves, students can
examine the consequences that the previously-studied stereotypes can inflict. Moving beyond
an empathetic look at the impact of bias, this unit will study the quantitative as well as
qualitative toll these messages impose upon human endeavors. By looking at social and
economic realities, as well as key experiments like the Blue-eyed/Brown-eyed Child
simulation, students will learn how abstract ideas about a given group can shape thinking
and affect behavior.
By studying the manufacture of stereotypes within a range of specific social and historical
contexts, students will begin to identify the link between the intent of ideology and the
range of consequences it can produce. Through a variety of simulation exercises,
discussion, and readings, students will explore the persistence of stereotypical thinking and
its effect on perception and behavior.
Have students conduct quantitative surveys to identify stereotypes in library materials or
For more information on media literacy issues and stereotypes in particular, visit
Media Awareness Network:
The Media Awareness Network
The Media Awareness Network
The Media Awareness Network is an excellent Canadian Web site with a multitude of
resources for students, teachers, and parents. There are also separate forums and
discussion groups for students and educators for sharing ideas, debating topics, or joining
focused discussions dealing with a wide range of media literacy issues.
Teachers may want to explore the relevance of stereotypes in students' own lives -- this time
with an eye toward action. Following their study of the creation and dissemination of
images and ideas promoting stereotypes, teachers may choose to have students work on
independent or group projects pertaining to:
Throughout the unit, encourage students to link what they learn with individual choices in
their own lives. Students should participate in several ongoing activities that foster
reflection and creativity -- including journal writing, poetry, art, videotape projects, and the
collecting of others' stories and reflections. In addition to being authors, artists, filmmakers, archivists, and
folklorists, students can claim another designation: thinker.
- Contemporary issues and problems of media bias.
- Media and text analysis.
Investigations into related topics, including ethics, Holocaust studies, and eugenics
- Service-oriented projects designed to promote parent, student, and community awareness
In addition to students' reflections and creative output, the lesson may encourage
students to think not only in terms of their role in society, but also of the necessity for
community participation. Local opportunities for confronting and examining
misunderstandings, myths, and misinformation about "the other" should be as central to the
project as historical examinations of these topics. The ultimate goal of It Ain't Necessarily
So is not only to inform and enlighten students, but also to promote an understanding of
their power to participate positively in the local and global community.
Working in Groups
If you have access to one computer in your classroom, you can organize your class in
several ways. Divide your classroom into two groups. Instruct one of the groups to do
paper research while the second group is working on the computer. Bring in books,
encyclopedias, etc., from the library for the group doing paper research. Lead the group
working at the computer through an Internet search or allow the students in the class to take
turns. (It may be efficient to have a set of bookmarks ready for the students before they
start working on the computer.) When the groups have finished working have them switch
Look for Web Resources Together as a Class
If you have a big monitor or projection facilities, you can do an Internet search together as a
class. Make sure that every student in your class can see the screen. Go to the Porgy and Bess: An American Voice Web piece and review the information presented there. Go to a
search engine page, allow your students to suggest the search criteria, and do an Internet
search. Again, bookmark and/or print the pages that you think are helpful for reference
Using a Computer Lab
A computer center or lab space, with a computer-to-student ratio of one to three, is ideal for
doing Web-based projects. Generally, when doing Web-based research, it is helpful to put
students in groups of three. This way, students can help each other if problems or
questions arise. It is often beneficial to bookmark sites for students ahead of time and make
suggestions. This way, you can be sure that students have a starting point.
Submit a Comment: We invite your comments and suggestions based on how you used the lesson in your classroom.