Ladder of Prejudice


Examining the escalation from name-calling to genocide

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
— Margaret Mead

This is the quote my 8th-grade students discuss as we begin to talk about the Holocaust. I use the Holocaust to address issues of diversity, bullying and community-building. When an article in the local newspaper provided an overview of Holocaust studies and defined and illustrated "The Ladder of Prejudice," it inspired one of the most effective activities my 8th-graders engage in during our Holocaust unit:

The Ladder of Prejudice
The Fifth Rung: Extermination
The Fourth Rung: Physical Attack
The Third Rung: Discrimination
The Second Rung: Avoidance
The First Rung: Speech

Utilizing this ladder in the classroom provides the students with a clear visual of what happens when prejudice takes control. I draw a ladder on the whiteboard, or I create a bulletin board to illustrate this ladder. The key is that this ladder stays up to represent a visual of the prejudice and discrimination that is happening in the school and community.

As a whole group or in small groups, we define and discuss what the ladder's terms mean. I have the students place these terms on the ladder in the order of their severity. The ladder begins with speech—people talking about others. The gossip and talk leads to the avoidance of a group of people. Once people begin to avoid one another, the discrimination begins—treating people differently. The next level is the physical attack, which finally leads to extermination.

Once the terms are defined and placed on the ladder, I ask the students to write on a Post-it Note something that has happened in the school or community that could be posted somewhere on the ladder. To the students' surprise, they see a variety of Post-it Notes on all levels of the ladder — all the way to physical attack. This ladder is a great way to provide a visual to the students that they are experiencing what happens on the ladder of prejudice every day. More importantly, the following question becomes unavoidable: What keeps the students and community from reaching the extermination level? We then discuss the stages people experienced during the time of the Holocaust.

The Ladder of Prejudice discussion leads back to Margaret Mead's quote—a quote that seems to relate a real-life message to students, that they can create change. We continue using this ladder of prejudice by watching the news or reading newspaper articles and placing these articles on the ladder. The Ladder of Prejudice is a strong visualization of the prejudice that is happening in the school, community and world that the students have the chance to change, a change that can happen once students understand and see for themselves what prejudice looks like.

Stefanie Fox
Kingsway Middle School
Woolwich, NJ

Teaching Tolerance Recommends:
Enrich your Holocaust unit with our free kit, One Survivor Remembers.