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Three Degrees of Separation


In this activity students will identify a theme from a text and then research and compare the presence and impact of that theme in the modern world. This activity works best with texts with a social justice theme like racism, sexism, classism, or homophobia. The purpose of this activity is to help students make the connection between a text and the modern world.


  • Select the appropriate text. The text does not necessarily need to be a novel. For example, the text could be To Kill a Mockingbird or it could be the text of the Korematsu v. United States Supreme Court opinion. Both of these texts connect to racism as a theme and could be used in this activity.
  • It is important to note that this activity can also be done with younger students if using the right text and filtering appropriate websites for younger students.
  • Pre-identify the theme that will be the focus of the activity. Depending on the text, there may be multiple social justice themes, and the teacher will need to decide whether the whole class will focus on one theme or whether students can select (or be assigned) one of multiple themes.
  • Have three or four modern examples of the theme to use as a model.
Activity Steps 
  1. Introduce Three Degrees of Separation.

    Working in groups of three or four, have students brainstorm for two minutes a list of all of the things that they have in common. When they have completed their list, groups will share it and the teacher can model a web diagram that shows connections between the groups. Most likely, this will be a simple connection (e.g., we all went to Harper Elementary or many of us were born at Harper Medical Center). The purpose of this exercise is to show students what three degrees of separation looks like and that as humans we are all connected to each other. The purpose of the Three Degrees of Separation activity is to find those connections between our text and our world today. 

  2. Define the theme.

    Have a discussion with students about the theme. How could we define our theme? What do you we already know about the connection between our theme and the modern world?

  3. Research the theme.

    Students will research the theme in modern times. Depending on the age and level of the students, a mini-lesson on researching may be necessary here. Students should be looking for modern examples of the theme. These examples could be new news stories (print or video), modern biographies, or agency websites, etc.


  4. Make connections.

    Students should make explicit connections between the text and their research. For example, if using To Kill a Mockingbird, student they could connect the theme of racism to the Ferguson protests. They would need to explain how those two are connected with evidence from both sources (the original text and the modern example).

  5. Model analyzing degrees.

    Share with students the 3-4three or four modern examples of the theme. Think aloud as you assign degrees to them. The easiest example to share with students is from criminal justice, : 1st first degree robbery is more severe than 2nd second degree robbery. Rate your 3-4three or four modern examples into degrees. For example, an article about modern modern-day lynching may be 1st first degree racism whereas an article about stereotypes about musical tastes of African Americans’ musical tastes may be 2nd second degree racism.

  6. Conduct Small small-group share share-out.

    Students can regroup reconvene with their groups from the introduction and share what they learned from their research. Each student should share their resource and the explicit connection. In groups, students will then assign degrees to their sources. Select one student to record their reasoning. For example, “This article is first degree because…”

  7. Conduct whole-class share-out.

    The teacher leads the share-out and discussion by starting with examples of first degree racism and then moving to other degrees. Students should share their examples and their reasoning behind their degree assignment. If warranted, there can be discussions or debates about whether something is first degree or second degree. During this discussion the teacher can also ask students to reflect back on the text to compare things in the students’ research to the original text.

  8. Reflect.
    The student reflection can be independent, in pairs, or in small groups. It can be in writing or through a discussion. Possible reflection questions for this activity include:
    • Why do you think it is important for us to look at (insert theme) in our world today?
    • How was our text similar or different to our theme in the modern world? Be specific.
    • How did this activity help you better understand our text?
    • Did your research change your thinking about the text? Why or why not?
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