Discussing Hidden Figures with Students

We just finished watching Hidden Figures in all my classes and today was devoted solely to discussing the movie. Here’s how I set up the discussions:

Yesterday, I gave students a printed copy of this article. For those unfamiliar, Kevin Costner’s character, Al Harrison, tears down a “colored girls” bathroom sign in a dramatic scene in the movie, but this is fabricated – never happened.

I then had students respond in writing to the following questions for homework (adapted from Melynee Naegele’s slides)

  1. In the movie, we saw many times characters were treated unfairly because they were Black. Name 2 or 3 examples that stood out most to you.
  2. What was most striking to you about how men treated women in this movie, and how women treated each other?
  3. What aspects of how women were treated to you think seem similar to our times, and what seemed different?
  4. What character attributes and/or actions did you admire most about Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and/or Mary Jackson?
  5. Please read the article “Space so white” before answering this question: Why do you think the screen writer and filmmakers added these scenes about the colored bathroom? Do you think adding these incidents (Katherine’s need to run across campus to use the restroom and Harrsions’s tearing down the sign) improved the movie? Why or why not?

That was all yesterday. Today, I put posters around the room with the following statements:

  • It was a good idea to add the tear-down-the-BR-sign scenes, even though they didn’t really happen.
  • Mrs. Mitchell [Kirsten Dunst] changed a lot over the course of the movie.
  • Watching this movie was a good use of class time.
  • I wish Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy had gotten more angry.
  • Racism was more of a problem that sexism in the movie.
  • I understand why Mr. Stafford [Jim Parsons] acted like he did.
  • Hidden Figures what a good title for the movie.

I explained that I wanted the statements to be somewhat controversial so they could form opinions on them, and that anything they felt like writing was okay, provided it was civil. (I did take one of the posters down between two classes because someone had use the N-word on it, but that was the only exceptionally inappropriate comment I saw. Overall, the kids were great.) I set a timer for 10 minutes and put the sentence starters “I agree because…” “I disagree because…” & “I have a question about…” on the board. I asked students to contribute to at least 4 posters and read what their peers wrote.

During this time, I just wandered and encouraged lagging students to read what their peers had written.

Afterward, I asked if anyone had things they’d like to share with the class and good GOLLY, we had great discussions.

I didn’t record the conversation, but I did furiously jot notes of what I recalled after each class, so here is a brief summary of topics discussed aloud by students. (I tried to contribute as little as possible, focusing solely on calling on as many different students as possible.)

  • Students were torn over the sexism v. racism question. Several thought that the men in the movie used sexism as a guise for racism, citing the scene where Mary Jackson is told the curriculum in the class wasn’t designed for a woman. Some thought Mrs. Mitchell was the most racist character, but probably because she felt threatened by Dorothy’s intelligence.
  • Students said they were happy to have seen the movie because they “don’t get to talk about individuals in history class, just big ideas.” This led to a huge discussion in my 1st hour about the AP History tests. One student suggested that teachers should teach topics like “Hidden Figures”, to which many students pushed back that, “it’s not the teacher’s fault, they have to prepare us for the AP History test and don’t get to decide what we learn. It’s AP’s fault.”
  • Students were torn about the tear-down-the-sign bathroom scenes. It was suggested that by including them, more people probably went to see the movie, and that’s a good thing. Other students (notably all students of color) objected and said they were really sick and tired of being portrayed as having to be saved by white people all the time. “I wish I could see people of color being self-sufficient. Like, it would have been great if they just showed Katherine Johnson using the white restrooms because it was stupid that she’d have to go all the way across campus.”
  • Students were also torn on whether the black women should have been more angry. Several students suggested that getting angry wouldn’t have fixed anything – they would have been fired.
  • One student gave a passionate thank you to the filmmakers because she feels that too often we have to study men. The term “man-washing” was coined.
  • One student objected to the statement, “Racism was more of a problem than sexism in the movie,” because “we shouldn’t be comparing oppression”.
  • Several students brought up the library scene and access to education – noting where the book on Fortran was located and what it said that books like that weren’t in the colored section.

We ran right up to the bell in all classes.

[UPDATE: Not all was perfect. Twice there was a really uncomfortable conversation about whether or not the tear-down-the-bathroom-sign scenes should have occurred. In each case, a white student said they were fine with the inclusion of the scenes because “someone had to do the right thing”, and also in each case, a student of color objected, saying it really did matter who did the “saving”. Kids were super nice to each other about it, but I don’t know if, in each case, the white students fully understood what the SOC were objecting to. I refrained from inserting myself in the debate. Maybe we’ll come back to it later in the year and see if opinions have changed. Maybe I’ll just talk to those individual students to see what they think. I dunno.]

I spent a long time reading through comments on the posters – it was neat to see kids responding to each other. There were some good disagreements. Some quotes from the student posters are below, and pictures of all the posters are below that.

Prompt: It was a good idea to add the tear-down-the-BR-sign scenes, even though they didn’t happen.

-No, it wasn’t! Why does there have to be a white savior in the story and in mathy parts of history when many problems were placed there by them. They fount through that struggle and no white hero came to save them. 

-Good scene but highly unnecessary

-horrible idea, the real hero was Katherine, not the white male. not to mension [sic] the director was also a white male! (retweet) (I agree)

Prompt: Watching this movie was a good use of class time. 


-I agree because it is stress relief and it is about math. 

-I absolutely agree 100%!! The movie inspired me and showed that people who were so degraded in the society go somewhere in life and achieve their goal and not letting the obstacles in the way stop them from getting there. Also I feel like i don’t learn very much about people who aren’t white in school and that’s a disappointment. 

-Yes, it is nice to learn about social issues instead of things from textbooks all the time. 

Below are pictures of the posters. I made them as big as possible so you can see some of what kids wrote. (My blog isn’t fancy enough to add a zoom feature.) You can also get all of the pictures as a PDF here: Student Hidden Figures Responses

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2017-05-03 15.22.472017-05-03 15.22.402017-05-03 15.22.292017-05-03 15.22.202017-05-03 15.22.102017-05-03 15.21.582017-05-03 15.21.232017-05-03 15.21.172017-05-03 15.21.102017-05-03 15.20.592017-05-03 15.20.532017-05-03 15.20.482017-05-03 15.20.39

In all, a great day. I feel like we actually unpacked a lot of the movie and that kids had a chance to share their opinions. Most kids left the class still discussing.

Author: Ms. P

Math Teacher in Minneapolis, MN.

4 thoughts on “Discussing Hidden Figures with Students”

  1. wow. Very inspired by your creative ideas to provoke interest and response. Am teaching this tomorrow to 10th grade ESL students. Will use some of these ideas. thank you


  2. Thank you Annie for this wonderful source of information. I will be using it with a class of 14 year olds (in France) so will be translating! But I couldn’t have done it without your input!


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