The Fight for What's Right

Until the 1940s, many Mexican American kids in California weren’t allowed to go to school with White kids. Eight-year-old Sylvia Mendez helped change that.

By Spencer Kayden

Learning Objective: Students will read a play that tells the real-life story of a Mexican American family who fought to end segregation in California schools. As they read, students will identify the big idea about fighting for civil rights.

Slideshows (1)
Activities (3)
Quizzes (2)
Quizzes (2)
Answer Key (1)
Slideshows (1)
Activities (3) Download All Quizzes and Activities
Quizzes (2)
Quizzes (2)
Answer Key (1)
Can't-Miss Teaching Extras
Sharing Personal Experiences

Play this 2-minute StoryCorps interview between Sylvia and her younger sister, Sandra. Listen to Sandra tell the story of when she discovered her family had made civil-rights history. Shockingly, she didn’t learn about their legacy until she was in college!

Further Reading

Learn even more about Sylvia’s story by sharing with your students the fantastic picture book Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh.

Sylvia Today

Sylvia grew up to be a pediatric nurse. In California there’s an elementary school named after her, and a high school named after her parents.

Connect with Sylvia

To learn more about Sylvia, connect with her on social media or have her speak to your students.

More About the Article

Content-Area Connections

Social studies: U.S. history, civil rights

Social-emotional learning: Social awareness (appreciating diversity, respect for others); responsible decision-making (solving problems)

Key Skills

big idea, key details, character traits, drawing conclusions, inference, compare and contrast

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan


Set a Purpose for Reading/Explore Text Features (10 minutes)

Look at pages 20-21 with the class. Direct students to the play’s title and the photographs. Then read aloud the subtitle. Explain that Sylvia Mendez was forced to attend the school in the class photo. Ask: What do all of the students in that photo have in common? (They are all nonwhite.)

This play is about an important event in the Mexican American civil rights movement in the 1940s. Point to the photographs and captions on pages 22-25. Read aloud the titles and captions with the class. Discuss the caption on page 23, which asks students to spot the error in the image (the sign should read “We serve whites only,” not “white’s only”). Explain that the photo on page 24 is the front page of a Los Angeles newspaper from 1946. Read the headline with students. Ask: How do you think Sylvia Mendez feels in the photo on page 25?

Call on a volunteer to read aloud the Think and Read box on page 20. Ask students to think as they read the play about what the Mendez family did to stand up for their rights.

Introduce Vocabulary (15 minutes, activity sheet online)

While the play does not include definitions of vocabulary words in the text itself, a vocabulary activity online previews challenging words and allows students to list other words that are unfamiliar to them. Project or distribute the activity to review the words. You may also play our Vocabulary Slideshow, where images and audio help students with comprehension and fluency.

Challenging words: immigrants, wobbly, illegal, equality 


Bridging Decoding and Comprehension

  • Storyworks Jr. read-aloud plays provide a perfect opportunity for students to build fluency.
  • Point to the word whispering in column 2 on page 24. Explain that this word tells readers how to say the line. Read the dialogue aloud. Have students repeat it after you.
  • Remind students that fluent readers stop for periods, question marks, and exclamation points. They pause for commas; they read the way they talk to each other. 


Reading and Unpacking the Text

  • Before reading: Point out the Characters box on page 21. Explain that this is a list of all the characters in the play. Review that a Prologue is an introduction that gives the background information readers need to understand the story. Read the Prologue aloud to introduce the topic of the play. Ask students whether they have any questions. You can also explain that an Epilogue is a section at the end of a play that explains how the full story ended.
  • First read: Continue reading the play as a class.
  • Second read: Project or distribute the Close-Reading Questions. Discuss them as a class, rereading lines or scenes as necessary.
  • Separate students into groups to discuss the Critical- Thinking Question. Then have groups share their answers with the class. 

Close-Reading Questions (30 minutes, activity sheet online)

  • What do you learn about the Mendez family in the Prologue? (key details) They came to Westminster, California, in 1944. Sylvia’s parents are American citizens who must follow the country’s laws. These laws must also protect them. Her mother is from Puerto Rico and her father is from Mexico. The family speaks up when things are unfair, and this changes history.
  • In Scene 1, why is Aunt Sally so angry? (key details) Aunt Sally is angry because the school secretary won’t let Sylvia and Jerome attend the Westminster school. The secretary says they have to attend the Mexican school instead.
  • In Scene 2, what do you learn about Sylvia’s father? (character traits) He is willing to fight when something is unfair.
  • In Scene 3, you learn details about the Hoover school. How does the school different from Westminster school in Scene 1? (compare and contrast) Hoover isn’t a good school. The students don’t read books or learn math. They sit at wobbly desks in a tiny room. There’s no playground or outdoor tables with benches.Westminster school is big and clean, with wide hallways. It has a playground.
  • In Scene 5, how does Mama explain why some kids don’t like Sylvia and Jerome? (big idea) Mama explains that calling Sylvia and Jerome names and yelling “Go back to Mexico!” are examples  of prejudice. The kids who do this dislike Mexican Americans for no reason.

Critical-Thinking Question (10 minutes, activity sheet online)

  • In the Epilogue Sylvia says, “It isn’t just about Mexican Americans. It’s about us all coming together.” What does she mean? (big idea) Sylvia is talking about the importance of fighting prejudice in our schools and in our country. Not only must Mexican Americans fight prejudice, but all Americans must work together so no one faces prejudice in our country. Also, we can learn from and enjoy all different kinds of people.


Big Idea (30 minutes, activity sheet online)

  • Have students complete the inference activity. They should also write a response to the Think and Write question on page 25.

Differentiate and Customize
For Small Groups

Divide your class into groups and assign each group one scene from the play. (Since Scenes 4 and 8 are short, one group can work on both scenes.) As students practice their lines, remind them to work on fluency by paying attention to punctuation marks. Each group will perform its scene in class. Afterward ask how playing real-life characters in an important event in American history helps students better understand what happened and how the characters felt.

For Struggling Readers

Read aloud the last line of the Prologue. Then write these questions on the board: What was unfair? How does the Mendez family speak up? How do they change history? As you reread the play with students, help them find details that answer each question

For Advanced Readers

Ask students to imagine they are interviewing Sylvia Mendez for their school newspaper. Have them write three questions to ask about her life and her family’s court case. Students can read aloud their questions and discuss her possible answers in small groups.