The National Assessment of Educational Progress—commonly called “The Nation’s Report Card”—tells a dismal story: Only 2% of high school seniors in 2010 could answer a simple question about the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.
This report certainly matches my experience as a teacher. Every year, I am shocked at how little students know about the civil rights movement. (You’d think I would learn, but I’m shocked every year.) The students—if I’m lucky—have hazy memories of learning about Rosa Parks and Dr. King.
Earlier, I posted a blog entry about the Southern Poverty Law Center’s study, Teaching the Movement: The State of Civil Rights Education 2011, which examined state standards and curriculum requirements related to the study of the modern civil rights movement in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
It’s interesting that the important concept the SPLC’s report noted was lacking in state standards—opposition encountered by activists—is the concept that helps kids understand the civil rights movement.
When you teach students about the racism, violence, and hate African-Americans lived with every day, students understand “why we find it difficult to wait.” Here are some suggestions for how to teach the civil rights movement at an elementary school level:
> Read “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Dr. King. His descriptions of the pain of segregation always tear at students’ hearts. This is a good lesson to present early in your unit on civil rights.
>Read “Ballad of Birmingham,” about the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 in which four girls were killed. Of all the lessons I present about civil rights, this is the most emotional and memorable for students.
> Really analyze the “I have a dream” speech. You can use the teaching notes I created to help you. Running alongside the speech, my notes explain important historical references, vocabulary terms, allusions, and examples of good rhetorical techniques. If you teach students about the speech before you show it on video, the students will be utterly entranced. They won’t forget how they felt the first time they heard it. My students always thank me, because they know I gave them a gift when I showed them how to appreciate the speech. Click here for an excellent DVD with the “I have a dream” speech and related documentaries.
> Watch “Our Friend, Martin,” an excellent animated movie that has real footage from the era. It’s voiced by an all-star cast including Whoopi Goldberg and Angela Bassett. The movie is very expensive, but you might be able to borrow it from a fellow teacher, your district video center, the public library, or Netflix.
> Read “Teammates,” a picture book about Jackie Robinson’s rookie year in Major League Baseball. With elegant and simple language and illustrations, this book shows the indignities faced by African-Americans and the hate they encountered.
> Listen to music from the era—starting with “We Shall Overcome.” Listen to it performed by the Morehouse College Glee Club on YouTube. You can also listen to other music about the era. My students love “Pride (In the name of love)” by U2.
> Teach students about Brown versus Board of Education. Note: modern parlance has led to the need to explain to students that “Brown” refers to the lead plaintiff’s name, Linda Brown, not the skin color of the plaintiffs. (My Mexican-American students were confused by this at first.) You can read an overview of the case, brush up on myths versus truths, and request free activity booklets to help you teach students about the landmark case.
> Watch the Disney movie Ruby Bridges. This movie pushes the envelope enough to really show the stakes, but it keeps things appropriate for school. Your students will be shocked at the brazenness of the white opposition—particularly the crowds outside Ruby’s school each morning. The movie addresses so much more—Ruby’s father’s experience in the “integrated” military, anti-Semitism in Ruby’s neighborhood, and the opposition her white teacher faced for standing by Ruby. Read my blog entry about the movie.
> Read everything you can! I set out my own collection of books and pictures books about the civil rights movement, and I check out titles from our school library for students to read. Once you get them interested in the civil rights movement, they will continue to learn on their own. Black History Month will continue all year. It is a proud moment for the teacher when students tell each other about what they have read.
“An educated populace must be taught basics about American history,” said Julian Bond in his preface to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s report. “One of these basics is the civil rights movement, a nonviolent revolution as important as the first American Revolution. It is a history that continues to shape the America we all live in today.”