Practice 1. Educate for empowerment.

The March Continues
The Five Essential Practices for Teaching the Civil Rights Movement
Practice 1. Educate for empowerment.

At its heart, the civil rights movement tells a story of hundreds of thousands of people who believed that they could bring about change. That identity—seeing oneself as an empowered and effective individual—is an essential disposition for effective citizenship and a goal for which most teachers strive. Teaching for empowerment helps students see themselves as participants in history and as agents for change in their schools and communities.

It makes sense to make empowerment a central theme and focus when teaching about the civil rights movement. Without it, the movement makes little sense. Thinking about how to teach for empowerment helps form the essential questions that will drive instruction, planning and assessment.

Empowerment begins by teaching students to think critically about history and to question the conventional story and seek the story beneath. Critical thinking includes examining the common ways in which historical fact is created and presented. As Ohio State University professor Beverly M. Gordon writes, students “question what is not being said as well as what is stated.” 2

The civil rights movement offers many opportunities to question assumptions and poke holes in the conventional narrative. An excellent example, and promising first lesson, is told in Herbert Kohl’s famous essay “Rosa was tired …” Here, the widely accepted, and false, story of Rosa Parks is unraveled in favor of a more truthful and more complicated version that shows Rosa Parks as a dedicated activist whose resistance was planned.3

The movement offers hundreds of role models and case studies that make it easy for students to see how participants critiqued and resisted existing arrangements of power. Using texts such as Freedom on the Menu, which tells the story of the Greensboro sit-ins from the perspective of a child, even very young students can relate to the struggle and “find themselves” in history. As students become immersed, they are more likely to understand the issues.

Studying the civil rights movement raises enduring questions immediately relevant to students’ lives. Teaching to empower can help students grapple with these questions in productive ways. Racism and other kinds of discrimination persist in American society. Students who learn about the tactics and strategies used to resist and overturn systems of oppression can learn that they, too, can address injustices closer to home. This makes it more likely that students will internalize new ways of thinking and acting.

Educating for empowerment means adopting a culturally responsive approach to your teaching. In our increasingly diverse classrooms, there is no single perspective from which to teach anything, particularly the civil rights movement. Exploring the movement with students who may be African American, recent immigrants from Asia and Central America or white suburbanites challenges educators to take these varied perspectives and experiences into consideration when planning instruction. 

The history of the civil rights movement itself includes examples of culturally responsive teaching in action. The Mississippi Freedom Schools, established in the summer of 1964 during the voter-registration drives, created curricula based on students’ needs and experiences as African Americans living in the Jim Crow South. The purpose was to engage students in the dangerous activities of citizenship. According to founder Charles Cobb, then a Howard University student, the schools were meant “to create an educational experience for students which will make it possible for them to challenge the myths of our society, to perceive more clearly its realities, and to find alternatives—ultimately new directions for action.” Making this possibility concrete meant beginning with students’ needs and interests to shape the curriculum.

Be sure to show students how important young people were in shaping the struggle. The Teaching Tolerance film The Children’s March can inspire your students with the heroism of students in 1963 Birmingham. Build on its message with a look at other young people’s work registering voters during the Mississippi Freedom Summer, testing segregation laws in the Freedom Rides and influencing movement tactics and strategy through participation in such groups as SNCC. Emphasizing young people’s role in the movement turns around the ubiquitous King-centered narrative and is empowering by example.

Teaching for empowerment, especially when it encourages students to participate in their schools and communities, is particularly important for students of color. It is essential to closing what Harvard professor Meira Levinson has called the “civic empowerment gap.” Although young people are plugged in to vast flows of information, students from historically disadvantaged populations consistently score lower on tests of civic knowledge and skills than their peers. These students, according to Levinson, are also likely to feel helpless in the face of social and political developments. Teaching them about the triumphs of the civil rights movement without providing them with an activist pedagogy that can improve their sense of self-efficacy is short-sighted. The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools reports that 81 percent of high school dropouts said they would have been less likely to leave school if there were more opportunities for experiential learning.5

Experiential learning can even lead to change in schools. Mariana Souto-Manning used books like The Story of Ruby Bridges and Goin’ Someplace Special with her first grade classroom to spur meaningful discussions about the civil rights movement.6 She was able to use her students’ experience learning about the movement to spur integration of her school’s gifted program. This is in the spirit of the Freedom Schools—students learned to interrogate their own schooling experience as they learned about others who had interrogated other social realities.

The civil rights movement offers an ideal place to plan for experiential learning. The anthology Putting the Movement Back Into Civil Rights Teaching, published by Teaching for Change, offers many inspiring examples of teachers who integrate hands-on activism and active learning when teaching the movement.7 Though not every teacher will be able to raise money to take students on a field trip through civil rights sites in the South like the Girls’ School of Austin did, connections to local and national resources, including partnerships with museums, libraries and university archives (many of which are available online as “virtual exhibits,” such as the one offered by the National Park Service), can open any classroom to rich resources for promoting historical thinking and deep understanding.8

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