The Five Essential Practices for Teaching the Civil Rights Movement

The March Continues
The Five Essential Practices for Teaching the Civil Rights Movement

Teaching the civil rights movement should empower students to be great citizens. If you’re reading this guide, you likely share this philosophy. You want to teach about the civil rights movement as more than history—it is part of your mission to empower students with the tools to challenge injustice.

Perhaps you’re a new teacher looking for specific planning guidance, or a veteran trying to enrich your lessons. You’ve already figured out that most students come to you with an established and limited narrative about the movement. They almost certainly learned about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks in early lessons on holidays and heroes.

They may have encountered poetry or music that refers to the struggle in an English class or during Black History Month. They may have learned that the movement was in the past, and that the injustices it sought to correct have been remedied. This may or may not ring true to your students. You may be using textbooks that rely on a King-centered story about the movement, even though this story has been filled out and enriched by recent historical work.

This guide has emerged from our decades of experience and research into teaching the civil rights movement. In it, we present five essential practices designed to provoke thought and innovation:

Practice 1. Educate for empowerment.

Practice 2. Know how to talk about race.

Practice 3. Capture the unseen.

Practice 4. Resist telling a simple story.

Practice 5. Connect to the present.

These practices work well for many classes and topics, but in this guide, we apply them specifically to teaching the civil rights movement. The topic opens a special window for you to use all of these practices, engaging diverse students in constructive consideration of the present in light of our past and preparing them to continue the work that the civil rights movement began. 

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