Practice 5. Connect to the present.

The March Continues
The Five Essential Practices for Teaching the Civil Rights Movement
Practice 5. Connect to the present.

Connecting to the present is essential to teaching the civil rights movement. It also is an opportunity to assess student learning in a meaningful context. Students who have learned a complicated history and who have had serious conversations about race are ready to apply their knowledge to the wider world. 

Begin by building bridges from the movement to current events, such as the 2013 Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act. But don’t look only for headlines that refer to African-American civil rights. The news is full of stories—including those on immigration policy, educational and income disparities and the struggle for gender equality—that have roots in the civil rights movement.

Involve students in the process of finding connections between the movement’s ideals and struggles and what’s happening now. Mapping the ways in which white privilege and racism persist in contemporary society helps students evaluate the movement’s achievements and pinpoint areas that demand additional change. When we think of the civil rights movement as an ongoing struggle, rather than as an event that reached its end in the 1960s, it is easier to identify its relevance today in current events.

Making connections between the African-American freedom struggle and other civil rights struggles can set the stage for productive discussions. Students will better understand current events if they can draw from the rich context of the civil rights movement. This also opens the door to teaching students from diverse backgrounds. When The New York Times called for teachers to submit their ideas, Navajo Nation educator Sarah Garcia reported developing a unit comparing the civil rights movement to the American Indian movement, establishing relevance for her students while adding important cultural knowledge.25

Connecting to the present means establishing relevance in students’ lives. Struggles that students and their communities face can be brought into the classroom as living case studies for the lessons of the civil rights movement. When undergraduates at Washington’s Whitman College participated in a community service project called Whitman Teaches the Movement in 2012, they found that students from Walla Walla’s emerging Latino population were immediately able to relate the history to their own struggles. “I was impressed with how quickly the 10-year-olds jumped from talking about Jackie Robinson to asking us difficult, fundamental questions about oppression and social injustice,” said one volunteer.

Well-constructed curricula for teaching the civil rights movement encourage students to ask those questions from a solid foundation of historical knowledge. Students are more likely to retain and apply the lessons of the past when they “find themselves” in history.

Connecting to the present means applying historical knowledge to the present day and the wider world. Develop essential questions and student-performance tasks that encourage thinking and action. For example, students might be asked to consider what causes they would march for, or even go to jail for. You might ask students to assess, from the vantage point of today, to what extent the movement achieved its goals. In discussions about current trends in youth activism, students might compare the tactics and struggles of DREAMers to students in the civil rights movement. Students might choose projects to work on that demonstrate their understanding of justice and the need for action.

When we teach the civil rights movement, we should end where we began: teaching for empowerment. Connecting to the present is an essential and summative activity that helps students develop meaningful contexts for learning while applying it in their own communities to make change. 

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