All day long in my first-grade classroom I hear, “That’s not fair!” It’s a primary concern for 6-year-olds—that everyone be treated equitably. First-graders are diligent about making sure each student gets the same number of chances, the same opportunities, the same choices. They are quick to alert you if they didn’t get a turn or if someone else got seconds. They understand that, above all, we must be fair. That’s why the topic of civil rights is such a natural unit of study for first grade; it’s all about fairness.
To introduce the modern civil rights movement to 21st century students, we have to help them identify with the situation of those discriminated against and understand the injustices. That personal connection to this critical time in our history is hard because, fortunately, they have no experience with segregation. They do not know what it’s like to be denied entry into a restaurant, or bussed to a school across town, or be told you can’t try on shoes before you buy them. They know for a fact that a black man can be president and this makes it a little hard for them to understand it wasn’t always this way. And so we help them achieve this by looking at the experience through the eyes of a child, someone the students can relate to.
We help students connect to Martin Luther King Jr. by reading My Brother Martin by Christine King Farris to discover what Dr. King was like as a child. We conduct a human treasure hunt and the students go around the classroom to find classmates who share similar traits or interests with Dr. King, like playing baseball or reading. It helps them see that he was not so different from them; he wasn’t born great; he seized the opportunity to do great things—and so can they.
We also read The Story of Ruby Bridges, which chronicles the experiences of a courageous little girl who spent her first-grade year as the only African American in her school. My students make a Venn diagram of themselves and Ruby to help them realize they have a lot in common with this little girl who was doing the right thing.
When we read my story, Child of the Civil Rights Movement, students become a part of the civil rights struggle, acting out marches, singing protest songs and creating a village to represent an extended family of caregivers. I want to convey to students the sense of community, the group effort that was required to bring about the change in laws, behaviors and attitudes. I want them to learn about Dr. King, but also to recognize that he did not act alone and that it was the mass movement of everyday folks that led to the success of the civil rights movement.
Teaching history to young children is about helping them connect to the past in a meaningful way. When students can relate to characters in a story, they can understand and appreciate it. My students love learning about civil rights because they know how important it is to be fair and what a great injustice it is to deny a child the right to thrive.
Shelton is a first-grade teacher and author of Child of the Civil Rights Movement. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and three sons. She is dedicated to spreading the truth about our American history.