Freedom Schools 50 Years Later

Incoming fifth-grader E’Lexiona McAlpine—better known as Lexi—had “the best day ever” when she visited the Civil Rights Memorial Center with her Freedom School group last week. Why? Because she learned so many new things alongside her friends and teachers, as she’d been all summer at Freedom School.

Lexi and the rest of the kindergarten-to-fifth-grade group were scholars in the Village of Promise Freedom School in Huntsville, Alabama, the first Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom School in the state and one of 130 nationwide. On the day she visited the memorial, the students were on a civil rights tour that included Montgomery and Birmingham. More important, they were revisiting social justice concepts they’d been covering for the previous six weeks.

For instance, while reading one of more than 40 books during Freedom School, Lexi learned about the Little Rock Nine and the courage it took for them to go to school in a hostile, dangerous environment. She also learned that “people died for doing things that’s for rights, like for civil rights and freedom.”

That focus on social justice, literacy and critical engagement were at the heart of the first Freedom Schools, those in session during Mississippi’s Freedom Summer in 1964. Today, the CDF Freedom Schools continue that legacy, and Gloria Batts, the Village of Promise Freedom School’s executive director, feels the intergenerational importance of that 50-year span.

“History is still being written, and 50 years is not a long time to look back at the struggle. And even though we talk about the advances that we’ve made, the struggle still continues,” said Batts. “So it means that … because we have Freedom School, we have an opportunity to pour this history into not only this generation of our scholars but also our servant-leader interns. It’s sort of nostalgic in a sense, but at the same time it’s refreshing that we do have an opportunity to give to this generation what’s not being given to them in the public school system.”

As she prepares to enter the fifth grade, Lexi understands there are things she can do right now to help alleviate some of the struggles of her peers. “Some children at school—they’re bullies, they’re hateful, they’re mean,” she explained, “but if I tell them about the civil rights and why they’re being hateful and shouldn’t be hateful, I think they will recognize that they shouldn’t do that anymore, and they’ll just be friends or make friends … so the world will have peace.”

Lexi probably didn’t have a typical summer. But—like her counterparts 50 years ago—she was empowered by the history she’s learned and the values she’s absorbed. As you begin back-to-school conversations about summer vacation, consider discussing how the Freedom School scholars spent their summer in 1964—and how all young people today can learn from their legacy.

Editor’s note: See our web package, The March Continues: Learning from the Summer of ’64, for a collection of resources to help you teach about this pivotal summer.

Bell is an associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.

Heading Off the Storm of Hate, Together

Editor’s note: This post was authored by Patrice O’Neill and Dr. Becki Cohn-Vargas and first published on Not In Our Town's blog. For more on NIOT's educational resources and their Not In Our School program, visit

In his recent New York Times op-ed, "White, Bigoted, and Young: The Data of Hate," Harvard economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz analyzes thousands of user profiles on Stormfront, the most popular white supremacist website in the United States. His findings paint a surprising—and disturbing—portrait of who joins a hate forum.

The most common age when people become Stormfront members is 19. Stormfront users are news and political junkies, and about 30 percent of the site’s members are female. Stormfront’s highest per capita membership is in the Pacific Northwest. And bias against Jewish and Black people are mentioned most in Stormfront user profiles.

At the end of his report, Stephens-Davidowitz says that despite his extensive research, he still doesn’t know why people join groups like Stormfront, or what can be done about it. But, fortunately, there is hope. There are things each one of us can do to stop hatred, and promote safety and inclusion for everyone.

For over two decades at Not In Our Town, we’ve made films about people all over the United States who are finding new ways to address bias, intolerance, and bullying. Here are five key lessons we’ve learned from remarkable everyday heroes who have faced down hate, and spoken up for their neighbors—and you can use them in your community:


Violent, hateful outbursts like the anti-Semitic killings at Jewish institutions outside Kansas City, the deadly attack at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, and the 200,000+ hate crimes that occur each year are dramatic reminders that bigotry is a real and dangerous threat. People from communities where hate hasn’t hit home, or individuals who may not experience everyday prejudice, may assume that intolerance isn't a problem. When young people express hateful or intolerant messages, the response that they are “just being kids” sends a message that the community accepts this behavior. But people who have experienced hate in their towns have learned that facing these issues can bring residents together. As Montana State Representative Margaret MacDonald, a leader in the original Not In Our Town movement in Billings, Montana, shares in these guiding principles for confronting hate, by acknowledging bigotry, reaching out, and standing together, “the whole community is strengthened and relationships are built up.” Police departments can also play a vital role in hate crime prevention and response.


If the largest group of white supremacists and anti-Semites on Stormfront are 19-year-olds, we need to redouble efforts to reach our youth. We must give young people opportunities to take the lead in identifying problems, and encourage them to speak out when bigotry surfaces. Though it’s distressing to learn about youth on Stormfront, there are thousands of young people around the country who are working to create inclusive communities and schools—like these young Not In Our School leaders who shared their strategies for standing up to hate. It’s up to us to listen, and to support their positive efforts.


In his book My Life After Hate, former racist skinhead Arno Michaelis shares how alienation and a search for belonging pushed him into the white supremacist movement. Learning how to look at the world through other peoples’ eyes is an antidote to the sense of separation that can fuel intolerance. Some schools, like Grimmer Elementary in Fremont, CA, create kindness campaigns like “Leaving a Positive Footprint,” to help children explore the impact of bullying and practice compassion. Campaigns like Teaching Tolerance’s Mix It Up at Lunch Day encourage young people to move out of their comfort zones, cross social boundaries, and learn about each other.


When it comes to diversity, it can be tempting to say that we’re “colorblind” to our differences. However, the sad reality is that racial divisions haven’t gone away, and neither children nor adults are blind to the things that make us different. Ignoring race or culture can also dismiss the real lived experiences of intolerance that many people face each day. Being connected to others and feeling a sense of belonging is a key human need. Identity-safe environments are spaces that help people of all backgrounds to feel a sense of belonging and have a voice. As an example, immigrant students from Newcomers High School in Long Island City, NY and middle schoolers from Manhattan came together to share their stories, connect, and understand immigration on a personal level.


When discussing racism, bigotry, and other kinds of intolerance, strong emotions can emerge. Having a candid conversation about these issues can bring tensions to light and help people find common ground. Our video What Do You Say to “That's So Gay”? depicts a teacher artfully navigating a difficult discussion in his classroom. He creates an environment where students feel free to speak up and contribute. To open community dialogue about bias and prejudice, Not In Our Town also offers films and discussion guides. Additionally, Public Conversations Project features a guidebook for facilitating constructive conversations on divisive topics.

Reaching the 19-year-olds who are ready to click into hate requires action from all of us. But we don’t have to wait for a horrific incident to do something. When we help one another, accept one another, and learn from one another, our actions create a force that is stronger than violence and hatred. And together, we can move toward a world of safety, acceptance, and respect for everyone.

Learn more about solutions and how to stop hate, together on

O’Neill is the CEO and executive producer of Not In Our Town. Dr. Cohn-Vargas is the director of Not In Our School.

Identifying Identity


“Who I am when no one else is around”

“When I am the hero to my little brother”

These comments and many others poured out of an audience of seventh- to 10th-graders when I asked them to talk to me about their identities. These young people, who dedicated part of their summer to deeper academic immersion, were participants in Steppingstone Scholars, a Philadelphia-based program that supports students from underserved background. Although the students represented diverse ethnic, religious and national identities, their affinity was clear. These students were determined to defy the odds and attend college. (Many will be the first in their families to do so.) Too often, however, this commitment has made them feel alienated from peers in their communities.

I empathized with the complexity they faced. Having been a student with a father in prison, a single mother and an opportunity to attend a rigorous school, I understood the challenge many of them described: trying to “keep it real” and not lose themselves in the game of school—all while negotiating ever-changing rules that are seemingly made to keep them from succeeding.

As the students continued to belt out answers, I reflected on how I would have described my own identity at their age. It is unlikely that I would have volunteered an answer. Possibly, if asked to share in a small group and I felt safe, I would have said, “Identity is one thing I can’t study for or buy or fake; it is who I am, and I hope each day I am proud of him.” Uttering those words would have been liberating.

However, in my own schooling, as an African-American male, I never had the opportunity to talk about my identity. I struggled to find myself, due in part to the few mirrors reflected in my school and in my classes. The not-so-hidden curriculum taught me that my identity was not as valued in school as the majority of my peers. While it was years later that I found words to express this feeling of loss, I no less felt that void in the moment.

The Steppingstone students expressed grappling with their identities when they entered more rigorous schools, a far cry from those in their own neighborhoods. They also spoke passionately about how their identities are constantly being bombarded by media perceptions, family messages, peer pressure and—most disturbingly—low expectations from many of their teachers. They shared painful stories about how teachers failed to respond to disparaging remarks said during class, and about being the targets of micro-aggressions and ambivalence. Many also addressed their school cultures, which effectively limit their representation in honors classes or provide few positive mirrors in curricula.

As I stood there listening to them express emotions ranging from confusion to sadness to anger, I remembered the cautions of Theodore and Nancy Sizer that the students are watching. Schools and schooling send messages whether intentionally or not, and students learn and often internalize these messages. The students in the audience that day made it clear that their teachers and schools often stand in the way of them realizing their best selves. 

How can we enable students to be their best selves? For the students I work with, having the opportunity to talk openly about their identities is key. Whether it is through journaling or facilitated conversations, the process is empowering to them. Students have told me that they consider it a survival skill—it keeps them focused and makes them feel alive. With this in mind, I reflect on my years of teaching and wonder:

  • How often do I create space for students to talk about their identities?
  • Do I ever hinder students from becoming who they seek to be?

Discussing identity, as well as challenging the boxes that work to limit students, is an essential—and ongoing—component of my toolbox. How do you create space in your practice for students’ self-expression?

Avery, author of ANGST: Overcoming Freshman Year of High School and a National SEED staff member, is the director of programs for Steppingstone Scholars. He is also a recipient of the 2014 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Reading and Writing to Learn About Activism

Editor’s note: This is the second blog in a series about an English unit using activist memoirs to teach about social justice. Read the first blog here.

I’m a middle school English teacher, but I’m also a social justice educator, and I’ve spent some time contemplating how to merge the two. This goal has led me to seek out pieces of writing not just about activists but by activists. After a thorough selection process, I chose five activist memoirs to set the stage for exploration and discussions about motives, sacrifices and rewards of taking social action.

Equipped with the five memoirs, I needed to figure out how to show my students that “activists” aren’t only people born with the charisma and passion to effect large-scale change. Anyone who takes committed action for justice can be an activist. To help my students internalize these ideas—and ensure I was teaching a unit that legitimately belonged in an English class—I had my students use textual analysis and writing to explore what it means to be an activist.

Since an activist is someone who takes action against injustice, we started with a working definition of injustice: a situation where everyone should have the opportunity to do something, but some people don’t. The students reviewed their books for passages describing specific injustices their activists faced and, in the margins, noted (1) opportunities that should have been available to everyone and (2) which individuals didn’t have those opportunities. My students saw the relationships between injustice, human rights and unearned privileges (although people with societally granted privileges certainly experience injustice too) and read about how lack of access to opportunity often relates to social identifiers such as race, class, gender, sexual orientation and religion. As the students argued about whether access to health care, marriage and organic food were rights or privileges, I kept pointing out that the disagreements in our classroom reflected national debates and diverse values.

Next, we examined various types of nonviolent actions against injustice (adapted from Sharp 2012): formal statements to people in power, communications to raise awareness, demonstrations, boycotts, strikes, noncooperation with unjust policies and intervention with unjust systems. Again, the students found passages in the memoirs describing specific actions against injustice. From there, they came up with more examples of activism, using their personal experiences, their knowledge of historical and current events and their imaginations. Most students were vaguely aware of famous civil rights movement actions such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and more recent events such as Occupy Wall Street, but the activity became an opportunity for them (and me) to share knowledge about local actions and imagine new ones.

From there, my students took a version of the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths questionnaire, which catalogs 24 character strengths that have been valued across cultures and through time, and used it to identify their activists’ biggest strengths—such as creativity, humility and prudence—and again found moments in their texts when the activists used these strengths.

Throughout the unit, we explored our own willingness to act against injustice. We wrote “One Time I …” stories about personal encounters with injustice. We read Ursula K. LeGuin’s story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” about an imaginary city whose happiness is connected to the misery of a child, to discuss how we rationalize injustice when it benefits us. We explored our power to act right now using an adapted version of the School Reform Initiative’s “Realms of Concern and Influence” protocol: We listed injustices we cared about, imagined solutions that would address multiple injustices and wrote about what we could do right now to be part of that solution. We retook the Strengths questionnaire—using ourselves as the subjects this time—to identify our own character strengths and discussed how we could use these strengths to serve justice. I say “we” because I did this work too, hoping my honesty would encourage theirs. Some kids wrote what they thought I wanted to hear, but many expressed their thoughts earnestly.

A year after taking my class, my former student Samantha referenced the activism unit in her speech at eighth-grade graduation. “Now that we are moving into high school,” she told her classmates, “we are old enough to apply what we learn in the classroom to the real world. We can use all of the knowledge we have gathered to help us create a better future for others. We have the chance to be just like the activists we read about last year, but being an activist does not mean that you have to change the lives of many at once. You can start small.”

I wish I could say Samantha’s response was typical. Some students were inspired to stand against everyday injustices like bullying. Others treated the unit as just another thing an adult at school was telling them to do. As I struggle to create a unit that goes beyond a purely intellectual understanding of injustice, I strive to take Samantha’s advice. I can start small.

Porosoff is a seventh-grade English teacher, curriculum design consultant and author of Curriculum at Your Core: Meaningful Teaching in the Age of Standards.

The Zero Effect

“Despite evidence that grading as punishment does not work and the mathematical flaw in the use of the zero on a 100-point scale, many teachers routinely maintain this policy in the mistaken belief that it will lead to improved student performance.” ~Douglas B. Reeves*

With all of the emphasis on change in education, it makes sense to look at our grading practices for some possible answers. The use of zeroes for missing work is a good place to start. 

The average of 0 and 100 is 50. On most grading scales, 50 percent is still an F. The average of 50 and 100 is 75. On most grading scales, 75 percent is a C. In both cases, the student has an F and an A, yet the final outcome of each case is strikingly different. Why?

Most teachers give zeroes for missing work. The hole created by the zero grade is larger than the hole created by any other grade designation on the most commonly used scales across the country. If a student receives multiple zeroes in any given term, he or she is likely going to want to give up. And who can blame her?

In many cases, a student who’s accumulating all those zeroes might be one of many middle schoolers who struggle with organization, and it’s not necessarily for a lack of trying. In a Psychology Today piece, Professor Nancy Darling of Oberlin College explains how the organizational demands of middle school can “outstrip” the cognitive gains of early adolescents. Having five or six teachers in five or six classes—each with books, schedules, notes and assignments that need to make it from school to “home” and back to school—is overwhelming and, for some middle schoolers, nearly impossible.

Students who have less adult support or supervision at home may have even more difficulty completing homework in a timely manner or on a consistent basis—increasing the risk of being adversely disadvantaged by the zero grade. Students living in poverty may be responsible for caring for younger siblings. In high school, they may need to work in order to help with expenses. 

While hosting a Saturday homework session at my school just a few months ago, I tried brainstorming with a student’s mother about how the student might get some of her work done at home. The mother immediately cut me off with, “There are six of us in an 800-square-foot apartment. It isn’t going to happen.” 

Now, imagine that my student has five recorded scores: three missing assignments, one B and one A. In many classes, her grades look as follows: 0, 0, 0, 17/20, 19/20, bringing her total grade to 36/100, a daunting F.

Now, imagine there is a way for her to prove partial completion for her three missing assignments despite not turning in the hard copies.

Remember the old spy movies where the secret agent breaks into a dark office in the middle of the night, pulls folders from a file cabinet, yanks out classified documents and hurriedly starts snapping pictures with a miniature camera? Time is ticking and the agent rushes to finish the photos, get the documents back into their proper folders and escape before he is discovered. The documents are the key. The agent knows he cannot take the originals, so he settles for pictures. Pictures offer proof.

The same is true for our students. Most cell phones now have digital cameras installed. To clarify, this is not a substitute for turning in work. As long as the evidence is captured and saved, it is a backup plan for avoiding the damaging impact of zeroes on a student’s grade. Parents can be educated and encouraged to join in, too. A cultural shift might occur. Students can begin to see their phones as tools for success rather than toys for social media and games.

As a teacher, I am willing to give up to 60 percent for digital proof of completion, not an automatic 60 percent. I can think of no good argument against this. Such grading practices advocate for students rather than working as adversaries against them.

Another solution is to make homework represent a smaller percentage of the overall grade for the class. If homework fell into a 10 to 20 percent category, for example, the impact on the course grade is less severe. Couple this with awarding partial credit based on observational assessment, and students actually stand a chance of coming back from multiple failures. 

As teachers, it is our job to set kids up to succeed, not to fail. Changing some of our grading practices and homework policies is a good place to start, and our guiding question must be: “Am I grading in a way that makes sense?” There are multiple ways for students to demonstrate understanding, show proof of effort and earn partial credit; handing in a hard copy should not be the only thing that counts.

*Reeves, Douglas B. "Leading to Change / Effective Grading Practices," Educational Leadership (February 2008), 85-87.

Donohue is a middle school English and social studies teacher in Monroe, Washington. He also teaches college courses in English, public speaking and education.

Syndicate content