Little Rock Helps Students Connect with History

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Teaching African-American history to middle and high school students is sometimes daunting. I have found it is difficult for today’s youth to identify with a time when it was legal to discriminate against other human beings simply because of the color of their skin. Even more than the disconnect with the issues that were at the heart of the black freedom struggle, I was shocked at the lack of knowledge my students possessed about the long history that made something like Jim Crow possible.

The 55th anniversary of the integration of Little Rock’s public schools gives us the opportunity to reexamine the long-term, societal impact of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.

From my experience, students want to see the relevance of any lesson to their own lives. Right now, the civil rights movement is nearly 60 years old. We have a rare opportunity to use one of America’s most important political and social revolutions to not only educate but, perhaps most importantly, empower our students. We can learn from the ways African-American adults and youth in Little Rock empowered themselves to fight for their civil rights. These activities build students’ awareness about how the world in which they live has developed and instills in them a consciousness about their personal importance.

It’s critical to start this lesson with an assessment of your students’ prior knowledge. I usually present discussions about the black experience as a story of change and continuity, with triumphs and tragedies. Because students seem to hold fast to the notion of history as an inevitable, forward march toward progress, it’s necessary to balance their romanticized ideas about history with a factual counter-narrative of racial oppression and resistance to unequal treatment. Students need to understand that change and continuity are not mutually exclusive, and usually co-exist. Although desegregation represented change in Little Rock by allowing black kids into previously all-white schools, racial mixing did not change the attitudes that made segregation possible. Laws and behavior do not always reflect personal beliefs or attitudes, which is one of the underlying lessons we can all learn from Little Rock.

After establishing the themes of change and continuity as your class’s analytical framework, incorporate current events into your curriculum. Since you have already established these dual themes, you can ask your students high-level, analytical questions that require them to compare and contrast the present and the past. Is the current event an example of change or continuity? Require students to use examples from Little Rock to support whatever link they identify. Ask probing questions like, “How was changed defined in Little Rock?” “Who defined change?” “Did the changes in Little Rock address legal issues, cultural attitudes, neither, or both? This will push students to forge connections and think critically.

Using Little Rock as a case study allows students to apply the themes of change and continuity as analytical frameworks to not just African-American history, but life in general. In the process of students will also develop a newfound appreciation for the craft of history.

John Adams is a PhD. Candidate in African-American and United States History at Rutgers University.