Students Reflect on “Whitman Teaches the Movement”

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Editor’s note: Last week, Teaching Tolerance released Teaching the Movement 2014: The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States. This week we’re looking at a unique partnership—Whitman Teaches the Movement—that grew out of the first (2011) Teaching the Movement.

For the final post in our series on Whitman Teaches the Movement 2014, we’re featuring the voices of four Whitman students who took on the challenge of teaching in-depth civil rights lessons to K-12 students in their district. All four wrote reflections on their experiences, which we have excerpted here.

Jacqueline Bonilla and Georgina Dadson co-taught an 11th-grade class at Walla Walla High School about Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Both Whitman students were surprised how little background the Walla Walla students had about King or the context within which he fought for equality.

Georgina describes a moving experience she had while sitting with a small group of students who had been assigned to read a portion of Dr. King’s “Letter.”

When the text reached the section about lynching, a student seemed surprised. He paused for a second. After he was finished, he said, “This is really deep.” That was when I realized how much of an accomplishment that was for me. I was fascinated with how the students went from not having the slightest idea what the civil rights movement was to learning about some of the most important messages that Dr. King spoke about. The students in that group who were interested and eager to learn caused me to reevaluate my future ambitions. For the first time in my life, I considered being a teacher. 

Jacqueline describes walking around the room, observing how quickly students jumped into conversations about racism and inequality.

It was a pleasant surprise to listen because when we started the students had no idea who Martin Luther King was or what the civil rights movement was about. Students have the ability to sit and have insightful conversations. They are able to relate to these topics in one way or another. For instance, the classroom was filled with students from different backgrounds. To witness students from racially diverse backgrounds sitting down together and talking about racism was powerful to me. … 

Being a part of Whitman Teaches the Movement has taught us how young people need to be shown that their ideas and thoughts matter. They need to be given the proper tools and they can convert it into something meaningful, and with that they can change their outlook on life. If they were this willing to learn and discuss the civil rights movement with visiting college student volunteers they hardly knew, we can’t imagine how much more insightful these kinds of teachings would be with a classroom teacher they’ve had the chance to build that trust with.

Benjamin Harris and Harrison Wills both taught a lesson that focused on gender and the civil rights movement. They observed that the young people in the classes they visited were invigorated when asked to draw links and parallels to their own lives.

Ben did a lesson and exercise during which each seventh-grader assumed the role of an influential female civil rights activist. The students learned about his or her assigned activist and then interviewed each other while in the “character” of the woman they studied. The scene he describes occurred at the end of the lesson. 

“So, are men and women treated equally today?” I asked.

A definitive and powerful “No!” came from many of the girls in the group. A few boys also said “no” without quite as much conviction or frustration as the girls, but they certainly said it. Others, nearly all of them boys, chose silence as their response.

One boy said “yes.” A few of the girls flashed glares his way. He quickly became nervous and slunk in his chair. … 

I wonder how the group might have reacted if I had asked them that question at the beginning of the lesson instead. Would some of the boys have answered differently? Maybe. Would the girls have answered differently? Probably not. Would the girls have spoken with such certainty and force? There is no way to know, but I couldn’t stop asking myself that question for the rest of the day. … 

It seems to me that this lesson helped breathe a little extra strength and empowerment into these 12-year-old girls to collectively speak with conviction about the inequities they face, or, perhaps, the inequities they see others around them facing.

And if it was a little more difficult for the boy who said “yes” to approach his female friends that day, maybe that is not such a bad thing; he may now be an important step closer to understanding the ways in which he participates in an unfair system. And that, too, is not such a bad thing. 

Harrison began his lesson by asking the class if they had heard of Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer or Dolores Huerta. Only one student raised their hand. He then asked how many in the class knew of Martin Luther King Jr. Nearly the entire class raised their hands.

[This was] a clear sign of underrepresentation of empowered women leaders in the civil rights movement (despite the fact that there were hundreds of empowered and inspiring women leaders and hundreds of thousands of grassroots women activists that participated). 

Education has the potential to create a revolution of consciousness, thereby changing hearts and minds, which can transform the world. In order to learn from the history of the movement, we first must ensure that we are studying and teaching it inclusively and accurately.

We are not mere subjects of the political world. We are agents of history in the making with opportunities to engage in creating a more fair, equal, and just world. If being a part of Whitman Teaches the Movement this year has taught me anything, it’s that information and knowledge are empowering, and we need make sure everyone has equal access to that.

Civil rights and political improvements didn’t come from naysayers, and they certainly didn’t come through the benevolence of charismatic politicians or one single leader; change has come from a massive, bottom up grassroots movement that defied unjust laws and systems of oppression.

Interested in building a secondary-postsecondary partnership like Whitman Teaches the Movement? Whitman is currently reaching out to new colleges and universities interested in modifying or adapting the program for their own needs and communities. For more information, contact Noah Leavitt at leavitns@whitman.edu.