Editor’s Note: Last month, Whitman College students participated in a service project to teach the civil rights movement to students in the Walla Walla (Wash.) Public Schools. Whitman students were prepared with lessons, training and passion. College students taught in second, fifth, seventh and 11th grades.
My desire to share stories about some of the most important people and events in history led me to teach. That’s why I volunteered for a project with Whitman College students to teach a lesson on the civil rights movement in my three history classes.
In preparation for “Whitman Teaches the Movement,” we met with Noah Leavitt from Whitman College and a college student representative to discuss the lesson idea and share feedback.
Last month, three college students introduced themselves to my classes, shared their goals and highlighted the importance of the civil rights movement. My students and the Whitman students forged a bond during the lesson.
Students read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” They discussed the historical context of the letter. One group of students divided my class into small groups of four and explored the themes and ideas further.
All of the students’ faces lit up when the college student group leader asked a question and listened carefully to their answers. This personal connection was another powerful part of the lesson. Although the text is complicated, it introduced my students to the deep and complex issues people face in the civil rights movement then and now. Understanding these issues is critical to their education and life.
Before the Whitman students arrived, my plans for teaching the civil rights movement included introducing important terms to students, highlighting important leaders of the era and their accomplishments and comparing them to current leaders in the civil rights movement. We read excerpts from a variety of speeches, autobiographies and interviews and watched film footage from this era. Students prepared multi-media projects.
Approximately 30 percent of our student population at Walla Walla High School is Hispanic. When we take time to explore the civil rights movement, our students see how other people before them struggled to gain equal rights. They see that even though we have come a long way, there is still a lot of work to be done. After “Whitman Teaches the Movement,” we talked about injustice and examples of things we can do to help others. Students were inspired to get involved in community service. They also talked about continuing those efforts during college and throughout their adult lives.
Walla Walla Public Schools’ partnership for "Whitman Teaches the Movement" was a success. We expect future collaborations. This lesson was a starting point and we will continue to develop it further. Because of it, my students will understand Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter more deeply. Hopefully, this program will serve as a blueprint for other school districts and colleges and universities who join forces and help young people learn more about the civil rights movement. At Walla Walla High School, we want to work together to develop the lesson further and expand the presentations into more classrooms.
Higgins teaches 11th grade at Walla Walla High School in Washington.