Teachers 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 report.

Whitman Teaches the Movement was an initiative born out of a desire to rise above the failure of Washington state’s social studies standards to adequately address civil rights history. (Washington received an F in 2011 and a D in 2014.) Three years after its 2011 launch, the initiative is still going strong, and Walla Walla High School students are still benefiting from the in-depth civil rights lessons Whitman students bring to their classrooms.

Teachers AJ Blumel and Michelle Higgins wrote reflections on their classes’ experiences for Teaching Tolerance. They noted that, in addition to learning important content knowledge, both the high school and college students involved in Whitman Teaches the Movement gained valuable college and career readiness skills through their interactions and learned to see themselves as capable agents of change.

Higgins: Approximately 60 college students made time in their busy schedules to attend a three-hour training at Whitman College to review the lesson and some of the strategies, and sign up for classrooms in the Walla Walla Public Schools. I saw a room filled with volunteers who wanted to share civil rights lessons with public school students for a variety of reasons—curiosity about the field of teaching, personal interest in the civil rights movement, and the desire to go beyond the regular boundaries of their amazing college campus. Were they nervous about getting up in front of a new group of students and sharing information with them? Perhaps. However, I knew the lesson would go well the following week because our volunteers are intelligent and capable and enthusiastic …. One week later, Whitman Teaches the Movement (WTTM) volunteers entered our classroom. Some volunteers were dressed in slacks and a tie; others wore sweaters and dresses and jeans. All of them had smiles and welcomed my students to participate in reading and discussing Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”My students got hooked on the idea that Martin Luther King, Jr. … challenged all people to not just sit back and wait for change, but to make it happen sooner rather than later. This message resonated with my students—a group of energetic, young people who don’t want to sit and be bored and unproductive. No, this group represents America in the 21st century—hopeful, ready and inspired to use their new knowledge to help others. Civil rights issues need to be taught and shared with each generation of people in order to help them understand that a wise person can light up the darkness of a seemingly unchangeable world.

Blumel: A majority of students in high school, surprisingly, report having little to no interaction with college students in an academic setting. For students who come from non-traditional college going families, in particular, college and the people who attend them to a large extent resemble a foreign country and its peoples. When I was young, I remember visiting with and talking to students and teachers in the grade above me to catch a glimpse of what was to come. In sixth grade, for instance, we would visit the seventh- and eighth-graders. Then in middle school, we visited the high school. These visits, which were normally organized by the school, would excite you and get you thinking about what was to come next. But, it was hard to go to a college as a high schooler. Unless you went on a college visit, you didn't really get an opportunity to see what college was like. And even if you went on a visit, you were usually taking a tour or simply visiting with your parents. Being able to spend time with college students as a high schooler and to catch a glimpse of the passion that college students have for intellectual inquiry and social justice is something that pays great dividends for our communities. Whitman Teaches the Movement offers just that opportunity. 

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.