Walla Walla, Wash. is three plane flights, a few thousand miles and a climactic shift from Montgomery, Ala. As our recent report Teaching the Movement showed, there’s also a lot of distance between Washington’s sadly sketchy requirements for student learning about the civil rights movement and Alabama’s relatively ambitious standards.
Administrators at Whitman College hope to bring us closer together with a bold new service project launched in collaboration with Teaching Tolerance and the Walla Walla Public Schools. It’s called Whitman Teaches the Movement. Last week I spent a few days at Whitman laying the groundwork for this new initiative.
Washington’s failing grade appalled Noah Leavitt, Whitman’s assistant dean for Student Engagement. Rather than simply bemoan the state’s low standards, Levitt saw the report as an opportunity to get students involved, furthering the mission of the college while making the community better.
We worked with Levitt to revamp Whitman’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day service activities. Students would have an opportunity to teach classes about the civil rights movement throughout the district’s 10 schools. Students were also excited (even in the busy end of the semester, 118 students signed up.) While Levitt and Whitman’s Community Service Coordinator Kelsie Butts were busy registering students, I combed through hundreds of lesson plans. In the end, I settled on four modified, but time-tested lessons for students in grades two, five, seven and 11.
Last week in Walla Walla I led four training sessions for eager undergraduates, many with an interest in teaching careers, and all with a passion for the civil rights movement. We divided Whitman students by the grade levels they will teach in January. Each group got some general teaching advice and a thorough grounding in the lesson they will bring to the schools.
All four of the lessons cover the civil rights movement from slightly different angles. Second-graders will learn about the Greensboro sit-ins. Fifth-graders will focus on Jackie Robinson. Seventh-graders will learn about the role of women in the civil rights movement. And 11th-graders will study the Letter From Birmingham City Jail and the power of civil disobedience.
While I was in town, I met with officials from the Walla Walla Public Schools. They are very excited about the initiative and hope it will create a new framework for sustained collaboration with Whitman and the Southern Poverty Law Center. The rapidly diversifying school district (more than 30 percent of the students are Latino) is reaping the benefits of multicultural and bilingual classrooms, while facing the challenges that come with change. They are eager to teach the movement not only as good history, but also as a strategy to engage their diverse student population.
As the culmination of my trip, I was honored to deliver a public talk about the writing and findings of Teaching the Movement. Students, faculty and community members attended my presentation, “Losing History? The State of Civil Rights Education 2011.” In it, I argued that although projects like Whitman’s will not fix our inadequate state history standards, they show that change is possible. Model programs like Whitman’s initiative engage communities in conversations about change while making classrooms better.
Shuster holds a Ph.D. in educational studies from Claremont Graduate University. She is the principal researcher and author of Teaching the Movement: The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States 2011.