Whitman College Teaches the Movement

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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. Here are insights from student teachers Allison Bolgiano, Noah Lerner and Shannon Morrisey.

Shannon Morrissey
When most seventh-graders think of the civil rights movement, they think of Martin Luther King Jr. and a very specific period in American history. I know I did.

During high school, I learned that the movement was a great victory in the United States. It ended racial segregation, extended the right to vote to African Americans and provided equal protection under the law. All our troubles were behind us. Only later, when I came to Whitman College, did I learn the many ways our contemporary laws fail to offer equal protection to all racial groups.

But, today I’m in a seventh-grade history class in Walla Walla, Wash. My teaching partner, Elaine, and I started by asking our seventh-graders, “Can you think of modern examples of women in power?” Answers ranged from “Bill Clinton’s wife” to “Kim Kardashian.”

Next we launched into a role-play activity we had planned: a conference for female veterans of the civil rights movement like Daisy Lee Baites and Angela. We talked with the class about slavery, sharecropping and Jim Crow segregation. We discussed current racial discrimination in the United States.

If each student left history class that day knowing one or two female civil rights activists, they learned more on this topic than I did in seventh-grade. As my partner and I were leaving the classroom, two girls ran up to thank us and said, “Maybe someday kids will be learning about us in their history class!”  

Noah Lerner
For my fifth-grade class, I turned to baseball. Together, we examined fairness, equality and the injustices of segregation through the story of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American baseball player in the major leagues.

My class was racially diverse, with equal representation of white, black and Hispanic students. I think this made the lesson a lot easier for them to grasp. If anything, I worried students might have a problem understanding how society was once legally segregated, but they all understood that racial prejudice is a scary and lonely thing to experience.

It may be easy to understand the concept of segregation when you’re looking at a picture of a “whites only” drinking fountain, but the evils of segregation extend well beyond staying hydrated. I wanted my students to understand that segregation meant blacks weren’t afforded the same opportunities as whites in any aspect of their lives.

We read a book about Jackie Robinson’s famous break into the big leagues. Then we speculated about the emotions and feelings Robinson experienced when he first started playing with the Dodgers.

The students all talked about Robinson’s self-control and how he managed to keep his cool despite the nasty things people were saying and doing to him. They seemed to really appreciate how hard it must have been for this brave man and all African Americans to stay calm in the face of injustice.

We wrapped up the lesson with a discussion of where things stand today. A few students said that things were still not entirely fair and that racism still persisted. Alas, when I asked for an example of this unfairness, one student called out that “we have homework,” a response which drew applause and sent the class into chaos. I suppose in the end, they are still fifth-graders.

Allison Bolgiano
When I was a high school student, the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day march reminded me of my responsibility to keep marching toward peace, human rights and economic justice. Now that I’m in college, I see how difficult it is to stand for these goals when injustice operates covertly within our institutions.

I recently taught a civil rights movement lesson to a fifth-grade class in which English and Spanish were effortlessly intermingled. Diversity and tolerance were not new concepts for these students. Still, I waited to see what they would learn and what insights they would offer about fairness and equality.

We read Peter Golenbock’s Teammates, which showcases the friendship between Jackie Robinson and fellow Brooklyn Dodgers player PeeWee Reese. The students commended Robinson for not fighting back against teammates who exiled him and fans who booed him. They grasped that Reese was brave to embrace Robinson as a talented baseball player and friend.

The students had a strong sense of fairness and a sharp understanding of the painful exclusion and inequity caused by injustice. I sensed the conviction in their answers and saw that getting students talking about equality in relation to both history and their own lives is an effective way to make these complex topics tangible and relevant.

The students’ insightful responses and enjoyment of our discussion made me realize I had found a way to stand up for peace, human rights and economic justice. Even if I cannot advance the march toward Dr. King’s goals very far forward, I can certainly include more people in the march. 

Morrissey is a senior sociology major at Whitman College.
Lerner is a senior religion major at Whitman College.
Bolgiano is a sophomore politics and environmental studies major at Whitman College.