In this TT grant-funded project, Alexandra Melnick’s 12th-grade students will study the effect that civil rights and voting activist hero Fannie Lou Hamer had on her community—which is, in fact, their community as well.
High school students in the Mississippi Delta will study the process and logistics of voting in their social studies class, and they’ll discuss the importance of registering to vote—and have the chance to register—in their English class. Finally, they’ll travel together to turn in their registration forms at the county courthouse and to visit Hamer’s memorial site.
Melnick sat down with TT Editorial Assistant Anya Malley to talk about the project. Their conversation has been edited for clarity.
Your project’s title is “Connecting to Our Past and Creating Our Present.” Can you tell us about the significance of that title?
[Most of] my students’… families have lived in the Delta for basically as long as they can remember. And I think it’s really important to emphasize to them the shared Mississippi history that the Delta has, and also the national history and significance it has—that they can really connect to it and take that collective pride and also collective pain in the fact that, yes, some messed-up things really did happen right where we live. ...
I talked a lot with the seniors about “How do we ensure we live in a just society? How do we create the society that we want? How do we interact with these systematic prejudices? You can create it by voting and building upon these initial incidents and the people who went before us."
How well do your students already know about Fannie Lou Hamer’s achievements for voting rights in the Mississippi Delta?
They’re very familiar with Fannie Lou Hamer—which is, I think, another reason why I felt confident about submitting the grant proposal, because I know that they’ve worked extensively on her rhetoric in all the grades that I taught. … [They will be] connecting it to their own lives because we dive in to the places where we’re like, “Oh, yes, this happened in Ruleville. It’s happened close to us. We’ve driven by there and, yes, it does affect our populations.” I definitely want to have a further conversation about the logistics of what she’s done.
Do you have any students who haven't yet reached voting age?
Mississippi law is that [17-year-olds who will be 18 by the next general election] can pre-register. They wouldn’t be able to vote in the midterms … but it definitely would not hurt for those who would not be 18 by the time to go through that process and still be aware of it.
What advice do you have for other English teachers looking to incorporate lessons about voting rights and voter registration in the classroom?
I guess my mindset is [that] social studies is English and English is social studies, in a sense that the two are so deeply interconnected. So, even if you’re looking at voting rights—well, what about the rhetoric of both sides? What about the actuality of the nonfiction article? How do we determine bias in these news reports? I think just not to be afraid of it. I think that English teachers have a right to be using that material, and social studies teachers have just as much a right to be using English material.
Your project is cross-disciplinary. Teachers in several departments will be covering the history and process of voting in the Delta. How have you decided who will teach what?
All seniors have to take the government/economics course, and also there [is] a percentage who are in African-American studies. I proposed that African-American studies would really be the bulk of the material in terms of history and the actuality of the voting and that sort of stuff. Because, while I love talking about that, it’s not quite a good fit for an English classroom. So they will do the context work. And I have spoken to the government/economics teacher, and she [is definitely] willing to talk about the logistics of voting and government representation, since it’s a natural fit to her classroom.
Why did you choose to end the project with a visit to Fannie Lou Hamer’s memorial?
It’s really just the title—connecting to their past and creating their present—and creating a sense of being in a continued narrative. ... Because I find it’s very common to view history as "Oh, this happened, things occurred in the meantime like my family, being born, and all of a sudden we’re here and there’s no bridge between these events.” So I hope that by actually saying, “OK, we registered to vote; everything’s set up. Now let’s go see this very cool memorial, an important memorial to the area and in Delta history and, quite frankly, American history.”
And seeing—I don’t want to say full circle, but definitely the lines connect. I hope that the lines connect.
Malley is the editorial assistant for Teaching Tolerance.