Helpful Teaching Practices: The Civil Rights Movement

Civil Rights Movement Timeline - Timeline & Events - HISTORY

In class, we discussed Rosa Parks. The Kohl excerpt (compiled from review of over 20 history textbooks) oversimplifies history while also painting Rosa in an overly emotional light using words such as “tired,” “angry,” and “stubborn.” Important figures including Ann Robinson are not addressed at all, and Rosa’s refusal to stand is inaccurately painted as the beginning of the movement. Thankfully, we used critical thinking skills and interaction with primary sources to poke holes in Kohl’s narrative. We can engage students with primary sources; carefully chosen documents (which can be adapted as needed) paint a significantly more accurate picture of the truth than many textbooks/secondary sources.

After this week’s class’s discussion and as I formulate my Bibliography, go over curriculum frameworks, and read my literature circle novel, I worry about how to approach difficult discussions. Specifically, as teachers, how can we both be honest about history but sensitive to the ages of our students? Also, how do we navigate today’s political climate while still being honest about history and honoring our students first? With a governor who bans Critical Race Theory, I worry about walking the line between educating children, telling the truth, fighting injustice, and losing my job.

I found this resource, which discusses five essential practices for teaching the civil rights movement, really helpful. The practices include educating for empowerment, knowing how to talk about race, capturing the unseen, resisting telling a simple story, and connecting to the present. This resource even makes some suggestions that Dr. Stohr implemented during her model lesson such as encouraging critical thinking when encountering Kohl’s excerpt.

How have you addressed these delicate topics with students or your own children? Did you find this resource helpful? What aspects of this resource could you implement in your classroom? As I mentioned in a previous comment, I also read Raising White Kids by Jennifer Harvey, which gives great tips on approaching race conscious teaching. Are there any additional resources you all recommend?

7 thoughts on “Helpful Teaching Practices: The Civil Rights Movement

  1. Bethany, our small table group in class agreed with many of the points you bring up in your blog post. We agreed the Rosa Parks textbook segment was overly simplified and incorrectly signaled her arrest was the start of the Civil Rights Movement. Teaching challenging topics in school (and at home) is just that – challenging. I think in the past too many educators have tried to present information in a “watered down” version so as not to upset anyone; however, what has ended up happening is the hard uncomfortable truths have not been told or explained. In our family, we’ve had to discuss at length that not telling the whole truth is indeed a lie and I believe that’s what we’ve been doing in most of our history classes.

    In the Advanced Children’s Literature course taught last semester, we discussed the importance of teaching the challenging and sometimes uncomfortable stories of history and the hard truths that exist from our past. “Although the material presented in a book might be current and technically correct, the book cannot be totally accurate if it omits significant facts.” (Keifer, Barbara) Should children be exposed to the sometimes violent stories of history? Does it depend on age? What we discussed in class is the importance of keeping the information in context and explaining the background with which the information is gathered and presented. – Erika

  2. Bethany,
    I really like how your post coincided with Vivian’s. You both brought up the important question of how we as educators address political, social and historical issues with our elementary kiddos. I love the resource you shared regarding techniques we can use to teach the Civil Rights Movement. There is a lot of sensitive history subjects that I don’t think we should just avoid because they are uncomfortable. I think there is a practical way to discuss these issues with kids that affords them the right to know the truth, but in a kid friendly way. We can talk to kids about the hate and injustice that existed during the Civil Rights Movement, and still exists, in our country regarding our friends of color while addressing the love and respect that every person deserves. We can teach our kids to celebrate and appreciate differences, while addressing how the people in the past failed to do that. We can discuss Christopher Columbus, as Vivian mentioned, and his success for westward exploration, while also discussing how poorly he treated the natives and how he wasn’t a nice guy. I think the point of all of this is to find a friendly and kid-conscious way of addressing difficult subjects while also bringing to light the ways we can learn from their mistakes and how we can treat people better. I think we do our kids a disservice by avoiding these uncomfortable subjects. I think you have to know the climate of your classroom and the personal situations of your students so you can be sensitive to their needs when you address difficult topics. However, I think leading with grace and setting aside time for discussion about what we can learn from their mistakes is a good way to move from simple learning ABOUT history to learning FROM it. Great points and discussion, Bethany!

  3. Hi Bethany, I really liked your post this week. With everything going on in the world, I certainly have had trouble with what I can and can’t say or what is okay to talk about. I want to teach the older grades, but I do worry about how I will effectively teach racial topics while educating all sides and all truths. The resource you posted was beneficial, and I will definitely be using it in the future!
    I am looking forward to the new standards being released to provide better guidance for what to teach in today’s world.


  4. Hi Bethany,

    I thought you had a really great post and resource, so thank you!

    It’s inevitable that teacher’s today deal with higher levels of stress regarding their teachings and lessons in history and social sciences as they maintain the objective of remaining unbias and honest. As educators, we need to make sure we use appropriate grade-level vocabulary while determining what facts and other information needs to be filtered to a certain degree.

    As Dr. Stohr modeled for us after our Rosa Park’s activity during our last class session; the practice of discussing and reviewing individuals who provided a blueprint for honorable individuals such as Claudette Colvin, as mentioned by Dr. Stohr and the article “Five Ways to Avoid Whitewashing the Civil Rights Movement,” on the Learning for Justice website. Moreover, this article covers the five essential practices in the article you posted, but it goes into more specific detail in achieving those five practices.

    As a White teacher, I believe justice can be achieved through teaching and modeling. That being said, it is vital for me to use the resources provided in the link below such as which is a great guide in learning how to talk about race. Another resource in addition to the “Let’s Talk” guide, is a reflection activity on racial identity: .

    I hope these resources can be helpful for you as well!

    Here is the link to the “Five Ways to Avoid Whitewashing the Civil Rights Movement:”

  5. Hi Bethany!

    I loved your post this week. I find it remarkable how different illustrators, documenters, and storytellers are capable of telling stories differently by omission or misconception, intentionally or unintentionally. How do we know what is accurate? We were able to identify faults in the information given in some resources as we compared them to others. Seeing how the seating in the painting of Rosa Parks on the bus compared to the seating map displays an incorrect interpretation as to where Parks was sitting. If something as detailed as this can be twisted, what else are we learning inaccurately?

    I have not been in an environment where I have taught students or children, in general, critical and delicate topics as these. However, I went over the resource you have provided and will definitely be referring back to it in my teaching days. It talks about how we have to direct students’ learning of social studies and injustice toward their engagement in society as a citizen – a voice. Being a citizen, to me, is not just having opinions and being able to talk at a family get together with grandparents about them. We must appropriately prepare students to learn, have opinions, consider other perspectives, and act on their own beliefs as they navigate the world and share their voice. But in order to do achieve this, we must use the five essential practices discussed to provoke thought and innovation, and the two most important ones that I found were “Know how to talk about race” and “Connect to the present” because they directly address the topic of preparing students to be politically empowered and proactive in today’s society while also being educated on how to address delicate topics with sensitivity.

  6. Hi Bethany,

    I found the conversations about Rosa Parks to be very interesting; I learned quite a few new things. I have not yet had to talk in-depth about race; however, we learned about the civil rights movement for MLK day, including his assassination. Similarly, for this course’s literature group assignment, I am reading The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963; both have offered insight into presenting negative/darker topics through an elementary lens while being as historically accurate as possible.

    The five essential practices you’ve included promotes practices that wish to truthfully relay information without losing the vital truths of empowerment and how to grow from an event. Thank you for sharing this site; it’s a wonderful tool for class and a gentle reminder in general!

  7. Thanks for this post, Bethany. I am glad so many of you are finding your way to the Learning for Justice web site (formerly known as Teaching Tolerance). I think teaching and talking about race is hard, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. We should expect to make mistakes. We need to have grace for one another and be ready to apologize, listen, and determine to do better.

    I think using primary sources is one of the best ways to jump into these conversations. When the topic is filtered through someone else’s perspective, we may not get the whole story or the entire truth. I think even young students can talk about primary sources and ask questions. This is how we begin to teach them to think critically.

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