In elementary school, the complex and dynamic history of the Civil Rights Movement is often boiled down to what the late civil rights activist Julian Bond described as “Rosa sat down, Martin stood up, then the white folks saw the light and saved the day.” This myth is not just incomplete, it’s harmful. It reiterates the narrative that change is made by a few heroic individuals, and it erases the thousands of other people who worked together (oftentimes disagreeing with one another) to make change. It serves to reinforce the status quo, rather than engage students in their own collective organizing.
Identifying these gaps and (purposeful) oversights in the curriculum, I instead try to teach social movements, including the Civil Rights Movement, by focusing on change makers typically excluded from the standardized curriculum, the change-making strategies they use, and how these groups of ordinary people work together. My hope is that the focus on these three things helps to de-center heroic and decontextualized narratives, and allows students to see themselves as people who can make change. For example, a 5th grader may not identify with a figurehead giving a grand speech, but they may identify with a college student refusing to leave a lunch counter. My approach is largely inspired by the work of Bree Picower’s Six Elements of Social Justice Curriculum Design for the Elementary Classroom.
To kick off our Civil Rights Movement unit, I gathered my 5th-grade students on the carpet, a diverse group in terms of both race and class, and posed a question: “What does a fair community or country look like?” Students called out answers and I wrote down their responses on the whiteboard. Words included things like kindness and respect, and as students continued to shout out answers, I pushed them to think a little deeper. “What would all people have in a fair community? What things? What resources?”
Students quickly shouted out basic human needs: food, water, housing, safety.
After recording our collective vision of a fair community, I asked my students what they knew about the United States during the 1960s and the years prior. I drew a big timeline with “1960s” written in the middle, and pointed to the space during and before this date. “What do you know about the 1960s and the years before this time? In which ways was our country fair? In which ways was it unfair?”
My question built off our grade level novel study of The Lions of Little Rock, a middle grade novel that highlights the 1958 conflict in Little Rock, Arkansas, when public schools were shut down in response to the integration of Central High School. It also built off students’ own lived experiences and prior knowledge; students knew about segregation, racism, and discrimination.
“Black kids and white kids had to go to different schools,” Roselyn volunteered.
“And different restaurants too!” Alesha added.
I probed a little further, asking students how life might have contrasted with our vision of a fair community.
“I don’t think everyone had those things that we listed,” James explained.
“Could you explain that?” I pushed, wanting students to name the racism that they had learned about. “Which people might not have had equal access?”
“Black people didn’t have access,” James responded.
I was glad to hear James’ response. At the beginning of the year students may have been hesitant to explicitly name race, not knowing what was expected and OK in our shared academic space. As we grew together as a community, some students seemed more comfortable bringing up race and racism in our class discussions. This work had started at the very beginning of the year, when we had named our own identities, focusing specifically on our own intersections of race, gender, religion, etc., and had built as we continued to name the way that these factors played into various events and struggles throughout U.S. history and current events. Building up to this study, we had discussed the Black Lives Matter movement, immigration, and current deliberations going on in the Supreme Court.
To wrap up our conversation on fairness, I told the class that we were going to get acquainted with a diverse array of figures from the Civil Rights Movement — people who had organized together to challenge the racism and “unfairness” of the United States through a variety of change-making strategies.
Meeting Change Makers
To meet this aim, I had designed a civil rights “find someone who” activity, based off of Rethinking Schools’ mixer approaches to role plays, which are more often used with secondary students. In these mixers, students are each assigned the role of a historical figure and they move throughout the room “meeting” each other. As they interact, students are asked to answer questions, such as “Find someone who has an opinion about why the United States is at war with Mexico. What is their opinion?” The open-ended “find someone who” prompts are designed to have multiple answer possibilities.
I took this strategy and made a few adaptations to make it work with my students. First, I added photos to go along with each role. Because my students were younger and their levels of literacy varied greatly, I wanted to make these roles as accessible as possible. Second, I created a “find someone who” page resembling somewhat of a bingo sheet. Although students were still expected to have substantial conversations with their partners, this sheet required them to only get a signature, and not to record notes, as would have typically been expected in a secondary classroom. This choice was again based on the varying reading and writing levels of my students. The objectives of this activity were to learn about historical figures, and although they were utilizing their literacy skills, I did not want anyone’s reading or writing abilities to restrict them from full participation.
With these adaptations in mind, I created 16 different info cards — each card featuring a different person or group from the Civil Rights Movement, such as Claudette Colvin, Bayard Rustin, SNCC, the Young Lords, and the Black Panthers — and a corresponding activity sheet where students would collect signatures from each of the change makers. These 16 people did not represent an exhaustive list of change makers during the Civil Rights Movement, but gave a sampling of people with different geographic, age, gender, and racial identities who all contributed to making change in different ways. Thinking of my students as I created these cards, I tried to make sure that each student would see elements or intersections of their own identities reflected in at least one historical figure.
“Today you will each be taking on the role of a different activist from the Civil Rights Movement,” I explained. “When you receive your assignment, your job is to read the card and learn about the historical figure you’ve been assigned. Once we’ve all learned about our assigned historical figure, you will attempt to become that person. You will no longer be Nathan, or Ana, but instead, you will be Bayard Rustin, or maybe Sylvia Mendez, or Audrey Faye Hendricks.”
I modeled how I expected students to take on their roles, making sure to communicate that students may take on the persona of a historical figure with a different gender or racial identity from their own. Role plays are sensitive, and before engaging in any kind of role playing activity, I emphasize that we will not be turning activists into caricatures. The activity is designed to learn from the activists, and to learn from each other, not to put on a show.
“You may be given a role with a race or gender that you don’t identify with. For example, if TJ is given the role of Sylvia Mendez, who is a woman, I still expect TJ to speak in his normal voice. There is no need to change the tone of your voice to match what you think the person may have sounded like. You can keep your tone of voice and your accent exactly as it is now. Why do you think that part of the instructions may be so important?”
After a few moments of thought, Ana raised her hand. “Well, maybe because we don’t really know what their voices sound like.”
“That’s exactly right,” I said. “Unless you’ve watched a YouTube video or something, you just don’t know. Why else do you think it’s important to use your normal voice?”
“Well,” Nathan volunteered, “maybe it could be racist or something if you change your accent.”
“That’s a super important thought!” I affirmed. “I think that it could be very easy for us to fall into harmful stereotypes. I’m a woman, right, but do I talk like this?” I asked, changing the tone of my voice to a ridiculously high pitch at the end.
A giggle rippled through the room as students responded in a chorus of “Noooo!”
“That’s right, I don’t talk like that, and when I hear people imitate women in that kind of voice, I don’t feel like I’m being taken seriously. So, to keep the focus on learning from these historical figures, and to make sure we don’t mock anyone or reinforce stereotypes, we are going to keep our voices just like they normally are. The objectives of this activity are to learn about and to learn from these activists, not to put on a show. Got it?”
Students nodded in understanding.
I then passed out the role cards and gave students five minutes to read over their cards and identify the “big ideas” represented. Most role cards included the name of the figure, their birthday and (if applicable) their death day, a direct quote, a photo, and a one- or two- paragraph description of their activism during the Civil Rights Movement.
The role cards varied in length and complexity, and I was conscious to match students with the card that would best support their participation in the activity. I moved throughout the room to check in with students who I knew might need extra support, asking students what the big idea of their card was, and supplying highlighters to use if desired.
After our five minutes of reading was complete, I introduced students to the “find someone who” sheet. Similar to the classroom icebreaker game, this sheet read “Find someone who . . .” across the top, and included 16 squares on the page, each with a description of a person, such as “find someone who participated in the Greensboro sit-ins” or “find someone who served in the House of Representatives until 2020.” Each square corresponded to one specific person, requiring students to talk to each of their classmates to complete the activity sheet.
“As you walk around the classroom meeting each other, you will also be collecting signatures,” I explained to the class. “There is one square on the sheet that corresponds to each person here, so your job is to engage in conversation with each other as you try to collect as many signatures as you can. You’ll have to listen closely to your partner to find out which square belongs to them.” I emphasized that this was about conversation, and that I did not want to see students wordlessly signing each other’s papers.
“Could I get a volunteer to help model what to do, and what not to do, during this activity?”
Alesha volunteered and joined me at the front of the room.
“Alesha, you’re going to take on the role of Bayard Rustin, OK? And I’ll be John Lewis.” I handed Alesha a role card and activity sheet. “Now I’m going to model being a bad partner.”
“Hey, I got John Lewis. I’ll sign your sheet, can you sign mine?” I said, passing her my paper. She handed me hers and we silently signed each other’s papers.
“What was wrong with that approach?” I asked the class.
“You didn’t tell her anything! You just signed it,” students called out.
“That’s right, that is not what I want you to do. The other thing I don’t want you to do is this.” I then put my role card in front of my face and read the entire card word for word.
“Instead, here’s what I would like you to do,” I explained.
“Hi, it’s so nice to meet you,” I started, extending my hand for a handshake. “My name is John Lewis. I became involved in the Civil Rights Movement at a young age and joined a group called SNCC. I helped with some really important events like the Selma March for voting rights, and I continued my activism for my whole life. I was so passionate about civil rights that I ran for public office and served as a representative for the state of Georgia until 2020.”
Alesha scanned her sheet for a criterion that fit my description, and then asked, “Is this your square?”
“That’s it!” I said, and signed “John Lewis” on her paper.
I thanked Alesha and asked her to sit back down. “Does this make sense?” I asked. “Even though I’m only asking you to collect signatures, I am expecting some lengthier conversation. Don’t give away your clue right at the beginning.”
Before we began the activity, I asked students to independently read over the activity sheet and to identify their own square on the page, and to sign the name of their historical figure on that square. I floated throughout the room to make sure each student had identified their place on the sheet, and then we began the activity.
I opened up our classroom door to allow students to move about freely between the classroom, hallway, and common area, and I floated around listening to their conversations. I overheard Sarai telling TJ about how she founded the Democratic Freedom Party, and Roselyn telling Ashton about her experiences working with Mexican and Filipino farmworkers. As students listened to their partners, their eyes scanned their “find someone who” sheets to figure out which square might correspond to their partner’s identity. After exchanging stories and signatures, students moved on to find new partners. A couple of students required some prodding and support to get up and talk to their classmates, but most of the students fully and respectfully committed to their task as they moved about the classroom and hallway. Our space was alive with conversations about sit-ins, boycotts, and Freedom Rides, and it was energizing to witness.
After about 25 minutes, conversations slowed and a handful of students began calling out “Who started a free breakfast program for kids?!” and “Who here spent two months in jail for participating in the Freedom Rides?!” Although calling out the criteria on the squares was not part of the instructions, it was encouraging to hear students so dedicated to filling their squares, as they disruptively shouted out information about key players in the Civil Rights Movement across the room. I took this turn into chaos as a cue to wrap things up, and asked students to start making their way back into the classroom and into their chairs.
After students had gathered back in the classroom, we discussed what we had learned.
Because I had verified ahead of time that students knew which of the boxes was theirs, no one had any “wrong” answers, just varying levels of completion. I placed a completed “find someone who” sheet under the document camera and allowed students time to make note of any squares they hadn’t completed.
My approach to choose one “right” answer for each square made this activity easier for our other grade level teachers, who had varying levels of background knowledge on these historical figures, to implement the same activity in their classrooms. Although this approach provided an easy answer key, I do wonder about how it may have limited some of the student interactions, and how students may have been able to identify more overlap between figures if there had been flexibility for multiple names on each square. If I had provided less specific information on each square, such as “find someone who was involved in the Freedom Rides,” instead of “find someone who went to jail for two months because of their involvement in the Freedom Rides,” students may have launched into a deeper interaction about how Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, Jim Zwerg, and John Lewis may have known each other and possibly worked together.
As a transition to talking about change-making strategies, I asked the class, “Raise your hand if you learned about someone new today.”
Every hand went into the air. “Amazing!” I said. “Every person or group you learned about today was involved in work that made change in their communities and in the country. Did you talk to anyone who made change in ways that you hadn’t learned about before?”
Most hands went into the air. “Can anyone tell us more about a new change-making strategy you learned about?”
“Thurgood Marshall used the courts.”
“John Lewis did a march!”
“SNCC did sit-ins and Freedom Rides!”
“The Black Panthers did free breakfast!”
“Dolores Huerta helped boycott!”
As students called out their answers, I made a list on the whiteboard. I wanted to emphasize that making a change could mean much more than giving a speech. At this point in our study we may have only had surface level understanding of these strategies, which was important, but I didn’t want to leave it there.
There were several things that I loved about this activity. First, students were up and moving, rather than sitting down reading about historical figures. Unfortunately, the typical elementary school approach to social studies consists of worksheets, nonfiction reading, and the occasional crafting project. From a content perspective, these activities tend to reinforce the status quo, highlight individual heroes such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., and provide very little context or nuance to these stories. From a pedagogical perspective, these activities rarely provide opportunities for movement, which as anyone who spends time with young children can tell you, can be pivotal for engagement. This “find someone who” approach required my young students to actively engage in their learning, instead of passively receiving the same stories they’ve had repeated to them since 1st grade.
Second, students had to talk to each other to get information. Instead of just remembering the name Fannie Lou Hamer, they remember having a conversation with Fannie Lou Hamer; instead of remembering Jim Zwerg, they remember “being” Jim Zwerg.
Third, the activity introduced students to a wide variety of figures, a list of people difficult to find in any elementary curriculum. These ranged from people who may have overlapped in their activism to people involved in different, though interconnected, struggles across the country.
Last, students learned about the way activists and everyday people used a variety of change-making strategies — boycotts, sit-ins, strikes, walkouts, and various other forms of everyday resistance — that would become key for the rest of our unit. In subsequent weeks, we would learn about how these activists worked together in grassroots groups, and students themselves would have to deliberate over and engage in the organizing strategies they had learned about.
At the end of the week, I gathered students on the carpet for a read-aloud of Cynthia Levinson’s The Youngest Marcher. As soon as I introduced the main character, Audrey Faye Hendricks, Ana excitedly called out, “I know her!” and her classmates’ eyes lit up as they too remembered having a conversation with the main character of our story.
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