Reporting from the Southern Historical Association: Teaching Civil Rights

Photo by author

Photo by author

The Southern hosted a very unique type of session this year. Participants went to Little Rock Central High School, famous for the Little Rock Nine, to hear a panel on how to teach civil rights. I think most of us expected a panel presentation and discussion on teaching civil rights in high school and college history classes, but instead we participated in a workshop and presentation led by students of Central High School’s Memory Project. The Memory Project began as the school commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine and has grown over the past few years into a much bigger project. Ninth grade students are asked to interview an elder on a subject relating to civil rights and record those interviews. While many of the interviews are on the subject of the African-American Civil Rights Movements, they also have interviews with Asian-Americans and modern questions on civil rights in the post-9/11 world. The Memory Project students have published two books, presented at several conferences, and lead numerous workshops about their process.

Our workshop consisted of a few different activities. First a Memory Project student led us in Reading Circles; we were seated in small groups around tables with one or two student leaders. They provided us with two interviews from the Memory Project, called “power pairs” because they are more powerful together than alone. We individually read the first interview and highlighted words and phrases that stood out to us. Next, we read aloud only the words we had highlighted, letting the author’s words speak for themselves before finally discussing the meanings we took from the piece. Then we repeated the process for the second interview, ending with a discussion on how the pieces talked to each other and how it related to our understanding of civil rights. The final part of the Reading Circle was to write questions we had about the readings and the struggle for civil rights; these questions would be added to those already part of the Memory Project database.

After the Reading Circle, the students presented a Reader’s Theater, where they performed a skit of different pieces of interviews that illuminated the meaning of civil rights to different people, and showed a film of slam-poetry done by Asian-American students. Afterwards we learned more about the pedagogy of the Memory Project and discussed how we usually taught civil rights in the classroom to share ideas.

At the end of the workshop, George West, the Central High School teacher at the center of the Memory Project, encouraged the participants to promote discussions of civil rights in their own classrooms through interactive projects such as the Memory Project. Most importantly, he encouraged us to build activities that would not be lost in the internet or stuffed in a drawer, but that would promote conversation in the long-term. And, he told us, always end conversations with questions, never statements. If we stop asking questions, he said, the conversation will end and progress towards civil equality will not move forward.

Check out the Memory Project website for ideas and lesson plans to use in the classroom and for links to the projects their students have created.

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated from Siena College in May 2010 with a B.A. in History and a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies.  She earned her M.A. in History from West Virginia University in May 2012.  Her thesis “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate.  She is currently pursuing her PhD at West Virginia University with research on mental trauma in the Civil War.  In addition, Kathleen has been a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park since 2010 and has worked on various other publications and projects.