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Engaging with History in the Classroom: The Civil Rights Movement, by by Janice Robbins and Carol Tieso.

January 25, 2015

Engaging with History in the Classroom: The Civil Rights Movement Grades, 6-8 by Janice Robbins and Carol Tieso. Prufrock Press (2015), Paperback, 190 pages.

Resources and lesson plans for teachers seeking to help students develop analytical and communication skills while focusing on the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.

This book is part of a four-part series aimed at “Engaging with History in the Classroom” which includes similar books about the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Post-Civil War periods. It is published by Prufrock Press, which offers a number of teacher guidebook, some of them designed for the teaching of gifted students and others, like this one, for average classrooms.

The Engaging History Series has been developed to meet the goals set out by the Common Core State Standards, developed by governmental and educational leaders to insure that all students are taught basic skills and information necessary for successful lives in the present and future. It stresses the need for active learning. As the Civil Rights volume shows, students are taught to evaluate, discuss and write rather than simply memorize what authorities say. In history classes, for example, they work with primary documents and learn about ordinary people as well as traditional leaders.

I was a college prof with little experience with middle school students. I am, however, a historian committed to the values of the Civil Rights Movements and to teaching students to think, speak, and write. I was impressed with the kinds of projects this guide discussed. It refers to digitized sources which allow students to explore what a range of people who were involved in these events as they happened knew and thought. Such assignments lead students into the detective work that makes history fun, and it pushes them to evaluate and to connect what they see and hear. The actual incidents from the Civil Rights movement were well chosen and accurately presented. I particularly liked the way in which projects were connected to questions about the importance of citizen participation and about the proper response when the government seems to be unjust.

While I was favorably impressed by Engaging History, I found it easy to see why such a book has raised the ire of Conservatives. It presents the Civil Rights Movement as if all Americans value what it achieved. I wish that were true. In reality, we have a vocal and powerful minority of citizens who are protesting the gains achieved by the Civil Rights Movement. The Radical Right in this country has made opposition to the Common Core, and teaching materials like those presented here, a fundamental article of faith.   In part, they oppose “big government” taking a role in what they consider a local issue. Additionally, history has been the site of “culture wars” in recent decades as academic historians have moved away from a focus on the achievements of leaders to focus on the lives and thoughts of more varied groups within our society.  This book will be seen by some as “more liberal propaganda.”

Despite the authors’ efforts to be apolitical, topics like the Civil Rights Movement are simply volatile in today’s climate. It was easy to image that a book like this would anger some parents and school board members. I think that the guide would be strengthened with some suggestions for dealing with those who oppose what is being taught here. Teachers should be aware of the possibility of the opposition and the fact that it may surface in their classrooms.  Advice on dealing with students who may have been taught at home that African Americans are inferior would be appropriate.

None the less, I strongly recommend this guide, for teachers certainly, and for all who wonder what the fuss about the Common Core is all about.

Another excellent teacher guide for teaching about the Civil Rights Movement and social justice is available free from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Teaching Tolerance Program.  This free set of lesson plans is less closely tied to the requirements of the Common Core, but I found the activities and the questions it asked students to consider particularly insightful.  The Teaching Tolerance guide has less information and is more focused on the skills for understanding events.  The series of telegrams it asked students to evaluate were excellent for teaching how a person’s identity can shape what they claim is true.

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