Talk in Walla Walla to focus on civil rights education

A researcher who will speak at Whitman finds most states lack standards to ensure the movement is taught.


WALLA WALLA -- The civil rights movement brought freer access to the voting booth, diminished racial violence and helped desegregate classrooms, but that legacy appears in danger in those same schoolhouses today.

A report published in September by the Southern Poverty Law Center found most states, including Washington, failing or at best marginally succeeding in assuring the history of the movement is taught to the nation's students, especially those outside of the South.

While far from the epicenter of the struggle in the 1960s, Walla Walla soon will be part of an effort to turn the tide toward making the civil rights movement as much a part of the typical student's knowledge base as the American Revolution and World War II.

A talk tonight at Whitman College by researcher Kate Shuster, lead author of "Teaching the Movement: The state of civil rights education in the United States 2011," will lay out the center's case for bolstering civil rights education.

The talk is part of an effort at the college that will culminate with students teaching lessons about civil rights in city schools in January.

Shuster said Tuesday the SPLC's work grew out of conversations earlier in the year about the Selma-to-Montgomery marches.

"Someone was talking to students in Montgomery who didn't know what that was," Shuster said.

Shuster's evaluation of the states is based on guidelines developed from "closely reading a dozen of the mostly widely used American history textbooks over a variety of grade levels and in consultations with historians in the field," according to the report.

Its standards, against which Washington rates an "F," include such items as:

Learning about at least six civil rights figures in addition to Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.

Being able to identify about 15 events in chronological order, including Brown vs. Board of Education, Montgomery Bus Boycott, Freedom Summer and King's assassination.

Being able to discuss the pros and cons and roots of various kinds of nonviolent resistance.

Connecting the movement to contemporary events and other social movements.

Washington's "F" grade is attributed in part to the state's failure to require teaching about the civil rights movement at any level before high school and a shallow approach to the movement at the high school level.

Shuster said more comprehensive standards would be valuable for students and teachers in the state.

"One of the things that standards do is ... free teachers to think about how to teach" the material, she said.

Statewide standards would also help ensure students who move frequently from school to school, which Shuster said is especially true for those from poorer and migrant families, would have more assurance of learning about the movement.

Shuster said strengthening teaching of the civil rights movement is especially important as minorities come ever closer to becoming the majority of U.S. residents.

By overlooking the movement, educators enforce a disconnect between minority students and the educational system, she said, by denying students a way to relate to the historical narrative.

"We're really running the risk of not just doing a bad job of educating students but actually alienating them so they don't trust education," she said.

More Online

"Teaching the Movement: The state of civil rights education in the United States 2011:"

Teaching Tolerance civil rights quiz:

Southern Poverty Law Center:

Teaching the movement

Dozens of Whitman College students who are currently undergoing training in teaching about the civil rights movement will take their lessons to Walla Walla Public Schools in January.

The Whitman students will teach in second-, fifth, seventh- and 11th-grade classes Jan. 19 and 20.

Their lessons have been developed and tested in hundreds of classrooms nationwide and include stories and discussion for younger students, role-playing for middle-schoolers and an in-depth conversation for high school juniors, according to Kate Shuster of the Teaching Tolerance division of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The center calls on states to build in standards to include the civil rights movement in the curriculum for students from grade to high school.

Shuster said the one-shot lessons college students will carry out won't solve problems in a lasting way, but "even if it goes no further it'll be a huge success."


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