Review: Engaging with History in the Classroom The Civil Rights Movement

Rockwell's "The problem we all live with"

Rockwell’s “The problem we all live with”

Janice Robbins and Carol Tieso’s book “The Civil Rights Movement” is part of the “Engaging with History in the Classroom” series that provides outlines to help classroom teachers present eras of American history When I requested to review the book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program I expected a textbook, not a lesson plan. I am not a teacher, never have been and, at the grade level this book is for I never want to be. I did recently earn a degree in history and have been studying American history for a long time. Since I am not even sure if I understand the exact definition of the word “pedagogy” I will do my best to evaluate only the parts of the book that I can. The authors both teach new educators about working with “gifted students”. I can comment on that aspect of the book. I was once considered a “gifted” student, before anyone knew how to deal with us.

Of the six key concepts listed, concept development, critical thinking, discussion, recognizing historical perspective, historical inquiry, and assessment I feel comfortable talking about only three. Critical thinking is the most important skill that a citizen can develop and I am happy to see it as a goal in middle school education. In past discussions instructors told me that even high school students were too young to master critical thinking. I am glad to see that it introduced this early. No one can master a skill until they start practicing.

Historical perspective is difficult for anyone to master. It requires understanding the history that led up to the time in question and understanding the then existing culture. At times I felt that the book was failing to impart the information needed for the students to gain a historical perspective of the United States in the 1950s and 60s but then I considered that this was just one in a series of US history lessons and some of the necessary background would be in earlier modules. Also, this is for middle school students. They have only had a little over a decade to study the world. This class is by default an introduction and does what it can to give students the background needed to understand how people lived and why they did what they did.

I feel most comfortable talking about historical inquiry. Robbins and Tieso do an excellent job of exposing students to different types of historical documents. From the start students are examining photos, news clippings, listening to narratives and “freedom music”. Lesson two has them compare photos of two schools from South Carolina in 1950, one for white and one for black students and asks which they would prefer to attend. Is there a better way to introduce critical thinking? They read and discuss both the “Statement from Alabama Clergymen” and Dr. King’s response, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. The only resources offered to the students that I was uncomfortable with was the reading list, almost all historical fiction. That concerned me but again, I am not an educator, I have not read any of the suggested books and I have to trust that the authors did and that they chose books that lack the errors inherent to historical fiction written for an adult audience. I hope that any teacher using this in the classroom points out the difference in primary and secondary sources, the flaws of each, and explains that photos, music, paintings, sculpture, artifacts of everyday life as well as written documents are valid historical evidence.

There are two more important features to each of the twelve lessons that I want to mention. “Important Terms and Ideas” is a feature I would welcome in most of the non-fiction I read, short, simple explanation of terms that might be unfamiliar. As much as I like the idea the execution was flawed. Starting in lesson one with “prejudice: a bias that keeps someone from being fair”. Is someone unfamiliar with “prejudice” going to be familiar enough with “bias” to use it in a definition? Later, in lesson five, we find the term segregation but only after four lessons on Brown v Board and segregated schools? I feel that the “Terms and Ideas” would have benefited from more attention. I do realize that I am picking at nits here but there are only so many terms defined and they should all be helpful.

The “Hook” is, in my opinion, the best feature of the lessons. Most of my time in school I spent in the back of the class reading. Not my textbooks but not always fiction. Most lectures I thought were boring or were on subjects I had already read about. If the class started with a hook sharp enough to catch my attention I might have paid attention. I might have learned a little more from the class. Each lesson here features a hook. Some are much better than others. Some I am sure would have grabbed my attention and hooked me into participating. I had to chuckle at the instructions for one, listen to and discuss a recording of “The Times They Are A Changin”. The instructions are to hand out copies of the lyrics. How could anyone be expected to understand Dylan’s vocals? The “Hooks” are, in my opinion, some of the best feature of the book.

Given the grades that the book focused on and the fact that is started with Brown V Board I was concerned that the violence used against the Civil Rights Movement would be glossed over. We, as a society, are protective about exposing children to violence, the real stuff, not movie mayhem. Then I saw that one work of art offered to teachers was Norman Rockwell’s painting Murder in Mississippi. It is a great choice. There are so many question that the illustration asks. Who are these three young men? What is happening to them? Whose shadows do we see? Why are those people hidden? Rockwell’s illustration, “The Problem We All Live With”, which I have used here, is the first one used in the lesson and is less threatening. It is a powerful painting in its own right but I hope teachers point out to their students that Rockwell was a beloved artist whose work was best known to celebrate American, not to point out problems. An important part of historical inquiry is to know your sources.

I am not a teacher, but I have children and grandchildren, and I believe that the lesson plans in this book would grab their attention, even of the ones who are, lets say less than ideal students, and that I am confident that they would improve their critical thinking skills and expose them to “doing history”.

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Filed under Book review, Education, History, Politics

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