Friday, April 10, 2015

Civil Rights for Kids

We first studied Civil Rights back in 2012, in preparation for a trip to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta (and we have to go back again, because they have a Junior Ranger program!), but it's been a regular component of our curriculum since then.

My methodology has remained consistent, because it seems to work well for my kids. We memorize dates, because they make a good scaffold for whatever context we later add, we explore biographies and living histories, and through those, we unpack a particular issue or event.

Because this study is mostly memorization, conversation, and reading, it works well both for my kid who will do anything that I ask her to, and my kid who will do nothing that I ask her to. The contrary kid has the gifts of a sharp memory, a passion for books, and a love of philosophy and debate; she can't help but learn this way. The amiable kid will power through anything that doesn't have a "correct" answer for her to freak out about, loves stories, and couldn't stop talking if I paid her to; she'd be happy adding in lots of hands-on projects, but this is also a good way for her to learn.

The first time that we studied dates (and put them on our big basement timeline--how I miss you!), Martin Luther King, Jr. was the perfect biography to explore, because, of course, he was present at so many of these crucial events. We read plenty about his life, but our main emphasis was on his "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, with this book in hand to help us unpack and understand that speech:
Since then, we've studied the Civil War (crucial for understanding racism and the need for Civil Rights), Native Americans (another historically disenfranchised people), and other African-American scientists and inventors (remember Will's prize-winning essay on Patricia Bath last year?), but recently, we all found ourselves in the middle of a unit on school segregation and desegregation. It started with this audiobook--
--part of the Dear America series. I've found that series spotty in how well it can keep the kids' interest, but this one enthralled them. We listened to it in the car, and even Will, who prefers books about animals to books about people, and books about magical people to books about real people, was an avid listener. So this was the living biography that inspired us.

For the dates and facts, I turned to our very own town, which sports two former colored schools. One of them, the first colored school in town, is located downtown, blocks from campus. It's now our county's history museum, so we've visited there often. Kids attended this school until the local university moved to its current spot. The Powers that Be didn't want a colored school so close to the university, so they built a new school further to the west, on the far side of the furniture factory that employed quite a lot of the town, reasoning that with the school way over there, African-Americans would have no reason to approach the university's campus.

Nice, huh?

This second colored school, the one that non-Caucasian children attended until desegregation reached our town, is now the community center that my kids, like many other homeschooled kids in our town, are in and out of multiple times each week. In fact, we're there right now--the kids are in math class, and I'm in the library getting some writing done.

A few weeks ago, I set up a time for the community center's program coordinator to talk to our homeschool group about the building's history. She discussed segregation in our town, described the layout and conditions of the school, and walked us through the former classrooms (which we've seen many times before, as one room is the library and the other is the math classroom!) to show us the surprising number of original features that still exist. The blackboards are the same blackboards that were used by the colored school! How cool is it that my kids are now part of their history?

We've very lucky in that the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, a place that we visit probably once a month, also has what I imagine has to be the world's only Civil Rights exhibit that's geared specifically to a child audience. It's called The Power of Children, and although it was a little too scary for the kids when they were younger, it's now perfect for them.

The exhibit focuses on three children famous for their experiences of discrimination. We haven't yet visited the Anne Frank section (although now that we're studying World War II, we will), but recently, the kids spent a long time exploring the sections on Ruby Bridges and Ryan White.

The Ruby Bridges section did a wonderful job personalizing discrimination for two little white girls who've never personally experienced it:

It also had plenty of artifacts that I was interested to see. I'm racking my brain, and I don't think that I've ever seen artifacts like these on display before:

Much of the exhibit focused on the inequities of segregated schools, and the inequities that Bridges faced in her first year at the integrated school:

The unfairness was abundantly clear.

The kids seemed to feel less in response to the Ryan White exhibit, partly because they were distracted by White's truly epic amount of 80s era swag. Alf! Star Wars! Max Headroom! But they had a LOT of fun filming this news report!

I, however, adored the Ryan White exhibit. First of all, I remember hearing about White when I was a kid; he was a few years older than me, and I was struck by his story. This exhibit also makes his story very real, because, of course, he's from Indiana, and the school that he was driven out of and the school that he was made welcome in are both Indiana schools. White's mother donated most of the artifacts that make his exhibit so vivid, and she's also a regular visitor and speaker at the museum.

While there are clearly people in Indiana who need to relearn the anti-discrimination, anti-bigotry ethic, as evidenced by the RFRA nonsense that my state is now undergoing, I hope that my kiddos will never be the kind of people who dehumanize another, or who stand by and let it happen.

Here are some of the other resources that we've been using in our Civil Rights studies:

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