Integrating History & Social Justice into Today’s Classroom
A History of Revolutionary Children
Little Rock’s Central High School, located in the middle of Arkansas’s capital city, is known for its rigorous academics and high achieving students. The school’s stunning Gothic Revival architecture has earned it the title of “the most beautiful high school in America.” But, Central High School is also distinguished as a National Historic Site because of the school’s important role in the nation’s fight for civil rights and equal education after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling, Brown vs. the Board of Education. The brave efforts of the Little Rock Nine, the first African American students to integrate the school, are still widely known, in part due to Will Counts’ Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalism of Elizabeth Eckford’s harrowing walk through an angry mob as she tried to enter the high school.
The Little Rock Nine (Melba Pattillo Beals, Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Thelma Mothershed, Jefferson Thomas, and Terrence Roberts) were not the only students to participate in the civil rights movement. Historical records show us that youth also participated in the marches from Selma to Montgomery, the sit-ins at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, the wade-ins at Biloxi Beach, the pray-ins in the Birmingham campaign, and the bus rides during the Freedom Summer. Teachers, principals, and students joined lawyers, doctors, railroad workers, beauticians, clergymen, bricklayers, housewives, and people of every background to fight for equal rights.
How might we use this history to empower our students with the knowledge they need to affect positive change in their own communities today?
Connecting with the story of Little Rock Central High
When Little Rock Writing Project (LRWP) director Greg Graham heard in early 2018 that the National Writing Project and the National Park Service were offering mini-grants to support local writing project sites connecting with National Park Service sites in their area, he knew that the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site offered an ideal opportunity for such a connection. With support from the NWP national office, Greg began to form a relationship with the staff at the site.
Greg also knew former LRWP director Heather Hummel (a creative writing professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock) provided a logical link between area teachers and the Little Rock Central High School story. When Heather moved into the Little Rock Central High School neighborhood, she started digging into local archives to learn more about its history. The research turned into poems like “Fact of a Hand-Sewn Child-Sized Klan Robe,” and “Elizabeth Eckford’s Walk Toward Central High School,” both of which were nominated for national prizes. The research also began to change the way she taught creative writing. She worked with her students to curate a digital resource, Black Lives Matter: A Poetry Reader, which featured contemporary poets responding to the Black Lives Matter movement, including work by Rita Dove, Juan Felipe Herrera, Claudia Rankine, and Danez Smith. The next semester, it served as the textbook for her course on the poetry of protest.
Greg and Heather met one day to discuss possibilities. While sharing a plate of steaming dumplings, they got fired up by the idea of bringing teachers to Central High School to learn more about the stories of the Little Rock Nine, and plan out ways to infuse their classrooms with more deliberate action around social justice issues. The story of the Central High School desegregation crisis provides our local teachers and students with a profoundly important narrative for how students have changed–and can continue to change–the world for the better.
Greg and Heather knew many teachers were thinking, like they were, about how to bring social justice issues into the classroom. However, they also discovered that many local teachers hadn’t visited the Central High School National Historic Site, or considered using it as a teaching resource. They wanted to change that. As a result, they arranged a day for teachers to gather at the Central High School National Park Museum to map out individual plans for integrating a social justice unit into their curriculum for the following year. The workshop was open to all teachers in the area who wanted to develop a plan for integrating social justice into their teaching. As part of the day, participants explored the Central High School civil rights museum, toured the Central High School Historic Site, and heard the captivating storyteller and park ranger, Randy Dodson, tell the story of the desegregation crisis.
We All Have Skin in the Game
In the Central High School museum, there is a quote by the Little Rock Nine student, Melba Pattillo Beals, who said, “Each morning, I polished my saddle shoes and went to war.” It is a heartbreakingly powerful image: a girl polishing her shoes the way a soldier might polish his boots. If we can learn the history so that we can tell it in a way that we embody it, our students will feel it, and understand it, in a much more personal way. Artifacts like Elizabeth Eckford’s photograph, or bits of dialogue like Melba Pattillo Beals’ statement about her saddle shoes, translate history into a multidimensional story. Resources like the Central High School National Historic Site make this research fairly easy, and online archives, like the Will Counts Photography Archive, can provide a wealth of documentary materials.
The trick is that the artifacts should feel tangible. An object that you might hold in your hand, or a photograph you find in your grandmother’s attic, for instance. A single line of dialog that wakes you up. If the artifact is too unwieldy, or too abstract, it’s too hard to hold onto. You want to look for artifacts that make history feel close for a moment, and become something personal.
If students take those artifacts and build something with the information they have learned, it will clarify those possibilities even more. Students might work together to create a Tiki Toki Timeline, or develop a self-guided historic tour of a neighborhood, like the Arkansas Civil Rights History Mobile App, or even a creative project like a video poem–perhaps one inspired by Cortney Lamar Charleston’s “How Do You Raise a Black Child?” Ideally, the learning projects do double the work if they can be shared in some way with others, displayed in the community, or made evergreen so that future students can add to it.
In The Activist Learner: Inquiry, Literacy, and Service to Make Learning Matter, Wilhelm, Douglas, and Fry suggest, “They (the students) need to recognize that the issue framed in the existential question is something socially significant and that they personally have ‘skin in the game.’ This means not only knowing that they are affected by the issue, but also knowing they can participate in better understanding and addressing the issue.” A concrete learning experience like our visit to Central High School can remind us that we have skin in the game, and it can create a bridge to possibility. And that makes the work of the change-makers become real–for the students and for the writing they produce. Then, collectively, we might begin to wonder and challenge ourselves: What other possibilities can we imagine?
During our time working together, the teachers came to the conclusion that learning about social justice was ultimately connected to learning about respect. Learning about respect is equalizing. It can also clear a pathway for better outcomes. In The Reckonings, an essay collection on justice, Lacy M. Johnson reflects, “Someone once told me that his grandmother told him that an injustice is anything that gets between a person and their joy. I don’t know if that covers all of what an injustice is, but I like the idea that justice is anything that makes way for joy, that makes the condition of joy a possibility again.”
The question is, how do you teach respect in the classroom? This was the question we asked the teachers at the end of the day. In order to puzzle it out, each of us wrote for a while, trying to define respect for ourselves. Then we shared our definitions, and worked together to build a collective credo. “Respect is ground zero, the starting place, the jumping off point,” the credo declares, “Respect is a verb. Respect is recognizing we are all human and we all have a story.” (You can read the entire credo and writing prompt below). Each participant left the workshop with a curriculum plan and a small stipend to purchase educational materials from the museum bookstore.
We also left feeling inspired. Emily Hester, an eighth grade English/Literacy facilitator reflected on the day and said, “It gave me the fresh ideas and perspectives that I need to push through and make these final months of the school year meaningful.” We agree. At the end of the day, we had found our call to action, and we all felt hungry to hear more of those stories. Mixing history and storytelling leads us toward meaningfully engaged learning and writing, and it provides a way to put the social justice teaching model into action: together, teachers and students want to search for ways to repair what is broken and make way for better.
Written by Greg Graham and Heather K. Hummel, Little Rock Writing Project