I’m a white guy who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, during the Civil Rights era. I remember “Coloreds Only” signs over water fountains, restrooms, and waiting rooms. I remember segregated schools. I remember one day per week (Wednesdays) dedicated to “Coloreds Only” at the local amusement park. I remember the fear and violence: Selma’s Bloody Sunday, fire hoses mowing down black children in the park, murderous Klan bombings. I wasn’t quite ten years old, but it’s all knifed forever in my memory.
Now, more than half a century later, I teach eighth grade at a racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse middle school in a Birmingham suburb. Every year I take my students on a field trip to Birmingham’s Civil Rights District where they tour Kelly Ingram Park, site of the infamous high-pressure firehoses and gnarling police dogs; 16th Street Baptist Church, where four girls died at the hands of a Klan-planted bomb; and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute where a variety of exhibits are meant to weave meaning and context into what can seem an insane chapter of American history.
When we first started these field trips, I got a huge rush out of bringing a racially diverse group of young people to Ground Zero of the very movement that made our very diverse school possible. At first, my ego ballooned every time a student exclaimed, “Wow, Mr. Stephens, you actually remember this stuff!”
But within a couple of years, this wore off. Reading my students’ post-field-trip essays, I saw that they might as well have been about the conquests of Alexander the Great. The Civil Rights movement was for my students—even my students of color—a distant tiny island in the vast sea of history. It simply did not engage them.
At first I chastised their insensitivity to the sacrifices of life and blood that had made possible our diverse classroom and our friendships across racial and ethnic borders. “You have NO appreciation,” I bellowed, “for what those marchers and activists gave up for YOU!” An African-American girl rolled her eyes and said, “Mr. Stephens, you sound just like my grandmamma!”
In time I calmed down and admitted I was expecting too much from my students. After all, these are kids who can’t imagine a planet without smartphones.
Then I remembered a mostly ignored admonition from one of America’s greatest teachers—John Dewey. Teachers must not, he said, start “with ready-made subject matter…irrespective of [the student’s] direct personal experience of a situation.” [Democracy and Education, 1916; p.90 ]. In other words, Dewey believed that ALL teaching should meet students in the midst of their own experience rather than that of the teacher (or textbook).
I saw now the futility in my expecting students to engage the Civil Rights movement in the same intensity with which I engage it. I had failed to notice that, while the movement was a direct experience for me, it wasn’t really an experience at all for the kids in my classes. Still, I argued with myself, the movement is important to the lives of these kids. And they should know this!
Then John Dewey’s voice whispered to me from across a century, “Why don’t you help your students learn that importance by identifying their movement.” Dewey was telling me this: History—no matter which part of it—is absolutely worthless unless it offers practical advice to present experience.
So this year I changed my approach. About three weeks before the field trip, I started class discussions with this little monologue:
Every generation is born into a world that is shaped by the generations that came before it. And eventually the new generation starts to stand on their own little feet. They look around and say, “Okay, some of this stuff is cool. I like it. Good job, old folks!” But then the new generation begins to notice others things, and says, “Wait! What? Look at that over there. That’s not cool. That needs to be changed.” And almost always, the older generations say, “Shut up. It is what it is. We made it, so you’re going to like it!” But the younger generation says, “You’re not the boss of me! You can’t make me like it.” And then the struggle begins.
Now, you, my friends are that younger generation. You’ve come into a world pretty much shaped by old folks like me. Tell me what you like and dislike about the world you’ve inherited.
Well, I learned that they’re big fans of technology—PlayStations, Xboxes, iPhones. Plus, they love the oldsters’ creation of Marvel and DC superheroes. And great job, old folks, on multi-function hand-held calculators. Also, hip-hop is a nice achievement.
After a while, I jumped back into the conversation:
Okay, now I want you to look around and talk about what you don’t like about this world you inherited. I want you to focus especially on injustice. I want you to think about those kids we read about in the 1963 Children’s March for Freedom. They weren’t completely different from you. There was stuff from the older generations that they liked—televisions, soul music, portable record-players [I had to explain that term], air-conditioning, etc. But then they started noticing the segregation, the racism, how they wouldn’t get the same chance as white kids, and they said, “This is an injustice. We don’t like this. We want to change this!”
So look around you now. What do you not like? What do you want to change in order to make the world a better, fairer place?
At first, students spoke in general terms of topics you might find on a news site editorial page: racism, sexism, gender bias, climate change, etc. In time, though, their sense of injustice began to migrate from “out there” to “right here” in the school building.
The dress code is extreme, they said, and biased against females. LGBTQ students are ostracized and bullied. Some recounted perceptions of latent racism in the school. Eventually, they discussed the oppressive nature of present-day schooling, using terms like “prison” to describe their daily routine. “Teachers almost never ask us what we are interested in,” said one, “never what we want to learn.” “True that!” said another, “it’s just a one-way conversation!” Several complained of having absolutely no downtime during their 7-plus hours at school. I suggested lunch as free time, and got this: “You tell us where to sit! And you’re watching us the whole time! That’s not free time!”
In the following days, I challenged my students to choose one injustice from the several they had mentioned. I let them work in groups to gather information on their chosen injustices.
As they did this, we discussed the Birmingham Children’s marches of 1963, noting that the participants were kids, many of whom were the ages of my students—some even younger—who had no official power: no vote, no voice, no money. And yet they changed the world. How did they do it?
This was the question my students would carry with them on the field trip. They would search the Civil Rights movement, asking this question and looking for patterns, plans, and strategies that would allow an initially powerless group of people—like my students themselves—to address and overcome injustice.
Following the field trip, my students morphed quickly into outraged activists. They saw similarities between the voiceless, powerless, predicament of African-American students of 50-plus years ago and their own sense of voicelessness and powerlessness in our school today. “Teachers and administrators really don’t treat us with respect. They treat us like punks who are guilty until proven innocent!”
I got nervous and went on the defensive, trying to convince them that the plight of black students in the 1960s was much worse than their own. They agreed with that, but they didn’t agree that they weren’t also deprived of certain rights and privileges: “Why is there absolutely no free time?” “Why can’t we choose what we want to learn about instead of having to learn only what the teacher cares about?”
I tried to explain gently that they were just fourteen years old and that maybe they weren’t ready to choose.
“Mr. Stephens, you’re sounding like Bull Connor.”
Then a student suggested a walk-out: “Look, there’s what…a thousand of us students here? And how many faculty? Not even a hundred. We could come up with some demands, tell the administration and faculty, and, if they say no, we can walk out. Are they gonna put a thousand of us in I.S.S. or detention? They don’t have enough jail space!”
Oh my God, I thought, what am I doing?
And John Dewey’s voice returned to me, “Here’s what you’re doing: you’re leading these kids to the real meaning of the Civil Rights movement: removing injustices of the status quo. They’ve found a lesson in history and now they’re bringing it to the present!”
Yes, Professor Dewey, but what about my job? I’m not sure tenure will protect me against the charge of fomenting an insurrection.
Graciously for my employment, all of this happened at the very end of the school year. A single week didn’t provide enough time for students to organize a walkout. So now, these young people are headed to high school. And in their eyes I see the fire of activism kindling in their hearts.
Should I warn the high school?