Bringing the American Civil Rights Momvement to Life

The Civil Rights Movement is not a subject to be taken lightly, but as a team of three students we faced the task of teaching children aged six to nine about topics that are highly disturbing and difficult to comprehend.

Our day began when a herd of primary school pupils came through the double doors of our Great Hall. This intimidating advance of young people kicked our team into gear and our first activity started immediately: it was jigsaw time. We were aiming to capture their attention instantly, so along with their teachers and our staff members, we prompted them to start fitting their pieces together. The competitiveness of the children became apparent as the eight or nine students joined their tables, and they were all eager to finish their jigsaw first. These jigsaw pieces were, in fact, the American states and the participants were tasked with fitting the pieces together to create a replica of the USA. This quick and fun activity included all the students, and even some of the teachers. All in all, a great start to the day and a successful attempt at inspiring them to think about America.

As a team of three second-year students, we each carefully chose a topic and pre-planned activities to entertain and teach the students. All our topics were focussed on the emotions and inequality issues that were derived from the oppression and racism faced by the Black Community between 1954 and 1968. Our main objective was to bring to life the issues and promote self-thinking among the young students into understanding the impact of the movement.

Our second activity brought the effects of racism and reasoning behind the Civil Rights Movement to life. With the students split in half, one group wore blue stickers and the other half wore red stickers. While one group faced no limitations and could play with all the toys provided, the other group was made to sit with their legs and arms crossed in silence, watching their friends play. This activity made the students gauge the feeling of restriction that was so common among African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, and the different coloured stickers represented the racial segregation. After this activity was completed I prompted a discussion with the students asking them “How did you feel sitting silently, watching your friends play?” The most common answers mirrored the basic feelings of the Black community: ‘unhappy’ and ‘unfair’.

Utilising a ‘carousel’ technique for our next three activities, the smaller groups provided a manageable learning environment and enabled us to work closer with the student and evoke involvement from everyone and encourage them to think further. Primarily, we prompted a discussion with the students by showing them a video clip of Martin Luther King leading the Selma marches and giving a speech, thanking those who supported their fight for equality. We asked the students: “How did it make you feel watching the group of people marching together?”, and they responded with words such as, ‘unfair’, ‘mean’ and ‘hurt’. Following on from these answers, our separate activities took place where each of us worked closely with ten students at a time giving them an insight to our focus of the Civil Rights Movement, but at the same time making it fun and relatable to ensure student’s achieved a greater understanding.

My activity focused on the Selma marches in Alabama and the protest speeches, for example, Martin Luther King. I showed the students original footage of the Selma marches and then also used a clip from the musical Hairspray, and asked them to look carefully at the people and posters in the crowds, how it made them feel and what they thought the reasons behind the marches were. After reviewing their answers to these questions, I split the students into groups of four and asked them to create a freeze frame, based on the clips they had seen, to resemble which action stood out to them as the most expressive manner of the Civil Rights movement. This activity really ‘brought the Civil Rights Movement to life’ as it enabled the children to openly express their own views on the subject. To further this effect, I asked the groups to explain the reasons behind their freeze frame and why they chose to reflect that moment from the examples of the marches. My favourite part of this exercise was listening to these explanations and seeing the children start to understand the harsh realities that the members of the African American community had to deal with.

The two other members of the team carried out different activities: creation of protest banners and the discussion of oppressive actions. Lauren’s activity included a metaphorical “wall building” exercise which used Duplo Lego to build President Trump’s proposed wall along the US and Mexico border. Lauren stated that ‘The pupils were very knowledgeable about the current political scenes in the United States and knew why Trump wanted to build the wall and often had convincing arguments as to why they thought it would be a “bad” idea to have a wall built between the two borders. Pupils would often come up with answers such as: “he wants to keep immigrants out”, and most students agreed the wall would have a negative impact on the United States which therefore followed with knocking down the “metaphorical wall” as an end to the activity.’ The positivity expressed by these students proved their enjoyment and involvement with our activities. Furthermore, Emily found that when the students were creating their protest banners, it was easier to compare ‘the experiences of Americans during segregation to being separated in their school environment as they were able to understand the unfairness of people being segregated and many of them used words such as 'sad' 'unfair' and 'angry' to describe their experiences being left out of an enjoyable activity without being given a reason for this exclusion.’ The children were engaged and seemed to enjoy creating their own protest banners and they came up with many good slogans calling for them to be allowed to be friends with whomever they wanted.

Overall, the team and I agreed it was an enjoyable experience and that it was so wonderful to see the excitement and involvement of children around such a difficult topic. They successfully managed to throw themselves into every activity we provided them and aided our task of ‘bring the Civil Right Movement to life’.

Image credit: National Park Service.                                    [] 

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Eleanor SergeantComment