Whitman Teaches the Movement -- Your Campus Can Too!

For months we've been watching students on campuses across the country demand inclusion and racial equality. In a short time, students at Whitman College will do something about it, by learning and teaching about earlier struggles for justice in America and how those campaigns inform the way we think about our country in 2016.

This February, my campus will kick off our fifth year of Whitman Teaches The Movement. For two very busy weeks, many of our undergraduates will teach lessons about key moments in America's struggle for justice to nearly 1000 1st, 2nd, 5th, 7th, 9th and 11th grade students in our local schools.

We developed this project in 2011 with the Walla Walla Public School District and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) after reading a devastating report the SPLC published showing that nearly all US states were failing to require their students to learn about the Civil Rights Movement beyond "Dr. King had a Dream" and "Rosa was tired."

We knew that our community could do better to educate our young people about our nation's story. In the five years since we created Whitman Teaches The Movement we have done just that.

Each year, our amazing trainer from the SPLC, Kate Shuster flies to Walla Walla from Montgomery, Alabama to prepare our student volunteers to present to the different grade levels in ways that are age appropriate and also highly engaging.

The lessons we use all combine an understanding of history with questions about how history informs our analysis of contemporary social issues in our communities.

Our strong partnership has allowed this initiative to be a win-win for both our local youth as well as our own students, nearly all of who come from states that received an "F" in the SPLC's original report.

Everyone involved learns about powerful and inspiring moments when Americans stood up for each other to assert their rights to dignity and equality. Students, younger and older, gain confidence that working together they can make a positive change in their society.

Our undergraduates conclude their participation in this effort by spending time with a Whitman graduate who has a personal connection to the Civil Rights Movement so they can hear how that experience has resonated through the graduate's personal and professional life.

As an additional feature, our local schools see this initiative as a way to deal with the unfortunate occasional acts of racism and anti-Semitism that may occur on their grounds.

Whitman Teaches The Movement offers many different kinds of value to many different constituents. Recognizing this, our two student interns this year were recently invited to share the program at the Impact National Conference on community service, service-learning, and civic engagement in February.

For college campuses that want to try teaching the Movement, there are many amazing resources to draw on. Our lessons are available here.

Another powerful resource is Beyond the Bus, a booklet that SPLC issued in time for the 60th anniversary of Rosa Parks' arrest and the beginning of the bus boycott. This synthesizes many of the best practices related to effective teaching of the movement and applies it to a particular situation.

One of the many compelling aspects about the Teaching The Movement initiative is that it allows colleges to develop new models based on local issues and context.

In January 2014 we hosted colleagues from a dozen campuses in the Northwest to invite them to experiment with this project and since then have seen wonderful innovation with the model and also witnessed compelling outcomes.

We have cheered Seattle University, the University of Washington, and Whitworth University as they have all adapted this idea for their students and cities across our state.

We love watching this innovation, as do others. In April, the Inland Northwest Service Learning Partnership conference attendees will be able to learn more and share about how schools are teaching the Movement throughout the region.

Equally exciting this semester at Seattle University are two conferences mixing academic expertise with practical teaching advice, including a compelling one next week on Teaching Voting Rights.

We have even adjusted our own program from its first year, adding a new lesson about Cesar Chavez that local teachers told us would resonate with the high percentage of Latino students in our local district (they were right).

Taken together, this initiative is bringing new people and places to focus on the important lessons of the Civil Rights Movement and encouraging teachers to integrate instruction across grade levels and throughout the year - not just around "heroes and holidays."

Of course, teaching the Movement is important, but it's not enough. Maureen Costello, Director of Teaching Tolerance, recently told me:

We really need to rethink how we introduce students to the history and legacy of race in this country. From what we've seen in the last year or two the poor quality of instruction around the Civil Rights Moment is perhaps even more true about the history and nature of slavery, about systems of racial control, and about the ways resistance have been expressed and experienced throughout our history.

So, as we reflect on the challenges that Dr. King raised in his time that continue to inspire and challenge young people in our own day, we can take steps to provide our students, and our future students, with a more expansive appreciation for social justice struggles in the past so that they can learn lessons from them to use to address the issues facing them, and us, today.

We invite you to Teach The Movement on your campus and in your community!