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Teaching World-Changers: A Lesson From the Civil Rights Movement

By Stephen Lazar — January 10, 2012 7 min read

As I completed my first semester of student teaching, my cooperating teacher recommended a book that would change my career and life. Myles Horton’s The Long Haul tells the story of a lifelong devotion to education and true democracy, and it showed me just how powerful teachers can be. It introduced me to an African-American woman named Bernice Robinson, a Charleston beautician who, in 1957, was the first teacher in what was eventually known as the Citizenship School. I was fascinated by Robinson’s work—and later, as a graduate student of the late scholar Manning Marable, devoted the better part of the year to learning more.

According to Horton, Civil Rights Movement leader Andrew Young referred to the Citizenship Education Program as the basis of the movement. Under the guidance and leadership of her aunt, Septima Clark, Bernice Robinson began the program with 14 students on Jones Island, S.C. Eventually, the CEP reached as many as 50,000 students in Citizenship Schools throughout the South and later became the largest program of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

In an era when many African-Americans were required to take “literacy tests” to vote, the CEP helped tens of thousands of illiterate adult students become literate voters. Meanwhile, the CEP simultaneously developed its teachers into respected grassroots leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in their home communities. The schools pushed against the dehumanization of segregation, transforming its students into agents for social justice.

As teachers and leaders, we can learn many powerful lessons from Clark and Robinson’s work at the first Citizenship School.

Understanding the Purpose of Our Work

The primary goal of the CEP was to teach and develop first-class citizens. And every aspect of the program was grounded in this goal—from teacher training sessions to day-to-day practices to the rhetoric of staff correspondence. Dozens of adult literacy programs had targeted African-Americans in the South—but none were as successful as the CEP, because too many narrowly focused on the skill of literacy, rather than its application in citizenship.

In my opinion, we have made a similar mistake with skill-based competency testing under No Child Left Behind. A curriculum and testing regimen that only focuses on skill development outside of meaningful and relevant application cannot prepare students and communities for 21st-century success. I hope that with the implementation of the Common Core standards, we will not make the same mistake again. As teachers, we need to develop a clear sense of our own purpose—and make every effort to ensure that how we teach each day aligns with that purpose.

Making Instruction Meaningful

The original Citizenship School started with an immediate goal and an end goal. The immediate goal was to enable adult students to register to vote. In order to do this, students needed to be able to read a section of the South Carolina Constitution and to sign their name to the application. The broader end goal was to teach the students how to read and write, empowering them to make positive changes in their lives and community.

Robinson recognized that, to remain committed to the program, she would need to make sure students could apply their learning to their daily lives. That’s why she asked students what they most wanted to learn—and changed the program accordingly. For example, the curriculum expanded to address the use of money orders, catalogue order forms, and basic arithmetic. This allowed students to learn in an authentic manner—mastering skills through experiences that applied to their lives—and ultimately led to the success of the program. Robinson’s pedagogical approach developed literacy and numeracy skills, but also enhanced students’ sense of self-worth by acknowledging their lived experiences and leadership capabilities.

As teachers, we need to think about the short- and long-term challenges students face in their lives. And I don’t just mean a narrow set of “college and career readiness” skills. My concern is broader—about the life skills students need to be successful as citizens, consumers, and community members.

When I teach senior government and economics, I keep in mind the immediate problems my students will face: Who should I vote for? How can I make sense of the overwhelming amount of conflicting information in the media? How can I create a thoughtful budget and savings plan for myself at 18, 22, and 30 years old?

The first unit in my economics course is an inquiry-based unit in which students create these budget plans. They figure out what they need to know at each of these stages of life by talking to people around them. They learn about college loans and interest, entry-level salaries, and responsible investing plans. The final product is a budget plan for each age and an investment plan for age 30. This kind of unit grounds students’ learning in reality, highlighting the relevance of the course to their lives.

And—just as Robinson gave students the opportunity to share what they most wanted to learn—we need to ask our students what questions they have about the world, and help them learn how to answer those questions for themselves. I have found much success using the Question Formulation Technique, which I recently used to help students ask questions about the use of violence on Black Friday and at Occupy Wall Street Protests.

Ensuring Assessments Are Authentic

The CEP’s assessments of student learning reveal a great deal about the program’s goals and values. For example, Carl Tjerandsen writes in Citizenship for Education about the questionnaires that Citizenship School teachers sent to students six months after the course of study ended. The questionnaires asked questions like: Did you register to vote? If not, was literacy the problem? If registered, did you vote? Did you vote a straight ticket or try to choose the individuals you wanted to vote for? Did you convince others to vote? If so, how many? How did you get them to vote? What other civic action have you participated in (signing petitions, attending community meetings, serving on committees)? Such questions demonstrate the CEP’s dual emphasis on literacy and civic participation—and the answers helped the CEP to fine-tune its approach.

As teachers, we can only really know what our students understand and can do when we give them opportunities to apply their knowledge and skills in authentic situations.

For the final project in my government course, students identify something in their world that they want to change. Their ideas range from revising our school’s dress code to altering U.S. policy on AIDS in Africa. Students research the issue, and create a concrete plan for pursuing change. This final project generates enthusiasm among students—and also gives me much more information about their learning than I could gain from a right or wrong answer to a question on a test.

Keeping the Focus on Creation, Not Reproduction

Bernice Robinson and Septima Clark recognized the power of education to enhance their students’ daily lives—and to create a community of citizens ready to change society in lasting ways. Clark and Robinson empowered their students to enter (and transform) a world that was trying to keep them out. Beyond their commitment to democracy and equality, they did not have a clear conception in mind of the world their students would create. They trusted the students to undertake something new and unforeseen.

With new advances in technology and radical shifts underway in geopolitics, it may be impossible to know what our students will need to know and be able to do in their adult lives. We cannot merely prepare students for the careers and conditions that exist now. Instead, we must ask (and trust) our students to imagine a better world than the one we will hand over to them.

As a social studies teacher, I ask my students again and again, “How could this be better?” or “How could history have been different?” In doing so—and in affirming the value of students’ perspectives—I help them to see the world not only as it is, but as it could be.

Bernice Robinson and Septima Clark offer an inspiring example of how education really can make a difference in students’ lives—and in the world. The Citizenship Education Program they launched helped tens of thousands of disenfranchised African-Americans to take an active role in transforming society. Similarly, as teachers, we can commit ourselves to meaningful, relevant instruction that gives students opportunities to imagine (and take steps toward achieving) their hopes for our world.


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