Volume:4, Issue: 1

Apr. 1, 2012

Enhancing History Students’ Understandings of Civil Rights: a Comparative Study of Struggles and Movements around the World
Lovorn, Michael G. [about] , Bethany Green [about] , Erica Callahan [about]

DESCRIPTORS: American Civil Rights Movement, human/civil rights history, social studies teachers, history teachers, civic competence, emotionality, global awareness of civil and human rights, group readings, peer discussions, curriculum development.

SYNOPSIS: The project described in the paper intends to enable middle and high school teachers to engage in comparative studies of 20th century human/civil rights history and conflict resolutions around the world. Participants use what they have learned to generate lesson units on these and related topics.

Many middle and high school students in the United States receive only modest exposure to the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s during their academic careers.  Research indicates these students receive even less exposure to similar 20th century social movements, human rights struggles, or related events in other parts of the world (Boersema & Schimmel, 2008; Leung, 2008; Rice, 2008).  For these students, inadequate attention to social history and civil/human rights issues may lead to lacking connections between the American Civil Rights Movement and similar events in other parts of the world such as Ireland, Russia, Cambodia, and Sudan, among others.  Research shows that gaps in students’ understandings of their roles regarding promotion and preservation of human/civil rights for all can lead to diminished empathy for victims of human rights violations (Benson, 2008; Black, 2008; Pass & Campbell, 2007; Flowers, 1998).  This project is intended to enable teachers to experience and engage in a comparative study of 20th century human/civil rights history and conflict resolution, and use what they have learned to generate lessons and units for use by middle and high school history teachers throughout the United States and around the world.

The yearlong project proposes to select between 10 and 15 skilled and talented pre-service and in-service secondary (grades 7-12) history teachers from an application pool.  Participants will be expected to remain active for all phases (3) of the project, which will culminate with the development of a curriculum for teaching human/civil rights and conflict resolution that is consistent with and promotes the United Declaration of Human Rights.  The project will center on a 5-day workshop (Phase 1) to be held at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA.  The workshop will be followed by participants’ travel to sites of historical and educational significance (Phase 2), and curriculum development activities (Phase 3).  Each component of the project is significant to the enterprise of teacher education because research shows that many learn history/social studies best by not only studying, but seeing and doing (Thompson, 2004; Traver, et al, 2007).  The travel component is of particularly groundbreaking significance to the project because it allows participants to immerse themselves in the history they are studying, to hear first-person accounts of events, and draw conclusions based on experience and exhaustive use of the senses.     The program will provide future teachers of middle and high school social studies with effective training for presenting human/civil rights issues in a manner that is deeply engaging, relevant and emotional for students.  Participants in this program will learn how to teach their students to consider their roles in a greater and more global development of ideas such as personal and collective freedom, sacrifice, and social justice.  All activities will be designed around the virtues of persistence, noncooperation, and nonviolence implemented by Jane Addams, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Emily Greene Balch, Dr. Martin L. King, César Chávez, Mother Theresa, Thích Nhat Hanh, Brendan O’Regan, and Anna Politkovskaya, among others. 

The purpose of this project is to develop an intense training workshop and related materials for history teachers to enable them to introduce comparative subject matter related to human/civil rights and conflict resolution in their classrooms, and to develop curricula, resources, and materials for dissemination to teachers throughout the United States and around the world via the World Wide Web.  This project and its products will better enable history teachers to present effective comparative human/civil rights and conflict resolution curricula to students by providing dynamic, relevant, emotional lessons and activities.  By being prompted and enabled to examine human/civil rights through a global lens, participants will learn to frame these and related concepts within various significant events, eras, and movements, to help prevent and resolve violent conflicts, promote post-conflict stability and development, and increase peace-building capacity, tools, and intellectual capital worldwide.  This project will enable social studies teachers to connect their students with populations around the world through a common understanding of civil rights and social justice.  The overall goal of the researchers is to help prepare students for productive, civically competent adult life by enabling them to develop the ability to make informed, reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.  

A Review of the Literature

We are living in an era of unprecedented social and educational globalization, and along with the beneficial opportunities for cultural diffusion, technology, sharing of ideas, and enhanced global communications, comes the unfortunate potential for increased conflict and competition over land rights, access to clean water, and control of natural resources.  As violent conflicts rage on numerous continents and political diatribes between nations point to sustained future clashes, the engagement of students in the effective study of human and civil rights is more necessary than ever, and although teachers of all educational disciplines share responsibilities to promote equity, equality, and collective humanity, social studies teachers play a special role in the development of students’ understandings of human/civil rights, conflict resolution, and good global citizenship.

According to the National Council for the Social Studies, the purpose of social studies education is to promote civic competence by helping young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world (2010).  The study of human and civil rights, as is required by National Social Studies Standards, should enable high school students to develop these abilities and become more caring, understanding, and positively participatory citizens in an interdependent world.  Studies show, however, that many 21st century high school students receive only marginal or cursory exposure to substantive historical examples and critical concepts of human/civil rights and social justice (Boersema & Schimmel, 2008; Leung, 2008; Rice, 2008).  Additionally, many students experience difficulty understanding or relating to the ideas and concepts of human/civil rights and/or do not recognize their roles as citizens of a community of people who value personal liberties and social justice for all (Benson, 2008; Black, 2008; Pass & Campbell, 2007).  In the United States, as in many places around the world, these ideas, concepts, and roles are further clouded during times of war and international conflict.  Collectively, these sources imply that much of the great developmental value of lessons in human/civil rights goes unrealized because too little emphasis is placed on moral decision-making, emotionality, and empathy for those who have been or are being treated unfairly.  What high school students learn about the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, is often limited to a few dry lessons drawn from emotionless history textbooks, and their exposure to in-depth lessons on recent (20th century) civil rights movements in other countries is commonly nonexistent (Spero, 2008; Sorter, 2005; Flowers, 1998).          

The key to effective human/civil rights lessons, according to scholars, is the acquisition of the emotionality and relevance that is often missing from so many approaches (Scarlett, 2009; Dallmer, 2007; Dunn, 2005; Kirman, 2004).  If students can relate to and empathize with those who have endured the struggles and sacrifices of oppression and injustice, the lessons they learn will be more meaningful and lasting (Haynes, 2009; Wilkins, Sheffield, Ford, & Cruz, 2008; Tibbitts, 2006).  It is also important that teachers who are to employ these strategies be well-trained and cognizant of various approaches and materials at their disposal (Lucas, 2009; Alter, 2008; Jennings, 2006).  Considering these findings, it is apparent that the place to begin such intense human/civil rights teacher training is in pre-service and in-service history teaching development programs.

The article Human Rights Education can be Integrated throughout the School Day outlines an approach for taking initial steps for integration of human rights organization.  According to the article, a project of this nature may be introduced by presenters in the following manner: (1) Displaying posters and large visuals on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; (2) designing a tangible project for students to participate and engage in; (3) expanding students’ global awareness of civil and human rights by using special resources such as world maps and other visuals; (4) teaching and modeling conflict resolution; (5) presenting students with primary and secondary sources of related information; (6) using lesson plans expressly created for human rights education, such as those found in The Fourth R, a newsletter published by Amnesty International (for grades 4-12); and (7) reinforcing the school's policy to "reduce, reuse, recycle," involving the children in sorting out materials used in class or other areas (Stomfay-Stitz Wheeler, 2005).  This project will build on this model to create dynamic teacher training, materials, and experiences, and develop original human/civil rights and conflict resolution curriculum to be used in secondary social studies classrooms. 

Project Description and Methods

This project is designed to accommodate between 10 and 15 pre-service middle and high school history pre-service and in-service teachers.  Once the project has been announced, researchers will call an orientation meeting of all interested candidates to describe the workshops, the travel expectations, and curriculum development activities.  This meeting will include an online participation option for distance participants.  Upon completion of the orientation, the application process will begin.  Applications will be accepted by pre-service and in-service history teachers with an interest in teaching human/civil rights history.  Preference will be given to applicants who meet the quality instruction criteria, particularly letters of commendation or similar recognitions for effective teaching.

Over the course of one year, participants will take part in group readings, peer discussions (with pre-service and in-service teachers from around the world), lectures by experts in the field, travel to museums and sites of related historical and educational significance, curriculum development activities, and presentations of findings and project products.  These activities will enable participants to collect, experience, and analyze data, and use what they have learned to generate comprehensive, engaging, interactive, teachable lessons and units on the topics of comparative human/civil rights and conflict resolution.  Participants will begin by reading seminal books on 20th century human/civil rights struggles and movements in Alabama and around the world.  Then participants will begin a five-day seminar made up of an introduction to the project, a discussion on the power of education and the importance of focused and meaningful teaching in this area of study, discourse on the readings, and presentations by experts in the field.  The initial content focus of the seminar will be on comparisons of civil/human rights violations, protests, and movements based on ethnicity, perceptions of race, creed, and religious orientation.  Subsequent foci will make connections to similar issues based on socioeconomic background, gender, and sexual orientation.  Upon completion of the seminar, participants will visit sites of 20th century human/civil rights significance in Alabama, and if possible, in other regions.  Subsequently, participants will work independently and in small groups to investigate other approved human/civil rights struggles and movements, compare and contrast them to events that occurred in Alabama, and collect data for curriculum development phase of the project.  Data, notes, and materials collected throughout the project will be categorized and analyzed for use in the development of a compelling, relevant, emotional collection of lessons, units, and resources for the teaching of comparative human/civil rights and conflict resolution in middle and high school history classrooms.  Participants will be enabled to present lessons as a series in citizenship and history classrooms, and lessons and related materials will be displayed on the project website (civilrights.ua.edu), where website visitors will be encouraged to contribute to the project by posting comments to a Civil Rights blog and lessons/units to the database.  Researchers are exploring other social media (Facebook, wikis, and blogs) as possible outlets for additional information sharing.

Researchers will monitor progress throughout the project with a series of evaluative questions, which are expected to yield information that will lead to reports on the successes and failures of the workshop.  Researchers will craft a manuscript summarizing findings to submit to top-tier research journals in the field of history/social studies education.


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Michael Lovorn – PH.D, Assistant Professor of Social Studies Education, the University of Alabama; Bethany Green – a graduate student, the University of Alabama; Erica Callahan – middle grades school social studies teacher in the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District, Norwalk, California; she is currently pursuing her Masters Degree in Secondary Education from the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA.

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