Every year I have at least one student who tells me that social studies is irrelevant. After all, I sometimes hear, it's all in the past. While I can easily argue how the world of today is shaped by past events, the most powerful way I've found to link the past to the present is when the students make the connections. I like to use civil rights as the focus for these connections early in the year, and for those worrying about standards, civil rights lands smack dab in the middle of civics.
The beauty of teaching the civil rights is that it absolutely makes "history" relevant. Here's why:
- Civil rights easily ties into U.S. or World History. We often think of civil rights in terms of the American movement with such figures as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, but civil rights examples are global (Ghandi,for example, who first fought for equal rights in Africa).
- Civil rights are relevant. Many world events today such as the Black Lives Matter movement and Malala's fight for girls' education are examples of modern-day civil rights. I start with current events and then challenge students to search for examples from the past of movements on similar issues.
- Many students are living examples of civil rights issues. Brown v. Board of Education and the Little Rock Nine are early examples of the push in the United States to desegregate schools. Yet, today, many schools are more segregated than the days that preceded Brown v. Board of Education. Students can see it in looking at the diversity or lack of diversity within their own neighborhoods and schools. We compare data from schools (lots of good stuff from the Civil Rights Project) to illustrate the point.
- Civil rights' topics are ideal for understanding and analyzing global issues. We bring in lots of current events related to civil rights issues across the globe. Students become experts in the background leading to those events and hypothesize alternative scenarios.
- Civil rights activities are an opportunity to exercise student voices. Student voices are strong! Studying civil rights issues from current and past times ignite opportunities for students to express their opinions about the world around them (and often, to be heard!)