Mississippi mandates civil rights classes in schools
All students will study the nation's racial troubles and progress in US history courses.
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Mr. Spears says the new curriculum is being taught this year in 10 pilot programs. Teacher workshops begin this month, taught by the state Department of Education in conjunction with the Fannie Lou Hamer National Institute on Citizenship and Democracy at Jackson State University, Teaching for Change in Washington, and the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi.Skip to next paragraph
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Mandating the new curriculum was the only way to ensure it would be taught, says Spears. It's not that teachers haven't wanted to teach civil rights, though he admits that's probably the case in some places. It's more a symptom of a nationwide problem, an educational stricture some say is an unwelcome byproduct of the No Child Left Behind Act: Teaching to the test. As the stakes become higher, the curriculum narrows.
In some schools, Spears says, there's such intense pressure to rectify faltering math and reading scores that everything else is "pretty much ignored."
But how do you chart such relatively new territory in a state where the history is still so fresh?
WHEN EDUCATORS BEGAN ASKING these questions, they sought inspiration in the McComb High School classroom of teacher Vickie Malone. Three years ago, when she began teaching "Local Cultures" as an elective to seniors, she had no idea what the course would become. She just wanted her students to hear all the voices of history, both black and white, taught in an open way that promoted understanding, not fear.
"I wanted them to understand choices, and how profoundly they can affect the rest of your life," Ms. Malone says. "A lot of kids today are just numbed out, but back then, the kids were the movers and the shakers."
(Indeed, in 1961, 300 students walked out of Burglund High School to the McComb City Hall in support of voting rights – 116 of them were jailed.)
It's painful, this exploration of history, but then, nothing has been easy since Malone developed the class. Because it's new, and not a critical course like math or reading, it's often left off the master schedule by accident, forcing her to recruit students. Even then, it's not a quick sell. They don't need it for a diploma. It won't get them into college.
The class is fashioned more like a college seminar than a high school elective. There are no rigid rows of desks, multiple-choice tests, or rote memorization. Instead, students gather at a table to talk about issues that even their grandparents and parents – some of whom were participants on both sides of the civil rights battles – may have difficulty discussing.
In one class last month, they examined dual perspectives, and each student wrote a poem from two angles, examining life through the eyes of another. There were the expected combinations: Popular/unpopular, rich/poor, white/black. But there were surprises as well, and as they read their work to their peers, there was occasional muffled admiration.