Teaching the American Civil Rights Movement
by Brooke Machado, May 2020
The Civil Rights Movement transformed life in the United States, enveloping some of the most defining years in American history. I have continuously embedded some form of instruction on Civil Rights in my adult education classes since my first job teaching ESOL at night school in Dorchester.
I created the “America’s Civil Rights Movement” instructional unit, with some sample lesson plans, from a compilation of what has worked best for my students over the past 20 years. The material can be taught in its entirety or in parts coupled with other history- or civics-based lessons.
Why teach America’s Civil Rights Movement?
America’s Civil Rights Movement is a worthy subject to teach for numerous reasons. Students have a natural interest in the topic so are drawn to it. Most, regardless of where they are from, have basic knowledge of some of the era’s most important players and key events, and they are often hungry to know more.
This semester, I kicked off by asking students what they want to learn. One student shared that while she knows who Dr. King is, and his famous speech, she wanted to gain a deeper knowledge of why he gave the speech, and what was happening in the country before and after it. In my experience, this type of close questioning and discovery of new knowledge often drives students throughout the unit.
Additionally, students have the opportunity to discover what is lesser known, sadly in part because it is lesser taught. My students say, year after year, that during their time in school, they were not taught important Civil Rights topics. I once read a statistic that only some 2% of high school students are familiar with Brown v. Board of Education, for example. Many of the texts encountered in Civil Rights teaching expose students to the lesser known change-makers and events that have changed the country.
The students respond
My students have proclaimed liking this topic more than others we cover about history all year (that’s fine by me, no offense taken!). Observably, students are energized throughout the learning, often sharing the knowledge they acquire with their loved ones and beyond. When I have asked, “What do you want to remember about the American Civil Rights Movement?” here are some of my students' responses:
Recommendations for use with STAR
If you teach a STAR class (for adult learners who read at GLE 4.0–8.9), you can incorporate the Civil Rights Movement as the topic through which to teach and practice the essential components of reading—alphabetics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
Teachers can modify the unit plan or lesson plans to accommodate the needs of their students or to better work among other existing constraints. Activities like the brainstorm, timeline, and conversation mingle work well as stand-alone activities or can be added to an existing Civil Rights unit that instructors teach. The poster project could be modified to incorporate technology by creating a short slide presentation, or by designing as a one-pager that gets published in a class book.
For teaching in the pandemic era, I am exploring ways the activities and materials could be adapted to teach remotely or in a hybrid model so that students can continue to grow by connecting previous knowledge with new knowledge and concepts they learn.
by Christina Cronin and Maura McCabe, STAR teachers at the Abisi Adult Education program in Lowell, MA
When we first found out that it was time for our school to adopt the STAR model, and that we would have to attend several training days over several months, we were a bit overwhelmed, honestly. Once the training was complete, we had to figure out just how to implement STAR into our program. While we knew it would take extensive planning on our parts, our director was on board with building planning time into our schedules to allow us to create and build thematic STAR units. One thing we knew for sure was that our lower level learners really enjoyed learning about science and history blended into their reading and writing instruction. This one bit of consistent feedback from them, over several years, served as a springboard for our STAR planning.
In the Beginning
When our students begin, they each receive an orientation, during which they learn about the rules and regulations at Abisi Adult Education, and about the STAR program. Each student is given a binder to keep all of their STAR materials organized. This binder is kept at school. In the binder, students are given a handout that explains the four components of STAR (Phonics/Alphabetics, Vocabulary, Fluency and Comprehension). The binder also includes their personalized schedule, a Knowledge Rating Scale, and a Vocabulary Quadrant.
Creating Curriculum—the Content
When creating the curriculum, we generally begin by choosing a topic for the unit and then looking at a calendar to see how many weeks we have before our next start date for students. Our program manages enrollment with new students starting classes every 6 or 7 weeks. Once we know how many weeks we have for a unit, we then begin planning it out in a logical sequence, deciding the main concepts and topics to focus on.
One such planning calendar is shown here. Please note that it's a draft, a rough copy for planning, and may therefore include grammatical mistakes!
Creating Curriculum—STAR Planning
When we have decided upon concepts and topics, we then begin to create materials to be used for each week. We typically take the time to comb through all of our book resources and flag and copy anything relating to the topics we’ve laid out on our planning calendar. We are fortunate enough to have purchased many resources through our school budget, but we also utilize and print a lot of articles from many online resources.
Setting up the Space and Materials
We have color-coded the 4 components of reading in an effort to minimize stress and help keep students (and staff) organized: Alphabetics/Phonics is green, Fluency is purple, Vocabulary is yellow, and Comprehension is blue. We find that photocopying materials for each component on colored paper helps the management of class time.
Increasing student’s vocabulary knowledge is a key component of STAR, so we also like to post our vocabulary words each week. Since we have 2 different groups for Vocabulary who meet in different rooms, we have a vocabulary board in each room, with the words appropriate to the group that meets there.
We encourage students to refer to the words on their wall and to try to use them as much as possible! Once introduced, students make their own sentences with their vocabulary words, and we encourage students to use them in the context of our unit themes. During vocabulary review weeks, students have the opportunity to create crossword puzzles on computers for their peers to practice with.
In an effort to create independent learners, we have also set up a station for students to use. The student station includes extra copies of the Knowledge Rating Scale, Vocabulary quadrants, and Vocabulary sentence sheets, as well as various Comprehension and Alphabetics templates. The station is designed so that as the year progresses, students can take templates as they run out.
The student station is shown here, with student binders and color-coded strategy templates for each of the four components.
Is it worth it?
Although STAR takes a lot of pre-planning, we are fortunate to have our director’s support for building in adequate planning time and ordering necessary materials. We feel that color-coding and organizing some of the key STAR elements has greatly improved our efficiency and our student’s comfort with this reading program.
The feedback we have received from our students has been very positive, and they have shown great improvements through STAR! In last year’s class of 15, we post-tested 12 (3 left the program). 11 out of these 12 students showed improved scores, and 6 of those 11 made Measurable Skills Gains. We also recently found out that four of our former STAR students are now enrolled at Middlesex Community College.
Yes, it is!
Giving Students Experience with the Statistical Cycle
I recently had the opportunity to work with a class in which I taught the math, ELA, science, and social studies content. I decided to invest a lot of energy early on talking about statistics and data, in hopes that this would lay a foundation for later work in social studies and science.
Frequently, math instruction in statistics focuses only on data analysis—that is, reading and creating graphs and learning how to calculate measures of central tendency, such as mean, median, and mode. While these are certainly important, the scope needs to be much broader to help students become truly “statistically literate.”
I started the unit by exploring the statistical cycle in its entirety: posing a question, deciding on and executing a plan to collect data, analyzing the data, and finally reflecting on the results to see if they do, in fact, answer the question, and with what degree of confidence.
We undertook our own survey project in which students designed a survey to collect data that they felt would be useful for the staff of our adult education program. They debated different wordings of questions and discussed the best way to distribute and collect the surveys.
After the surveys were collected, groups of students discussed ways to tabulate the data (while I encouraged them to come to a consensus about how they would deal with irregular or unexpected responses). They then created several types of graphs and compared what impact each type of graph had on the impression the viewer had of the data. Finally, they had to decide to what extent they had answered the original question.
In many cases, they found that their original wording did not quite give them the answers they wanted (piloting questions first can be helpful in understanding how they will be interpreted!), or that they may have needed a larger sample to feel more confident. While my students may not have changed the world with this project, they certainly got an authentic experience of what data collection and analysis is really like.
While conducting the experiment, the messiness of real data collection showed up again: some of the airplanes hit people or objects, and they had to decide what to do with those trials. They discovered that two different people timing the same event on their phones will be off by a little bit—how do they deal with that? Was it okay to open the window in the room, or would that affect the “flying conditions”? My students had a lot of fun with this project and did a great job discussing and working through the challenges that arose.
The statistical method (and the classic “controlled experiment”) are a great place to explore data and statistics, but this is not the only way data is used in the sciences.
In an upcoming unit on the human body, I am going to teach a lesson on vaccines. Students will hear arguments on both sides of the childhood vaccine debate and will also look at data showing the rates of smallpox in different countries over time, comparing before and after vaccines were available as well as before and after they were made mandatory.
Looking at data collection in the context of health care will be interesting, as controlled experiments are not always possible for ethical reasons. For example, we cannot ethically assign children to not receive vaccines, since there is evidence that unvaccinated children are at a higher risk of contracting certain diseases.
Later on, I will be teaching a unit on climate and climate change, which presents another challenge for data collection: how do you run a controlled experiment on a system as large and complicated as a planet, with changes that take place over a long period of time? When we look at how climate scientists collect and interpret data, we will see them taking advantage of “natural experiments,” such as climate information before and after the Industrial Revolution, when human production of CO2 increased dramatically.
Data and Statistics in Social Studies
The study of history relies on a lot of quantitative data, but also presents its own set of challenges for statistical analysis. We can’t go back in time to collect data that no one recorded, so historians sometimes have to use other types of data as a proxy. For example, a historian might use voter registration rates to make inferences about political participation, or school enrollment numbers to make inferences about education and literacy levels.
Raw historical data can also help generate questions. In an upcoming unit on U.S. immigration, I will have students look at a graph of U.S. refugees over time, which shows not only the total numbers, but also breaks the total down by continent of origin. Looking closely at the graph should generate some questions about what was happening in the world at different points in time, such as What was going on in Europe in the 90’s that led to so many refugees to the U.S.? What happened in 1976, 2001, and 2017 to cause sudden drops in the number of refugees? Looking at data can get students curious, since data never tell the full story.
Some Techniques for Presenting Data
When presenting data or statistics that students have not generated themselves, how the data are presented can make a different in student engagement. Two techniques I use a lot are notice/wonder and graph reveals.
When I find an interesting graph, I often combine notice/wonder with a graph reveal. In a graph reveal, I create a slideshow that starts with a version of the graph without any labels or context. I ask students what they notice and wonder, and what information they would like to have. Each slide adds a little more to the graph (scales, axes labels, and last of all, a title). At each stage we do a quick notice/wonder. This works well for very complex, rich data displays since students don’t have to process all the elements at once, and creates a lot of interest because they want to know if their predictions are correct. (I originally encountered this idea on the blog Teaching to the Beat of a Different Drummer, in a post titled “Trick or Treat!”)
If you are interested in learning more about how to incorporate statistical literacy into your adult education classroom, check out the SABES website for some upcoming courses on data and statistics from the SABES Mathematics and Adult Numeracy Curriculum & Instruction PD Center. This is a topic that deserves a place in every content area, not just the math classroom.
Be sure to read the earlier article by Melissa, "The Case for Statistical Literacy Across Subject Areas".
Melissa Braaten is an adult education instructor at Catholic Charities Haitian Multi-Services Center in Dorchester, MA. Melissa has taught ASE and pre-ASE math and reading, as well as ABE writing, computer skills, and health classes. Melissa also is a training and curriculum development specialist for the SABES Mathematics and Adult Numeracy Curriculum & Instruction PD Center at TERC. She has written several articles for Math Musings, the Adult Numeracy blog.
Read our first post.
SABES, the System for Adult Basic Education Support in Massachusetts, promotes high quality adult education services through training, support, and resources that improve the skills and knowledge of practitioners and strengthen programs.
Contributors are practitioners in the field and members of our team.
Adult Ed Blogs
Comment directly on any post by clicking on the Comment links at the beginning and end of that post. Or send us a general comment or question—we'd love to hear from you!