First Person: Inspiring others to follow Whitman’s approach to civil rights education

First Person
Sophie poses with Taylor Branch, a prominent historian on the civil rights movement.

Editor’s note: As a collaboration between Whitman College, Walla Walla Public Schools, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project, Whitman Teaches the Movement trains Whitman students to go into local public school classrooms to teach creative, historically specific lessons on the U.S. civil rights movement. After the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report in 2011 giving Washington State a failing grade for state requirements for teaching Civil Rights history, Whitman responded by initiating WTTM, a project that enriches the educational experience of both public school students and volunteer teachers from Whitman College.

By Sophie Schouboe ’15

Flying into Saint Louis, I was filled with excitement and anticipation about presenting Whitman Teaches the Movement to other schools and teachers at the National Council for the Social Sciences. Michelle Higgins, a social studies teacher at Walla Walla High School, and I had been talking about our presentation, and I was swimming with anticipation to get other people excited about the project. WTTM has been a part of my life at Whitman since my freshman year in some capacity or another. Being a part of its growth process has been a huge learning experience, and this conference was no exception to that.

When I walked into America’s Center for my first day at NCSS, I was immediately overwhelmed. The building was huge. There were people everywhere, and I could feel my nerves kicking in. I met up with Michelle and checked in, and I was overwhelmed by the plethora of options for presentations to attend. I finally decided on a presentation, and I had butterflies in my stomach, because I was surrounded by people I didn’t know, most of whom were teachers at least five years older than me, and I felt a little out of place. But as I started talking to a few people and listening to presenters, I found everyone was very welcoming and interested in why I was at the conference, which gave me great opportunities to talk up WTTM. By the end of the first day, I felt like I was learning the layout of the conference and what people expected from the presentations, which I hoped would help me with the poster session the next day.

Saturday morning was our poster session. We had posters hanging, a slideshow running and brochures at the ready. That hour felt a lot like giving a two- to three-minute presentation over and over again, but, it was also somewhat exhilarating. It was fun to tell people about the project with the thought of it becoming a part of their school and their students’ lives, as well. Some people seemed more excited than others, but lots of them took brochures and listened to Michelle and me talk about WTTM.

Afterward, I felt like we’d done what we came there to do – we started getting the word out. I have no idea what will happen with those people that took a brochure, but even if one of them calls the Southern Poverty Law Center to help get their own version of WTTM started, we will have reached our goal.

We talked to people from all around the country coming from a range of backgrounds and perspectives, all of who could take the project in exciting new directions.

On my final day in Saint Louis, I went to only one presentation, but to me, it was the most impactful of all. Georgia Rep. John Lewis and his co-author, Andrew Aydin, who are writing a three part graphic novel titled “March,” were the keynote speakers of the morning. “March” is a book about the civil rights movement based on the experiences of Lewis, who was considered one of the main leaders of that time period. The purpose of the graphic novel is to provide teachers with materials to teach kids about the civil rights movement in a way that will engage students and pique their interest. This book was, in part, a reaction to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2011 National Report of State Standards for Civil Rights Movement Education, the same reason WTTM was created. The presentation was powerful for many reasons, including having the opportunity to hear some of the congressman’s own experiences and listening to a discussion between the two authors, the president of NCSS and Taylor Branch, a prominent historian on the civil rights movement. But I’d say the best part of the weekend occurred at the book signing after their presentation.

At the book signing, I had the opportunity to speak with each of the two presenters briefly. Aydin was excited to hear about WTTM and gave me his business card and told me to keep in touch. Congressman Lewis also showed his support and expressed interest in coming to Whitman. After speaking to each of them, I ran across Taylor Branch and was able to have a brief conversation with him about WTTM, as well. Each of these interactions was quite brief, but in that short amount of time, I had discovered a wonderful future resource for the project. Since then, I have followed up by emailing Andrew Aydin, who responded by again offering his and Rep. Lewis’ support in any way possible. I am now working with Allison Bolgiano ’14 and Maggie Ayau ’14, this year’s student project managers for WTTM, as well as Assistant Dean for Student Engagement Noah Leavitt and Michelle Higgins to brainstorm ideas for utilizing this opportunity. My trip to the NCSS conference truly highlighted the importance of making connections with people and following up on those connections. It was a great experience, and I’m sure it is one that will be useful for me in the future.