Whitman Teaches the Movement wraps up second successful year of civil rights education

February 4, 2013

Gillian Frew '11

Whitman Teaches the Movement
Marci Parra '15 checks in with a group of fifth graders at Berney Elementary School as they discuss  baseball legend Jackie Robinson and the civil rights movement. 

Osta Davis '13 and Marci Parra '15 chose a particularly appropriate day to teach local fifth graders about civil rights: Jackie Robinson's 94th birthday. To illustrate the late, great player's historic triumph over segregation in 1947 to a class of Berney Elementary School students in 2013, they shared some of the challenges Robinson faced as the first African American in major league baseball.

"It is incredibly important to expose students to social justice issues at a young age because it teaches them not to take things as a given," said Davis, a politics major from Mercer Island, Wash. "Through learning about Jackie Robinson, the students begin to seek out injustices facing current society and recognize the qualities that make up courageous figures."  

Whitman students teach civil rights movement in Walla Walla Schools
Walla Walla Union-Bulletin

Davis and Parra were among the more than 50 Whitman students to volunteer for Whitman Teaches the Movement. Now in its second year, the program is a partnership between the college, Walla Walla Public Schools and the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance project.

Whitman Teaches the Movement
Osta Davis '13 says teaching kids about civil rights helps them understand how ”their actions have the capacity to create greater equity in our society.“

"This initiative has quickly proven to be a useful way to bridge the campus and community, to help both local school kids and our own students better understand an important period in American history," said Noah Leavitt, assistant dean for student engagement. "Whitman Teaches the Movement helps our students be more comfortable talking about and engaging in issues of race, and the school district likes it because of the high levels of ethnic and economic diversity in the schools in our community."  

Equipped with lesson plans specifically tailored for second, fifth, seventh and 11th grade learning levels, teams of Whitman students visited about 40 classrooms in 10 Walla Walla schools from Jan. 22 to Feb. 1. A number of these volunteers, including Davis and Parra, had participated in the pilot program and were returning for their second year.  

"I think this effort is important on so many different levels," said Davis. "It connects Whitman to the rest of the community and helps the fifth graders envision what life is like as a college student. My favorite part is when we open up the lesson for class discussion, and I hear them start to put concepts such as segregation and prejudice into their own words."

Sophie Schouboe '15 of Redwood City, Calif. served as the program's student coordinator, working with Leavitt to organize training schedules and assign Whitties to classrooms. She said she sought out the leadership role based on her positive experience with the program last year and her interest in civil rights.  

"Whitman Teaches the Movement plays to the interests of so many different students, and it helps make both the Whitman students and the Walla Walla teachers more aware of the importance of civil rights education," she said. 

Whitman volunteers underwent intensive training prior to their guest teaching debuts in the classroom. Many also took advantage of a special faculty panel on Whitman Teaches the Movement, or gained prospective from a lecture by civil rights expert and Whitman professor Bob Withycombe about police surveillance in the 1960s. The intercultural center also hosted a week of campus events and activities in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.  

"Civil rights is a very important topic that kids need more exposure to, and the Whitman Teaches the Movement curriculum does a great job of introducing ideas that get the kids thinking," said Parra, who hails from Woodburn, Ore. and plans to major in biology and become a science teacher. "At the end of the lesson, the kids were beginning to make connections to things they themselves experience."  

To set up a framework for discussion, Davis and Parra took turns reading aloud from the book "Teammates," about the relationship between Jackie Robinson and PeeWee Reese, a teammate who stood up for him. They then split the class into small groups, and asked each group to report back with their observations about the story.  

"When PeeWee Reese put his arm around Jackie Robinson, he risked not having people like him and no one wanting to be his friend," said Daria Parodi, a fifth grader in the class. "But he just kept saying 'he's my friend, he's part of our team, and we're not going to let him back down.'"

— Gillian Frew '11