Whitman College, in partnership with the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance project and Walla Walla Public schools, embarked on its fifth year of teaching civil rights in local schools through the Whitman Teaches the Movement initiative.
Working in small groups, 50 Whitman College students will travel to all 10 local schools from Jan. 25 to 29 and Feb. 1 to 5 to lead 45-minute lessons on civil rights history. The lessons are age-appropriate and based on curricula developed by the Teaching Tolerance project, history teachers and organizations that specialize in teaching history. The program includes lessons on the Greensboro sit-ins, Jackie Robinson, feminism in the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cesar Chavez.
Prior to the classroom time, the students attend training sessions led by Kate Shuster, an education researcher for the Southern Poverty Law Center. Shuster has been training Whitman students to teach since the program began in 2011.
"Lessons about the civil rights movement not only help students learn about a significant period in our nation's history, but they also show that students have the power to make a difference in our community," Shuster said. "We commend Whitman College, its students and Walla Walla Public Schools for creating a space for local public school students to learn these important lessons."
In fall of 2011, the Teaching Tolerance project evaluated the quality of civil rights curricula around the country. Washington was one of 35 states that received an "F" grade. From there, Whitman Teaches the Movement was born.
This year the program is expanding to the youngest students yet: first graders. It was the idea of Whitman College's student organizers, including Nicole Antenucci '18.
"We decided to add first grade to the program this year to target younger students before they form biases and stereotypes," said Antenucci.
The first-grade curriculum will focus on the story of Ruby Bridges, the American activist known for being the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in Louisiana in 1960. The first graders will express their reactions to the stories by drawing pictures. Those will later be displayed on the Whitman College campus and at the Walla Walla Public Library.
Walla Walla Assistant Superintendent Laure Quaresma is a strong supporter of this partnership. After attending the student training sessions, Quaresma said Whitman Teaches the Movement supports shifts in the Washington Learning Standards and fosters important skills.
"The anti-bias framework presented supports the development of individual pride and confidence without denying these same values for all people," says Quaresma. "It creates an opportunity to support critical thinking focused on social justice."
The effects of Whitman Teaches the Movement reach beyond the Walla Walla community. The program is also being used as a model for schools across the country. The University of Washington, Seattle University and Whitworth University have all implemented similar programs modeled after Whitman's own.
In addition, Whitman student organizers were invited to travel to the country's largest civic engagement and social justice conference this year to present on the program's success in local schools.
One of the students who will attend the conference is Cherokee Washington '17.
While she enjoyed teaching in local classrooms last year, she says it also opened her eyes to what she identifies as a prominent issue in our community and the rest of the world. Washington describes it as "blissful ignorance."
"I truly believe that Whitman Teaches the Movement is taking steps to combat this ignorance, from creating safe spaces for difficult conversation on the Whitman campus, to encouraging youth to be agents of change through our lessons," said Washington. "This program is a necessity."
Associate Dean of Students Noah Leavitt agrees that Whitman Teaches the Movement is the right initiative for where our country is today.
"With college students yearning to understand America's struggles for racial justice and how that understanding informs our ability to make sense of America in 2016, it is hard to think of a more effective community-based learning experience than Whitman Teaches the Movement."
He added: "We help our students learn more about civil right struggles and they in turn help more than a thousand local schoolchildren understand how people can work together to make their community more fair and just."