Finding the Universal In the Particular: Exploring the Civil Rights Movement with Educators from Around the World
Daniel Braunfeld, a former high school teacher in Santa Monica, California, and at the Facing History School in New York City, is program associate for special projects at Facing History and Ourselves. In 2012, he brought together 17 educators from around the world for a seven-week online Facing History course that used the 1957 Little Rock Nine crisis as a case study for learning about civil rights history in America. The course explored primary source documents and effective teaching strategies, and asked difficult questions about our inclusion and exclusion in a democracy. One of eight online courses that Facing History offers each year in addition to a full schedule of webinars and in-person workshops and seminars, is a way for educators from different countries, ethnicities, and religions to share resources, learn together, and create an online learning community to support and strengthen their teaching practices. Below, Daniel tells us about the impact a Facing History online course can have.
Regardless of how many “first days” of school I have had as a teacher, I always enter the classroom with the same feeling: a place somewhere between excitement and nervousness. What will my students be like? What are their stories? What can I learn from them? How will they learn from each other?
Over the years, my students have changed. I used to teach teenagers, first in Santa Monica and then in New York City. Today I work with adults – the teachers that reach these same middle- and high school students. No matter how old my students are, I begin each semester of my teaching career in the same way: with a phone call to introduce myself, to answer any preparatory questions they might have, and to begin building a sense of community that I believe is vital to any learning environment. For the online course I taught last semester, the phone calls were a bit different. The first one I placed was at three in the morning. The student had a few minutes to talk before meeting with her own students in New Zealand. I spoke to another at 11 at night – she had just finished her last class of the day in Washington, D.C. and we chatted as her students were heading home. A third picked up her building’s communal phone in Mexico at our agreed upon time, but could only talk for a few minutes before the electricity went out. To be clear, these hours are Eastern Standard Time. I called from New York, where I live and work as the program associate for special projects at Facing History and Ourselves. I reached my students, however, all over the world. We were about to start a seven-week online Facing History course together and the participants were joining from over seven different time zones.
While I have taught many high school classes with recently immigrated students, I had never taught an online course with participants living abroad. These new students – educators living in different cultures, working with different demographics, and experiencing different realities – would provide an amazingly rich learning context in the nearly two months we would spend together.
Our online course was called “Choices in Little Rock” and focused on the 1957 integration of Little Rock Arkansas’ Central High School. But as is true of all Facing History courses, the larger focus was on the people who lived at that time and their ability to make decisions in the face of injustice. Facing History’s work is prefaced by the belief that by studying the choices people made in history, we can better understand the power we have to make decisions within our communities. While the particulars of this historical event were unique to the United States, and perhaps even to Little Rock, my students from across the country and around the world – from New Zealand, South Africa, Mexico, and Hong Kong – all saw their students and their local communities reflected within the dilemmas and decisions presented in our Central High School case study.
My students raised questions that I had never considered before, even though I have studied and taught the civil rights movement throughout my career. How does a class begin to talk about ideas of race, equality, and civic participation when students’ come from communities with histories of segregation like apartheid, Jim Crow, and aboriginal discrimination? Is there a universal expression of discrimination or does its local manifestation make dialogue impossible? How do students and teachers in other countries make sense of an American promise of equality that also produces National Guard troops to prevent nine black students from entering their assigned high school? And why did teachers in each of these countries believe it was important to study the United States’ civil rights movement?
A participant from South Africa talked about the sense of inferiority that her black and coloured students often feel, despite the fact that apartheid in that country ended almost 20 years ago. A teacher from New Zealand said that her students hold stereotypes and use them against one another, though they rarely know the history behind the commonly-held prejudices. She said her community still feels the implications of discrimination that has been passed down through generations. Similar responses came from teachers throughout the United States. Together these anecdotes wove a picture of a world united by similar struggles. Our in-depth study of the Little Rock Nine was allowing for cross-cultural and cross-communal exploration and growth.
For me, the Facing History online course put into practice what I think is at the core of all of our workshops, seminars, and classes: How do you see the humanity in the “other,” how do you hear their stories and learn from their experiences, and how do you realize that they are not as “other” as originally imagined? As I look to the year ahead, and the new calendar of online and in-person professional development opportunities, I am starting to get that same feeling in my gut – that familiar mix of excitement and nervousness. I am ready to learn, to meet teachers and students who will inspire me, and to come together – no matter how far apart we may live geographically, no matter the time zone – to better understand the choices we make and how they affect the world around us.
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Facing History's Julia Rappaport edited this article. For questions or tips on what Facing History is doing in your community, email her at Julia_Rappaport@facing.org.