Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Bringing History Home: Learning from the Nonviolence of the Freedom Riders

Growing up, I can remember sitting through quite a few filmstrips in class, trying not to let the buzzing of the reels lull me to sleep, wondering why we were watching it in the first place. Was the teacher just trying to fill the class period with something, since they hadn’t come up with a better plan? Thinking about using documentaries like Freedom Riders from American Experience got me contemplating the value of using movies in the classroom and how teachers can do this most effectively.

The Freedom Riders were inspired by the values of Mahatma Gandhi to stage their own nonviolent protests in the 1960’s to bring racial justice to the southern United States. Their historic ride on public transportation was well documented in words, pictures, and videos. This footage of the rides and the hatred and violence they encountered along the way was collected along with interviews of surviving Freedom Riders into a PBS documentary called Freedom Riders. This movie can be used in a history or social studies class as an inspiring story of how young people can truly make a difference in the world.

With so many historical documentaries available on DVD and streaming online, teachers have a plethora of movie choices instead of the often-small selection of grainy filmstrips to check out of the library in the past. The better selection of movies alone won’t make much of a difference, though, unless we combine the movie viewing with engaging activities. How can we be sure our students are getting the full benefit of the movies we show in the classroom? We don’t want students to forget what they saw before they make it to their next class. We want to inspire them to take what they learn from a movie and do something with it.

PBS’s American Experience and WGBH’s Teacher’s Domain released a Democracy in Action teacher’s guide to make it easier for teachers to bring Freedom Riders into the classroom. The format of this guide divides activities into pre-viewing, viewing, and post-viewing. If you plan your activities this way, students will be more engaged as thy watch the film and you will be able to follow up the viewing with activities to challenge and extend students’ thinking about the topic. I have been tempted to just pop in a movie to fill a class period without planning, but the information would most likely go in one ear and out the other, hardly a valuable use of my students’ time.

Democracy in Action puts together readings with a list of questions for students to answer before they view Freedom Riders. A pre-viewing activity like this can hook students into a subject before they watch a movie about it, keeping them engaged as they watch. One of these questions challenged students to create identity charts for some Freedom Riders and themselves. I like open-ended activities like this since they allow students to think critically about the topic and to form some opinions, making the movie even more interesting for them. When creating pre-viewing activities of your own, you might consider listening to music from the era and assigning a hands-on activity to get more of your students’ senses involved.

It’s helpful to have something for students to do during a movie viewing in class. I usually create an advanced organizer with questions to answer during the film. If you are expecting your students to give thoughtful answers, you might want to consider stopping the movie periodically to allow them to collect their thoughts. I find it helpful to preview the movie myself while answering the questions on the advanced organizer to be sure I know where I should pause the movie. For question ideas for Freedom Riders, please see WGBH’s teacher’s guide. The guide includes detailed readings and open-ended questions that require students to think about the people involved in the Rides and what they would have done if placed in the same situation as these young people were put in during the early 60’s. The guide also tells you when to stop the movie to allow time for students to answer questions.

What is your goal in showing a movie like Freedom Riders in your classroom? If you are aiming to inspire social action and build students’ character, your post-viewing activity should reflect that. I like the final reading and questions in the guide, and I think you could build a valuable activity from one group of questions in particular. These questions read:

“What do you see as the civil rights struggles of today? How might these issues be addressed? What role might the courts play? What role might individuals and groups play? To what extent is the philosophy of nonviolence a useful way to address today’s challenges?"

Mahatma Gandhi inspired the nonviolent tactics used by CORE in the planning of the Freedom Rides. After students think about the questions from WGBH, try helping them discover an issue of social injustice they want to change. One example I immediately thought of is bullying, but your students may have plenty of other ideas. Guide them to think about how far they would be willing to go to change that issue. They can come up with a plan of action, and depending on how much time you can dedicate, they can turn the plan in, actually carry the plan out, create a song or skit about the injustice, or do something else that you feel would get them to think about the situation deeply and to empathize with the people involved.

Watching a movie like Freedom Riders can bring history alive. Watching the movie, answering open-ended questions, participating in discussions, and creating a plan of action for current social issues will help your students understand that they are a part of history.

When you are looking for quality activities and other resources, search The Gateway to 21st Century Skills to find ones that meet your needs. The Gateway has a Standards Suggestions Tool, so you will be able to see how each activity meets your state standards. We have featured resources each week on a particular topic and we support these resources with two columns on the home page that will help you bring that topic into the classroom. We announce other pertinent resources daily on our Facebook and Twitter pages. If you would like to read about any of our past topics, you can read them on our blog. We hope you will join our community and be part of the conversation!

~Peggy's Corner - 5/14/2011~

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