Shake, Rattle, and Roll—and #NeverAgain: Student Activists in 1963 and Today
Lisa K. Pennington, Governors State University
In March 2018, students across the United States participated in a walkout and March for our Lives to show their support for gun control reform. In the weeks leading up to the walkout and marches, outspoken student activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, became well known as they developed a platform for gun control reform and started the #NeverAgain movement, after 17 of their peers and teachers were killed in a mass shooting on February 14, 2018 (Gans, 2018). The Stoneman activists, as well as the students around the country who have joined the movement, are an indication of what a formidable power young people can be when they mobilize. They can also organize and mobilize themselves quickly. The March for our Lives occurred only five weeks after the Parkland shooting. During that time, activists such as Emma Gonzalez, Cameron Kasky, and David Hogg focused their social media presence on gun control, developed a mission statement with specific gun control goals, organized the March, questioned legislators, and gave countless interviews and speeches. While it remains to be seen what influence these students have on government officials and whether the movement will result in any discernible gun control reform, these students are engaged, knowledgeable, and demand to be taken seriously.
The comments section of any news story about the Stoneman activists or the walkout reveals those who believe that students should not be involved in politics or protest. However, history indicates the opposite is true. Students have played a key role in multiple social movements in the United States such as the Greensboro sit-ins in 1960 and elsewhere in the world such as the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989 (Astor, 2018; Kaiser, 2015). Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter allow #NeverAgain widespread visibility, and traditional media outlets have also focused a great deal on the movement. Historically however, the participation of students in social movements was not always widely known and even today the fact that students have played a role in the Black Lives Matter movement, or that students in Chicago are protesting against gun violence and the closure of schools is less well known (Martin & Corley, 2018). A noticeable difference between #NeverAgain and previous student led movements is the age range of those involved. Historically, such movements have been organized and carried out by college students. #NeverAgain however was organized and is driven by high school activists, and middle and elementary aged students joined the walkouts and marches. The age range of students involved in #NeverAgain brings to mind the Civil Rights Movement and the Birmingham Children’s March of 1963, in which middle and high school students, and one elementary aged student protested against segregation.
While these contemporary movements will hopefully inspire today’s youth to become politically active, showing students this is not a unique phenomenon and that children have often played a role in social movements which resulted in change may be beneficial. Research shows that students need to become interested in civic engagement before they reach age nine (The Civic Mission of Schools, 2003). If not, students are less likely to become civically active adults. Today, youth (ages 18-29) have consistently low turnouts in elections, particularly mid-term elections (The Center of Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, 2018). Seeking to encourage higher turnout among youth, during the March for Our Lives volunteers and activists focused on registering young people to vote, and millions of teens will be of voting age prior to the November 2018 mid-term elections (The Center of Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, 2018). However, while many students participating in the walkouts and marches were high school age, some middle and even elementary students took part (Shear, 2018).
In order promote interest among elementary students, sharing the story of the Birmingham Children’s March and making connections to contemporary student led movements like #NeverAgain could “hook” them on civic engagement and demonstrate how they too can make their voice heard. The following lesson covers several NCSS themes, including theme 2 (time, continuity, and change), theme 5 (individuals, groups, and institutions), theme 6 (power, authority, and governance), and theme 10 (civic ideals and practices) and is designed to introduce the role children played during the Civil Rights Movement to elementary students by discussing the Birmingham Children’s March.
The lesson itself introduces the Birmingham Children’s March through the use of a children’s book entitled The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, A Young Civil Rights Activist by Cynthia Levinson. Students then examine primary source photos from the Children’s March to delve more deeply into the topic and practice historical thinking skills as described by Barton (2001).
As a warm-up activity, the teacher should allow students to independently create or fill in a concept map demonstrating their prior knowledge about the Civil Rights Movement. After this activity is complete, students will verbally share information from their individual concept maps to contribute to a whole group concept map. Once the class concept map is complete, and teachers are familiar with student’s prior knowledge about the topic, share the lesson’s guiding question: What role, if any, did children play during the Civil Rights Movement?
After the warm-up, the text is introduced to students, and a picture walk conducted. A picture walk is a method to generate student interest in a story and promote discussion. The strategy also provides support for emerging readers, English language learners, and students with disabilities as it uses pictures in a story as clues to help students familiarize themselves with the story before it is read (Reading to Kids, 2007).
To conduct the picture walk, teaches should guide students through the following steps:
- First, the teacher should show students the cover and read the title of the text. Using only the cover and title, ask students what they believe the story will be about and why.
- Second, examine the pictures in the text. The teacher may choose to stop and study each picture, or pick and choose pages they deem most appropriate and relevant to the lesson.
- Third, as the class examines each picture, the teacher should ask questions, such as “what do you think is going on?” “who is this character?” “when do you think the story is taking place and why?” “why do you think this character looks happy/sad/excited/mad, etc.?” “what do you think will happen next and why?” “how do you think the story will end and why?” Asking such questions encourages students to actively engage with the story, use their imagination, make predictions, and use evidence from the pictures to support their answers. Of course, teacher acknowledgement of student answers should remain vague and neither confirm nor deny components of the story.
- After examining the illustrations, the teacher should read the text aloud to students.
- During the read aloud, discuss ideas and suggestions made by students during the picture walk. Additionally, ask follow up questions such as “do you still think the story will end that way and why or why not?” “now that we know the situation, how would you describe the character’s reaction?” and “do you think this action was a good idea and why or why not?” These questions allow students to test their ideas, consider character emotions and actions, as well as cause and effect relationships.
The focus on the visuals prior to the read aloud also provides a frame of reference for students to draw on as they hear the story, allowing them to better organize and evaluate the information (Reading to Kids, 2007).
After the story is finished, a short class discussion can help students debrief the text, consider key ideas, and ask any questions they may have. For example, the teacher may ask “in the text it read “she was going to break a law and go to jail to help make things right.” Do you think this was the right thing to do? Why or why not?” Or, the teacher may wish to discuss why some adults were so scared to march, and why so many children were willing. Finally, students can share what they thought the most important event in the story was and why. Students may be interested to know that march organizers used the radio to disseminate information through codes. Radio disc jockeys in Birmingham during the time worked with Civil Rights activists to use music to let children know about meetings and workshops. For example, 1954’s “Shake, rattle, and roll” would sound out of place in a playlist of 1960s funk songs, or phrases such as “bring your toothbrush, you ought to brush your teeth” were used as signals to let students know it was time to march, and to plan for the possibility of spending the night in jail (National Public Radio, 2013).
Once class discussion has concluded, a primary source activity will allow students to examine photos taken during the Children’s March to learn more about the event. The suggested photos, with the exception of one, (see Appendix A) correlate to events depicted in The Youngest Marcher, to provide strong connections to the text. The photos depict children marching with signs, children being escorted to jail, a group of children in holding, and children being sprayed with fire hoses. The final photo, which teachers may or may not choose to include, shows a police dog biting the sleeve of the shirt of a 17-year-old boy. Including this photo provides further evidence of the drastic measures taken by authorities against children who participated in the march.
The primary source activity follows the process suggested by Barton (2001). A sample worksheet is included in Appendix B. Students should be walked through the following process:
- Students are told they will receive a set of photographs from the Birmingham Children’s March, May 1963. (Alternatively, students may be given the set of photographs in an envelope with Birmingham Children’s March, May 1963 written on the outside.) Students should not view the photos prior to completing step 2.
- Students should record what they think they will see in the photos.
- Students next examine the photos and record what they see. They should also note whether the photos are different or similar to what they expected.
- After completing the photo observation process, the teacher may have students explain what they believe is happening in each photo, and list evidence from the photos to support their answers. This step moves students from description to analysis. Teachers may also opt to provide questions to accompany the photos for the analysis component, such as when/where do you think the photos were taken?; what do you think the people in the photos are doing?; and who do you think is involved?
- For each guiding question, students should be asked to provide evidence for their answers to help them not only make inferences but support their inferences with data drawn from the photos (Barton, 2001).
After completing the photo analysis component, to provide further visual evidence about the Birmingham Children’s March, teachers may opt to show clips from the Teaching Tolerance documentary, Mighty Times: The Children’s March (Teaching Tolerance, 2004).
To conclude the activity, return to the concept map from the warm-up. The teacher should ask students to add information to the concept map based on the story, photos, and class discussion. This closure activity may be completed individually, or as a whole group discussion, and allows students to re-examine their prior knowledge and make any corrections or expansions based on the lesson. Extension activities may make connections to current events and the #NeverAgain movement, providing students with a contemporary example of children participating in and leading marches. Twitter, Facebook, and other social media and news stories provide a wealth of information for students to examine current day activists and draw comparisons between the children of Birmingham and those fighting today for gun control reform. A similar photo activity following the same format may be conducted with contemporary March for our Lives photos. Teachers may also opt to share excerpts from an article by Teaching Tolerance (Van der Valk, 2018) entitled “From Birmingham to Parkland: Celebrate the power of young voices” with their students. This brief opinion piece likens #NeverAgain to the Birmingham Children’s March and briefly describes the steps the Parkland activists took after the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas. It also makes brief connections to other contemporary social movements involving young people including the Water Protectors at Standing Rock (Van der Valk, 2018), providing further evidence of social activism among today’s youth.
After completing the analysis activity with March for our Lives photos, as an assessment students may create a Venn Diagram comparing the Birmingham Children’s March and the March for our Lives, and identify similarities and differences between the two. Such an activity would allow the teacher to determine whether students have grasped key concepts such as the social causes for which children are marching, the platforms of each movement, and the planning and preparation undertaken by children to participate in the marches.
This lesson, while introducing students to student activists during the Civil Rights Movement meets several NCSS themes, including theme 2 (time, continuity, and change), theme 5 (individuals, groups, and institutions), theme 6 (power, authority, and governance), and theme 10 (civic ideals and practices). In addition, it may be used to help students examine the movement from a different perspective, make connections to the content, and see themselves in the curriculum, all of which are important in social studies education (Ediger, 2000; Manak, 2012; Tschida, Ryan, & Ticknor, 2014). Takaki (2012) and Tschida, Ryan, and Ticknor (2014) discuss providing students with different mirrors or windows in which to examine content-mirrors or windows that allow students to make cultural connections and see beyond the “white, middle class representations” and understand the “diverse races, classes, religions, sexualities, abilities and other areas of marginalization” that have played a role in United States history (Tschida et al., 2014, p. 28). McGuire (2007) also highlights the need for teachers to examine social studies concepts from multiple perspectives, in order to help students make connections between the content, rather than presenting information in disconnected bits. Additionally, McGuire (2007) points out the importance of helping students understand connections between content and their own lives, and their own responses and interactions to current events. Hopefully this lesson will aid teachers in making those connections to current events in order to help show relevance to the content and the role students have played throughout history in the fight for social change.
Astor, M. (2018) 7 times in history when students turned to activism. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/05/us/student-protest-movements.html.
Barton, K. C. (2001). A picture’s worth: Analyzing historical photographs in the elementary grades. Social Education 65 (5), 278-283.
Ediger, M. (2000). Social studies children’s literature. College Student Journal 34, (1), 30.
Gans, F. (2018). Meet some of the teen activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. Boston Globe. Retrieved from https://www.bostonglobe.com/news/nation/2018/02/24/meet-some-teen-activists-from-marjory-stoneman-douglas-high/y113HLJ95cfHdXSsjuSaOL/story.html
Kaiser, D. (2015). How campus protests can affect national politics. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/4110570/1970-2015-campus-protest-politics/.
Levinson, C. (2017). The youngest marcher: The story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a young Civil Rights activist. New York, NY: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Manak, J. A. (2012). Exploring the American revolution from multiple perspectives: Integrating children’s literature into the social studies. Reading Today 30, 14-15.
Martin, R. and Corley, C. (Hosts). (14 March 2018). In Chicago, students protest gun violence in communities [Radio program]. In Alicia Montgomery (Producer) Morning Edition. Washington, D.C: WAMU.
McGuire, M. E. (2007). What happened to social studies? The disappearing curriculum. The Phi Delta Kappan 88 (8), 620-624.
National Public Radio. (2013). Shake, rattle, and rally: Code songs spurred activism in Birmingham [Radio program]. In Carline Watson (Producer) All Things Considered: Washington, D.C: WAMU.
Reading to Kids (2007). Reading comprehension: Picture walk and other strategies. Retrieved from http://readingtokids.org/ReadingClubs/TrainingModules/ReadingComprehension_PictureWalk908.pdf.
Shear, M. D. (2018). Students lead huge rallies for gun control across U.S. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/24/us/politics/students-lead-huge-rallies-for-gun-control-across-the-us.html.
Takaki, R. (2012). A different mirror for young people: A history of multicultural America. New York, NY: Seven Stories Press.
Teaching Tolerance. (2004). Mighty Times: The Children’s March. Retrieved from https://www.tolerance.org/classroom-resources/film-kits/mighty-times-the-childrens-march.
Tschida, C. M., Ryan, C. L., and Ticknor, A. S. (2014). Building on windows and mirrors: Encouraging the disruption of “single stories” through children’s literature. Journal of Children’s Literature 40 (1), 28-39.
Van der Valk, A. (2018). From Birmingham to Parkland: Celebrate the power of young voices. Teaching Tolerance. Retrieved from https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/from-birmingham-to-parkland-celebrate-the-power-of-young-voices.
Yee, V. and Blinder, A. (2018). National school walkout: Thousands protest against gun violence across the U.S. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/14/us/school-walkout.html.