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Oral History Offers a Model for How Schools Can Introduce Students to Complex Topics

As historian David McCullough said, history is the study of who we are and why we are the way we are.

That’s why teachers in the Memphis-Shelby County public schools, as racially isolated now as they were when the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, have launched a curriculum to introduce their students to the 13 children who helped integrate these Tennessee city schools in 1961.

Memphis-Shelby County teachers, researchers from the University of Memphis, and the local Memphis 13 Foundation worked with seven of the 10 surviving members of the Memphis 13—a group of Black 1st graders who peacefully enrolled in four all-white schools at the height of the civil rights era—to develop teacher training, lesson plans, and oral history activities for elementary students.

“Just going home and talking to grandparents or talking to the elders in their community was never going to be enough,” said Anna Falkner, an assistant professor at the University of Memphis and a co-developer of the curriculum, “because it wouldn’t provide [students] with the context that they needed in order to understand what happened and understand the ongoing effects of, for example, the way segregation looks today.”

The Memphis 13 project offers a model for how schools can introduce complex subjects to students, even in early grades, while also giving them opportunities to investigate social studies in their communities

“Really consider the context,” Falkner said. “What are the specifics that can help students understand their Southern context or the context wherever they are and what that means in relation to the larger experience. It’s not just focusing on that national narrative, not just sharing Brown v. Board, but really thinking about, what did this look like in my backyard? What did it look like for my family members or my community members?”

For example, teachers met with surviving members of the Memphis 13 to identify projects for students in 2nd and 5th grades, when Tennessee social studies standards cover civil rights issues. Sheila Malone, one of the students who first integrated into the district’s Bruce Elementary as a 1st grader, suggested that 5th graders record the experiences of others who had attended the district schools during desegregation.

“[Malone] wanted the students to go back home and share the story and have intergenerational conversations about the history of our schools,” said Gina Tillis, the director of curriculum and instruction for the Memphis 13 Foundation, who co-developed the Memphis curriculum. “One of the things that I’ve noticed with the members of Memphis 13 is, as they’re sharing their stories, they’re unpacking memories that have been silenced. … This is a really powerful space for students to reflect on their education, their parents’ and their elders’ education, and what we’re doing collectively to create a more inclusive and equitable school system.”

Second graders, for example, watch documentaries and review news accounts about the school desegregation decisions in Memphis and other cities, identifying ways children their age participated. In 5th grade, students review collected oral history interviews and collect their own, as well as analyze modern policies related to school integration. Tillis said the project plans to expand the curriculum to 8th and 11th grades in the future.

Building school integration history projects

Emerging technology has made it easier for educators to engage their students in active historical research, according to the Center for Public History and Digital Humanities at Cleveland State University in Ohio. The center, for example, has developed apps to help students record interviews and archive historical documents.

Efforts like those of the Memphis 13 helped integrate public schools in the decades following the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. However, these trends began to reverse in the 1990s and have worsened to this day, even as the overall public school population has grown more diverse. Studies find schools serving high populations of students of color continue to have on average fewer educational opportunities—including challenging courses, experienced teachers, and other resources—compared with schools serving mostly white students.

While the Memphis 13 are well known, Tillis stressed that schools can use community history to engage students regardless of where they are. “Everyone has a school desegregation story. Every district, every person … and every district story is unique,” she said. “It’s, I think, one of the most powerful stories to share because it offers you this platform to really deconstruct what’s going on in our schools.”

Researchers recommended that schools interested in developing similar projects:

  • Work with local historians and groups to identify social studies topics and events that had strong effects on the local community. This can include school district librarians or archivists, for example.
  • Provide teachers with training in both the historical context and strategies and tools for documenting community history.
  • Focus on topics that encourage students to make connections between history and current issues in their community.

“One of the lessons that we’re hoping to share with other school districts is just the power of listening to your community members who are historians, even if they don’t work for the local archive: the neighbor down the street who kept all the newspapers, the person who knew everybody in the neighborhood,” Falkner said. “Finding those community members and making a meaningful way for them to participate in the curriculum development is the most important piece.”

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