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For Teachers: Activities for Elementary School Students return to index
These activities have been written with elementary school students in mind. For more suggestions on teaching the Civil Rights Movement, please visit the Featured Educators page. Or if you have your own favorite classroom activity, share it with other educators — send it in an e-mail to American Experience via this site's Share Your Views e-mail form.
Five Lessons of the Civil Rights Movement:
Lesson 3: Ordinary people can change the world.
Lesson 4: Culture can enslave or empower.
Lesson 5: Right makes might.
Lesson 1: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
Exploring the Past: "Let Freedom Ring."
Ask students who Martin Luther King, Jr., was, and what they know about his life and accomplishments. Then ask if any students have heard of his famous "I have a dream" speech from the 1963 March on Washington.
Together with the class, watch the video clip of the march, and when it is complete, repeat the segment showing King's speech. At the point in the speech when King says "let freedom ring" in various places across the United States, pause the video after each place name he mentions, and have students find that place on a wall map of the United States and mark it.
When you are done, point to each of the places the class has marked, in the order in which King named them, and ask if students notice any pattern. Why did King begin by listing places outside the South? Was he saying that racial discrimination was a problem just in the South or around the country? Why did he then say "But not only that... " and list places within the South? If freedom were to ring in places like New York and Colorado but not in places like Georgia and Mississippi, would King say the United States was truly a free country? Why not?
Connecting to the Present: Apologizing for an Injustice.
In 2000, the National Japanese American Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C., in part to honor Japanese Americans who were unjustly imprisoned by the U.S. government during World War II. Explain to students that after Japan attacked the United States in 1941, the U.S. government forced more than 120,000 Japanese Americans — over half of them children — to live in special "internment" camps because it feared they would not be loyal to the United States, even though they had done nothing wrong. Many years later, the government admitted that it had been wrong, and in 1993, President Bill Clinton sent this apology, along with $20,000 apiece, to survivors of the internment camps.
Read President Clinton's letter aloud to the class. Then ask students the following questions:
- Why was it wrong to put people in prison simply because of what ethnic group they belonged to?
- Do you think the government was right to apologize, even though the apology was not given until many years later? How do you think the apology made the Japanese Americans who had been interned feel? (How do you feel when someone who has wronged you apologizes for it?)
- Do you think the government should offer a similar apology and payment to African Americans for slavery and the discrimination against African Americans that emerged from slavery (in areas like jobs, housing, and education), which has not yet been completely eliminated? Why or why not? (You might want to mention that every year since 1989, Representative John Conyers of Michigan has introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives to establish a commission to study the effects of slavery and racial discrimination; the commission would also decide whether the federal government should issue a formal apology for slavery and make reparations to African Americans. The bill has not yet passed.)
Lesson 2: Economic rights can't be separated from civil rights.
Exploring the Past: The Price of Poverty.
As a class, view these video clips of the harsh living conditions faced by many poor children in Chicago, both black and white. Explain to the class that even today, large numbers of Americans, from all ethnic and racial backgrounds and in all areas of the country, live in poverty.
Now ask students to think of some concrete ways in which the lives of the children shown in the video were affected by the fact that they were poor. To help students think of examples, you might ask them to think of the things a child does over the course of a typical day and consider how these might be affected by poverty. For example, might these children have had enough to eat at breakfast? Would they have been able to buy new clothes for school or for a party? Would their school have been well maintained, and have sufficient supplies? Would they have been able to afford to buy lunch in the school cafeteria? Where would they have played after school, and would they have been able to buy the most current games — the 1960s equivalent of today's hottest video games? At night, would they have had their own beds to sleep in? You may want to have students write a diary entry from the perspective of a poor child to show how poverty affects his or her daily life.
Close by asking students: Do you think that every American has a right not to live in poverty? Why or why not? What kinds of things could the government do to reduce the number of poor people?
Connecting to the Present: Living on the Minimum Wage.
Explain to students that the federal minimum wage — the smallest amount that an employer may pay a worker under federal law — is $5.15 an hour. (Some individual states have passed higher minimum wage laws.) Then ask them: How much does $5.15 an hour buy?
Have each student find the cost of at least three everyday purchases, such as a gallon of gas, a quart of orange juice, a movie ticket, a t-shirt, a fast-food hamburger, or a subway ticket. Then, working as a class, calculate the number of minutes or hours a minimum-wage worker would have to work to earn enough money to pay for that purchase. Next, identify as a class the cost of several major purchases or expenditures (car, major appliances, home purchase or yearly rent) and calculate the number of hours of work required to pay for them. (For these larger purchases, you might also want to calculate the number of weeks, months, or years required to pay for them.)
Close the activity by telling students that Congress periodically debates whether to raise the minimum wage, and that it is important for Americans to let their elected representatives know how they feel about important issues like this one. Do most students in the class think that your representatives in Congress should support an increase in the minimum wage, or do most students feel the minimum wage is high enough? Work together to write a letter to your senators and representative giving the class's opinion on this issue; you might want to include some of the calculations made in the first part of this activity.
Lesson 3: Ordinary people can change the world.
Exploring the Past: The "Little Rock Nine."
As a class, view the film clip about the African American students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Tell students that together, you are going to create a play based on those students' experiences.
Start by asking the class if other people have ever been unfriendly to them, or deliberately ignored them, and how that made them feel. What would it be like to be mistreated not just by a few people but by society as a whole, and on the basis of something you couldn't control, such as the color of your skin? Tell students that the African American students had to deal with mistreatment every day at school in order to benefit from the better facilities at the segregated white public school.
Then ask how the African American students must have felt when they found someone at school — another student, or an adult — who treated them with kindness and respect. Finally, ask what the African American students might have said to their parents at the end of a long and difficult day at school — whether they might have wanted to give up and stop attending Central High. What might their parents have said in response?
Next, using what you have learned from these discussions, work together as a class to write several different scenes of your play. One scene could be a conversation among the African American students, meeting at the home of civil rights leader Daisy Bates, before their first day of school. Another scene could be a confrontation in which an unfriendly white student tells the African American students that they are not welcome and asks why they have come to this school. (The African American student might respond by explaining the difference in the educational facilities.) Another scene could be a conversation in which a white student and an African American student start to become friends. Another scene could be a conversation between one of the African American students and his or her parents regarding the stress the students were under and whether they should continue their fight.
After you have written these scenes, have groups of students act them out for the class, using a different group of students for each scene. Then ask the class: In the film clip, one of the African American students says that they represented something important to millions of Americans. What do you think these students represented, not just to African Americans, but to the world generally?
Connecting to the Present: Making a Difference in Your Community.
Have students brainstorm in small groups to come up with a list of problems in your community, or in the world. You might want to prompt them by asking if they ever see homeless people or other people who have trouble caring for themselves, or if they see litter around town, or if they have heard about environmental problems such as global warming, or heard about war and violence in other parts of the world. List these problems on the board. Then explain that we all have a responsibility to do what we can to address problems like these.
Select one of these problems for a class project and work with students to think of some positive response to it. For example, the class could clean litter from their playground or a vacant lot nearby, write a letter about a problem to their mayor or city council, attend a city government hearing on a local issue of concern, visit the residents of a nearby nursing home, send cards or emails to soldiers serving overseas, volunteer to do chores for elderly residents, hold a fund-raiser for children in a poor country, or look for ways to reduce their family's energy consumption. Involve other students and family members if possible.
Lesson 4: Culture can enslave or empower.
Exploring the Past: African Americans' Growing Cultural Influence.
During the years of the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans played an increasingly visible role in American culture as well as politics. Work together as a class to find out more about prominent African American artists, politicians, and activists of the period. First, have students review the "Other Events" on this Web site relating to each of the Movement's 25 key events (perhaps by assigning each of the pages to a different student) and have them write down the names of African Americans mentioned in those pages; list all of these names on the board. Then divide the names among members of the class. Have students find out more about their assigned individuals and give the class a brief oral report on them and their achievements, using photographs and/or song excerpts where appropriate.
Now ask students: How do you think the increasing visibility of African Americans might have affected the movement for civil rights? For example, might it have given some African Americans added hope that they would no longer be kept on the margins of American society? How might it have affected white Americans? And how might it have aided efforts to improve communication and understanding among Americans of all races?
Connecting to the Present: The Power of Song.
As the essay by Bernice Johnson Reagon points out, music was a key element of the Civil Rights Movement. Replay for students the part toward the end of the Eyes on the Prize episode entitled "Ain't Scared of Your Jails" in which Freddie Leonard explains how he and other Freedom Riders jailed in Parchman prison continued to sing even after the guards threatened to take their mattresses. Ask students: Why was singing so important for these prisoners — what did it do for them? You might want to play students some of the song clips available on the Web site, or CDs such as "Voice of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Freedom Songs, 1960-1966" (Smithsonian Folkways, 1997); "Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through its Songs" (Smithsonian Folkways, 1990), which has a companion volume by the same name; and Sweet Honey in the Rock's "All for Freedom" (Music For Little People, 1992).
Then ask students: Are there any songs that have particular importance for you or for other members of your family? What do you or your family members gain by singing or listening to these songs?
Lesson 5: Right makes might.
Exploring the Past: Daily Life Under Segregation.
Cut up an equal number of strips of blue and green paper and put them in a bowl next to the classroom door; as students enter the room, ask them each to take a single strip of paper of either color. Then tell the class that you all are going to conduct an experiment to get a sense of what it's like to live under a system of segregation. (Before starting, make sure all students understand the meaning of the term.)
Explain that for one day, students with green slips of paper must remain separate from students with blue slips of paper in the classroom, the cafeteria, during recess, and on the bus ride home. (You may want to pin the piece of paper to students' shirts so the two groups can easily identify one another, or use different-colored elastic bands instead of slips of paper and have students wear the bands around their wrists.) Also, the "green" students will have first choice of where to sit in the classroom and will receive more of your help and attention, and every "green" student will receive a small prize (such as a pencil) at the end of the day.
After one day of enforced segregation, have the students sit together (not segregated into blue and green groups) and ask what it was like for students in each group. Do the "blue" students think they were treated fairly? Why or why not? If you were to tell the "blue" students that you wanted to continue giving the "green" students better treatment simply because you like the color green better than the color blue, how would they answer? What about the "green" students — do they think it was fair for them to receive special privileges just because of the color of their slip of paper? Close by asking the class to imagine that they were an African American living under segregation: What arguments would they use to explain why this system is wrong and must be ended?
Connecting to the Present: Standing Up to Tyranny.
Have students watch "One Man Stops Tanks", the CNN footage of an unarmed man blocking a column of tanks on their way to crush demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. Explain that thousands of people had crowded into the square demanding greater freedom, and that the government sent in troops and tanks to put down the demonstration. After viewing the film, ask students:
- Why do you think the man stepped in front of the tanks?
- Do you think he planned to do it, or did he decide at the last minute?
- What do you think was going through his mind while he was standing there?
- Why do you think the tank didn't simply run over him?
- Do you think the man was brave, foolish, or both?
People all over the world have seen the photograph or footage of the man facing up to the tanks, either on the Internet or through television or a newspaper. What do you think people who live in countries where there is little freedom would think of this photograph?
For more background on this issue, you may want to review the Web site of the PBS Frontline documentary "The Tank Man" and share relevant portions of the documentary (available on the site) with students if appropriate.