Feb. 2-8, 2001
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Civil rights movement brought to life

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Civil rights movement brought to life

By Ida Lee Wootten

A blood-stained American flag. The tears of a little girl. Voices raised in songs of protest. The day-by-day struggles associated with the American civil rights movement are being brought vividly to life through a multi-media teaching effort led by a University of Virginia educator.

Dorothy Vasquez-Levy, an assistant professor in U.Va.'s Curry School of Education, is creating a Web-based resource for K-12 teachers nationwide to use when instructing students about civil rights history. The project, titled "Social Justice History and Education Resource," also contains a curriculum that helps students learn about social responsibility by engaging in community service.

Brian Maznevski, U.Va. research associate, Social Justice History and Education Project
On Sept. 15, 1963, a bomb exploded at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., killing 11-year-old Carol Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins and Carole Robertson. This plaque memorializes the four girls, who had been in a basement dressing room preparing for an 11 a.m. service when the bombing occurred. According to news accounts, the Sixteenth Street Church had been a center for many civil rights rallies and meetings, and after the tragedy, it became a focal point drawing many moderate whites into the civil rights movement. Investigations into this case spanned four decades. Most recently, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry surrendered after an Alabama grand jury indicted them on first-degree murder charges and four counts of "universal malice" on May 17, 2000. Two others prosecuted in the case were Robert Edward Chambliss, sentenced in 1977, and Gary A. Tucker, both of whom died in the 1980s.

With support from U.Va.'s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, Vasquez-Levy and graduate students are developing a searchable database of digitized original documents from the civil rights movement, such as diaries, photographs, letters and oral histories. The Web site at www.social-justice.org contains census data, newspaper articles, legal records and police surveillance files as well as radio and video clips.

The Web site and teaching materials reflect the multiple perspectives of those involved in the era, from civil rights leaders to Ku Klux Klan members.

"Classroom teachers with Internet access can engage students in authentic historical inquiry," Vasquez-Levy said. "The Web resource provides an uncensored view of the civil rights movement."

Three years in the making, the project has caught the attention of funding organizations, including the Public Broadcasting System and the Jesse Ball duPont Fund. To date, the project has received $210,000 from PBS and more than $97,000 from the Jesse Ball duPont Religious, Charitable and Educational Fund.

PBS will distribute six units of the social justice curriculum nationwide through its Adult Learning Service, which provides programs that enhance teachers' skills. From those units, teachers will learn how to draw from primary sources and incorporate them in their instruction about the civil rights movement. PBS plans to start broadcasting the units this month.

"After conducting interviews with teachers, I found they would teach a unit on the civil rights movement usually in February during Black History Month," said Vasquez-Levy, who noted that although the Virginia Standards of Learning call for instruction on the movement, no comprehensive curriculum for teaching students exists. "I want to help teachers by designing a curriculum based on materials selected from a broad range of primary and secondary sources that now reside in museums and libraries throughout the country."

To gain access to such material, conduct historical research and record oral histories of those involved in the movement, Vasquez-Levy frequently visits Birmingham, Ala., one of the key locations in the struggle. She has gained the right to digitize and make available on the Web site more than 380 oral histories recorded by historian and University of Alabama educator Horace Huntley.

She has been moved by the personal stories and mementos of the era.

"There's such a sacredness about going to Birmingham and being in people's homes. When I ask social activists how they could get up after being beaten during a civil rights protest, I am often told, The movement is not about me and my children; it's about justice for all.' The power of their oral histories has great potential for inspiring teaching and learning," Vasquez-Levy said. "

Zahrl G. Schoeny, U.Va. associate professor, Curry School of Education
Showing the dates and locations of four civil rights protest marches, this blood-stained flag is part of the oral history video U.Va. professor Dorothy Vasquez-Levy and others are producing as part of the University's Social Justice History and Education Project. Civil rights activist James Armstrong owns the flag, which he carried in four protest marches and now keeps at his home in Birmingham.

The social justice project is unique," said Wayne Coleman, archivist at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. "The Web site, with its extensive collection of primary sources, should give teachers and students a new depth of understanding about the civil rights movement."

The curriculum being developed for teachers to use requires students to engage in service learning. By investigating and implementing solutions to community needs, the students will deepen their understanding of social issues, Vasquez-Levy believes. "With its service learning component, the curriculum fosters independent critical thinking, academic learning and social skills. Communication and problem-solving directed toward advancing social justice is not just being taught, but practiced in real communities," Vasquez-Levy said.

"The Web resource of original historical sources, the curriculum and service learning are integrated to deliver a strong interactive educational experience promoting social justice, social responsibility and social action," she said.

Vasquez-Levy has assembled a team of teachers who are helping design the curriculum and serve as mentors to other teachers. Educators at Fork Union Military Academy and Kempsville High School in Virginia Beach are participating in the project, and teachers are planning events in the Birmingham Public Schools next year.

Teachers involved in the project are videotaped as they employ the online curriculum in their instruction. Their teaching is posted on the Web site, serving as a training tool for others investigating how to use the online resource.


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