Future Elementary Teachers Talk To Kids About Racism At Civil Rights Museum

Mar 6, 2020

On a recent Saturday, the International Civil Rights Center and Museum at the old Woolworth's in Greensboro was buzzing with visitors. This year, the museum is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the lunch counter sit-ins there that ignited a movement. 

In a quiet room in the basement, UNC-Greensboro education student Shelby Morris prepared a reading lesson for whoever might walk through the door.  She had chosen a picture book about the Greensboro Sit-In to read aloud.

"The introduction to my lesson is: where you're sitting is actually where this happens," Morris explained.

On each page of the book, she stuck bright pink Post-It notes with questions to ask students -- questions about big, difficult topics like racism, segregation and white supremacy. As she waited for students to arrive, she felt ready, but a little nervous.

"The first step is just telling yourself, 'It's okay that I don't know everything, my students may have more knowledge than I do,'" Morris said. "And that's okay, we're learning together."
 
In walked a Girl Scout troop from Raleigh. Most of the children and parents who filled the room are African American. Morris, like a majority of elementary teachers in North Carolina, is white.

The students gathered in a circle around Morris as she read aloud and engaged students with her questions.

"Who has the power in the situation?" Morris asked. "How does the store manager show his power over the Greensboro Four when he brings in a police officer and says you have to leave?"

A second grader named Erykah wore a sweatshirt with the logo for North Carolina A&T State University, the historically black college the four protesters attended. Just as Morris anticipated, Erykah knew a few things.

Erykah identified the setting of the story as the civil rights movement, and when Morris asked where the Greensboro Four were from, Erykah pointed to her shirt.

The point of this exercise is for future teachers like Shelby to develop the confidence to tackle topics of racism and oppression, especially with students who have a different background than her.

"It's something I think about a lot," Morris said, thinking back to her student teaching experiences. "The school I was at last semester, the majority of the students were African American, so the students, a lot of the times, don't look like me."

The International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, 60 years after the famous sit-in.
Credit Liz Schlemmer / WUNC

UNC-Greensboro education professor Ryan Hughes organized the project in partnership with the Museum. He'll use observations from these story hours as a research project to inform how he teaches the next generation of educators.

"If we don't teach and talk about race, that's a move that just holds white supremacy in place," Hughes said. "If we don't continue to have those conversations and puzzle through and muddle through how we might do it, we're not going to see any change."

Morris said after this first try, she feels more prepared - and more likely - to plan a lesson like this for another class. She learned specific techniques from Hughes about teaching critical reading, by asking students about an author's bias or about what might be problematic in a story.

"Now I have a checklist I can go down when I pull a book," Morris said. "Okay, I want to talk about women's history, let me pull some books and see is this really a good text? And if it's not, how can I still use it in a way to benefit my students?"

Museum Tour Opens Students' Eyes To The Recent Past

Friends Eden and Erykah hold hands in front of the lunch counter at the old Woolworth's in Greensboro where four college students from NC A&T State University began a sit-in that ultimately desegregated the diner and started a movement across North Carolina.
Credit Liz Schlemmer

After the story hour ended, the Girl Scouts toured the museum, including a trip upstairs to the famous lunch counter where the sit-ins began.

"Is this the actual counter?" one student gasped.

The girls walked through exhibits and faced difficult images from the Jim Crow era. They saw a photo of 10 year-old Sarah Collins, who lost her right eye when white supremacists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, killing four other little girls.

"I felt sorry for all the people. I didn't know that that happened," Erykah said. "I didn't know they got burned, and everything like that."

One thing that left an imprint on Erykah was just how recent this history is. Children and their parents gasped when their tour guide explained that Ruby Bridges - who desegregated a Louisiana elementary school at the age of 6 - is still alive at the age of 65.

"She's younger than your grandma," Erykah's mother Vickie Meadows explained to her.

Erykah's eyes widened, as she looked up at her mom as if to ask if her grandmother experienced the things she'd learned about at the museum.

"Yeah, you can ask her when you go home, she'll tell you all about it," Meadows said.

Then Meadows explained that her aunt is about the same age as Ruby Bridges, and she helped to desegregate her own school. Meadows said they could give her aunt a call to keep the conversation going.

The story hour at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum will continue every second and fourth Saturday of the month all year, with various themes about race and representing different minority communities each month.