Teaching Tolerance Through Photographs

By Angela Bunyi on January 28, 2011
  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

"This book is about you." This is the simple, yet powerful introduction to Toni Morrison's Coretta Scott King Award-winning book Remember: The Journey to School Integration. It reminds me that we need to start with this connection when we begin to plan for February's Black History Month. It is about us: what happened before and what has happened since segregation is part of all of our lives. It also reminds me that as teachers we need to carefully consider how we observe and discuss the life and legacy of African Americans of the past and future. 

 

A Million Words

We've all heard the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. If that's true, let me recommend that you pick up Toni Morrison's Remember: The Journey to School Integration. Morrison presents the story of school desegregation in the 1950s through a series of narrations that could be the thoughts of those in the photographs.

The School Library Journal describes this book as an "unusual blend of archival photographs, historical background, and fictional narrative that brings to life the experiences and emotions of the African-American students who made the tumultuous journey to school integration." This blend has made one of the strongest impacts on teaching tolerance by allowing students to make a connection between their lives and the imagined thoughts and feelings of people in pictures of the past. I plan to read this book to my class in the near future (probably in a Socratic Seminar); in years past it has reliably been one of my students' favorite lessons. And it's easy to understand why. Toni Morrison DOES make it about them, so it's not just an abstract story of struggle in the past.

If you plan on using this book in your classroom, there are several excellent ways to facilitate conversation. For example, looking at a few photos of seemingly sweet Caucasian boys holding picketing signs, an African-American boy behind a chain link fence, and a crowd of people surrounding two African-American boys entering school, the following questions could be posed:

  • What would it have taken for the white boy who is speaking on page 28 NOT to carry a sign protesting blacks attending his school?
  • How were the young black teens able to walk through a hostile crowd to enter school?
  • What does the young activist on page 61 mean when he says, "I’m scared but not afraid"?
  • Have you ever been in a position where you had to choose between what "everyone" was doing, what "everyone" expected, and what you thought was right? What did you choose to do? Why? What were the consequences of your choice?
  • What is your definition of courage? Who are the most courageous people you can name? (Include historical and contemporary people.) What qualities do they all share?

In addition I found a detailed overview from Harcourt that really surprised me in its quality. You can also download a PDF of a full teacher guide that includes photographs.  

Harcourt
 

Using Photographs of the Past and Present

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Someone suggested to me that I look beyond the typical photographs of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King for my class. I agree. Although well-known to adults, the photograph of Martin Luther King sitting in a Birmingham jail is probably not to your students. The weight of the world seems to be upon him; it's a sharp contrast to the icon of power we often show our students. But we can go beyond that even. I found photographs of Martin Luther King just sitting around with others, or just talking or working at a desk. A snapshot of ordinary life. Show these pictures to your students as well.

I heard Nikki Giovanni speak once about her friendship with Rosa Parks after publishing the book Rosa. She said Rosa Parks didn't like how she wrote that Parks was digging for a dime in her purse at the bus stop. According to Giovanni, Parks said she'd never be caught digging for change; she'd have the money ready to go. After looking at some photographs of Rosa Parks, you can see what a detail-oriented person she was, just through her carefully selected outfits. Share this with your class. Finding historical images that display emotions of hardship allow us to connect and relate in a deeper, more meaningful way. It also helps us to connect to the present, as equality and acceptance are universally desired.

Expanding upon that, I encourage you to create a historical AND present day collection of photographs to showcase for and discuss with your class. These photographs should feature a mix of emotions and figures, and the collection doesn't need to be restricted to key figures. Include pictures of ordinary citizens just living life captured in the moment. Then allow time for your students to talk and discuss what those ordinary citizens might be thinking or encountering, just as Morrison does in her book. Many sites provide information pertaining to the photographs, and that is a good place to start. 

 

The Dos and Don'ts of Celebrating Black History Month

A few years ago, after reading Morrison's book, students began to open up with stories of modern day racism, relating events that had happened to them or small things said by their parents. As teachers, do we acknowledge that there is still hate today? The answer is "yes." I found a Southern Poverty Law Center site, Teaching Tolerance, particularly helpful in deciphering the "dos and don'ts" of Black History Month. Although it was specifically for MLK Day, I encourage you to read it before embarking on lesson plan ideas. Suggestions include things like "DO invite elders from student families and the community to visit with the class and share personal reflections" and "DON'T assume that all Black children and their families are experts on the Civil Rights Movement and/or the life and legacy of Dr. King." 

So, what are some of your plans for February? Or better yet, how do you integrate black history into your curriculum throughout the year? Please share below!

And don't forget to visit Scholastic's African-American heritage pages as well.

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