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Capturing Stories of the Civil Rights Movement

By Christy Crawford on February 3, 2011
  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

The majority of American students do not fully grasp the historical significance of Barack Obama's presidency. How could they? No history text accurately and vividly reveals the pain, power, individual sacrifice, and wisdom of the civil rights movement.

But with today's technology, any student can get firsthand accounts of the movement from local heroes and share those inspirational stories with thousands — online. Read on to see how you can help kids capture eyewitness accounts of one of the greatest and most provocative movements in American history. 

There is someone in your city, town, or state who is a living legend, an ordinary American (of any color) who used nonviolent strategies to overcome legalized segregation and fought for economic and social justice in the 1950s and 60s. Invite that person into your classroom. Hurry to collect the stories of a diminishing generation. Get the word out, grab a camera, and join us in an effort to catalog personal experiences and vivid testimonies that will enrich any classroom. Use these visual testimonies to prompt substantive conversation during lessons, spark passionate nonfiction writings, and create intergenerational web historians. 

Oral history projects are not new. During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the Works Project Administration (the WPA) to get lots of unemployed American writers back to work. Workers in the WPA's Federal Writer's Project, including Studs Terkel, Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Ellison, recorded the testimonies of thousands of former American slaves, collected stories of the Great Depression, and captured bits of local and regional life in the United States. Check out the Library of Congress for dozens of oral history projects on World War I, World War II, and more for your students.

My students modeled their project on Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. Spielberg's project, now the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, uses cutting-edge technology to capture the stories of survivors of the Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda, and other genocides around the world. Their mission? To "overcome prejudice, intolerance, and bigotry — and the suffering they cause — through the educational use of the Institute's visual history testimonies." Take ten minutes to watch a video that will move you and your students to create a local visual history project.


What Steven Spielberg and USC did for our understanding of the Holocaust, tech-savvy kids and teachers can do for the civil rights movement.  


Booking Your Interview Subjects

Handingoutforms Seek out students' grandparents, great-grandparents, elderly neighbors, and family friends via memos sent home. Find interview subjects at houses of worship, nursing homes, and community centers. Use your school's website and local newspapers to publicize your project.

Our students spoke about their project at Tarrytown, New York's historic Foster Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church. This church (a stop on the Underground Railroad) provided a welcome atmosphere in which to distribute pre-interview consent forms to seniors and their families.

Download the Bronx New School Civil Rights Project pre-interview form for your school's civil rights project. The completed pre-interview forms will enable your students to research unfamiliar topics (e.g., Freedom Riders or poll taxes) and develop detailed questions for subjects. On pre-interview forms, students also independently list their observations and musings. Sort candidates the way you wish to catalog them on your website, .e.g., stories of triumph over Jim Crow Laws, voter registration-drive participants, etc. 


Top Ten Interview Tips From Bronx New School Fifth Graders

Ms. Washington hugs a 5th grade historian! 10. Use a camera with an external microphone for best sound quality. Take the classroom phone off the hook. Close the classroom door, and post a large sign that reads,"RECORDING! KEEP OUT!" Turn off your school's AC unit or anything else that will cause unwanted noise or interference.

9. Make sure students are real historians before embarking on a civil rights project. Have them document their own family's history so they know how to be sensitive reporters. 

8. Light your subject very well. The cheaper the camcorder, the smaller the lens and the more light required to create a quality picture. 

7. The interviewer should sit or stand right next to the camera lens as they conduct the interview. Ask the interview subject to look at the interviewer and talk naturally rather than speaking to the camera lens.

6. Say "speed" when your camera is actually recording. It lets the interviewer know that you are really ready to start.

5. Make sure a clean restroom and plenty of fluids are available for your guest. Make a welcome sign. Greet the guest at the school door, escort them to your classroom, and hang up his or her coat. Engage them in casual conversation before the interview so that your subject will be relaxed before going on camera.  

4. Develop questions before the interview. Avoid yes or no questions to get your interview subject talking; instead, ask open-ended questions. 

3. Listen to your subject closely! Be prepared to ask follow-up questions or to rephrase questions to get more detailed answers.

2. Ask your guests to bring period photos or artifacts to the interview; scan the images. Then use the Ken Burns' effect in Windows Movie Maker or iMovie to create a documentary with primary sources for extra credit.

1. After the interview, send a thank-you note to your guests telling them one or two things that the class has learned.  


Comments (3)

Wow, Mitch! Thanks for the tip. I didn't even think to SHOW the kids the later works of WPA writers... will do so now. They will be so inspired.

The kids just booked a woman who organized sit-ins with C.O.R.E. They are also trying to coordinate a reunion of Freedom Riders from Westchester! Beat the clock, young historians! Beat the clock!

I can't wait to see the kid's interviews.

Your mention of Studs Terkel reminded me how he preserved the oral histories of typical American workers. The stories of these everyday people were heroic. Terkel's get-out-of-the-way-and-let-the-subject-talk approach allowed us to experience the lives of these waitresses, factory workers, telephone operators, etc. and to make the ordinary, extra-ordinary. His book "Working" is one of the best examples of this; It was even made into a musical!

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