January 20, 2010
What happens when a talented teacher has the autonomy and resources to choose his subject matter, organize and plan his lessons, decide how much time to devote to an area of study, provide the most appropriate materials for the students, and focus his passion for the topic into a curriculum unit? What if the topic in question is challenging and complicated?
The answer to these questions is unfolding right now in our 6th grade social studies classroom. Mr. Spencer and the students have embarked on an exploration of ”the ways that people changed segregation,” in Mr. Spencer’s words. This week, they have established a foundation for understanding the judicial process, a critical step in understanding how the people fighting for civil rights challenged laws and forced new interpretations of Constitutional amendments. One of the important concepts in this unit is the idea of legal precedent, and Mr. Spencer balances the lessons by introducing landmark cases as well as day-to-day examples.
Mr. Spencer organized Tuesday’s introductory discussion around technical definitions of legal terms, illustrated by situations that the students could easily imagine. He described arguments that the students might have with teachers or parents, making the idea of precedent approachable and tangible for the students.
“I could teach this all year, easily. And it wouldn’t even be hard to do,” said Mr. Spencer after Wednesday’s lesson, which included a discussion about the ambiguity of the idea of equal protection under the law, a right granted to all Americans through the 14th Amendment. For homework, the students had read a description of the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, which established the “separate but equal” practices that defined segregation. In class, they watched a documentary film about the legal strategies that led to the desegregation mandate at the heart of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. The film includes moving images from the segregated South, and the students were encouraged to share their responses to scenes that had affected them.
These lessons present significant information about a critical period in American history. More importantly, however, Mr. Spencer wants to make sure that the students think deeply and critically about how legal language can be interpreted in more than one way. In this case, the central question is, “How can you read the 14th amendment and still have segregation?”
Our 6th graders will be continuing their study of the civil rights movement for several weeks. As they build their knowledge about the events of that period, they will apply these higher order thinking skills to more and more questions about law, society, equality, justice, and fairness.