Little Rock Nine: An Interactive Middle School Course
By Jennifer Arrington
Teaching for Change
Deena Barlev, English teacher at White Oak Middle School, uses role-plays, simulations, drama, oral histories and lessons from Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teachingin her unique full-semester course The American Civil Rights Movement 1954-1965.
This high school level seminar is offered to 8th grade students at White Oak Middle School in Montgomery County, Maryland. Today’s lesson, The Story of the Little Rock Nine. Deena Barlev immediately reminds us that this is an onion story. It is not what it appears to be. There are layers of information to uncover, and frankly, it just makes you want to cry. The overhead projector magnifies the question for the day, Should people be forced to do something they don’t want to do? Uh-oh, I thought, trick question. Students ripe in teenage rebellion, resoundingly protest, NO. Barlev, aware they would, says, So if I say desegregate schools and you didn’t want to, you’d say no? There is a moment of nervous silence as minds fluster to figure out what the truth of the matter is. Where is the line? This strategy of critical thinking is repeated throughout the 90-minute class. Furthering not only these students understanding of what happened in Little Rock that day, but what happens in life. These students are not just learning to be active citizens; they already are at least in Mrs. Barlev’s class.
In 1957, three years after the Brown decision that made separate schools unconstitutional, the Little Rock school board decided to gradually desegregate the schools. Entitled the Blossom Plan, after the superintendent, Central High would be the only school to accept black students. Aware of the delicateness of the matter, the school board asked the Little Rock NAACP chapter president Daisy Bates for support. Bates recruited volunteers to attend Central High. Barlev had students do the same. Quickly she went around the room asking students to shout out their sales pitch to elicit volunteers.
What would you tell them? she asks.
They would be making way for others. They would be revered, remembered. They would have better books and materials. They would end up with better jobs. They would be college bound. They’d be the first.
Barlev asks, Do you know how many students volunteered at first? Two students shouted out, None and Nine.
400! Barlev reveals.
Four-hundred students signed up to be hated, tormented, discriminated against in exchange for a chance to do better for themselves and their families. Of course four hundred students was far more than the school board was ready to allow. Instead, they allowed nine. How do you get from 400 to 9? a young man demands.
Little Rock Nine: An Interactive Middle School Course
The night before the first day of school, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, amidst a political popularity lull, made a sales pitch of his own. Threatened by his segregationist opponent, Faubus was up for reelection and wanted more than anything to keep his job. What better way to reach your opponents constituents than to scare them and save them all in the same day. Operation FEAR is what I call it. Tactics not too different from those used by our current administration to justify war.
Governor Faubus announces on the radio that there will be no integration at Central High the following day or ever. To ensure this, he called in the National Guard to keep the black kids out.
Barlev stresses the absurdity of all this fuss. Unlike many other southern states at the time, Arkansas had already desegregated its public transportation and granted Blacks the right to vote. But apparently, a NINE Black high school students with exceptional grades and matching test scores attending Central High was just too much for the people to handle.
Daisy Bates, in response to the radio address, contacted the now infamous Little Rock Nine, telling them to meet at her house the morning of the first day of school. All except Elizabeth Eckford received the message. That morning, Eckford walked to school alone. Huge mobs of people awaited her at Central High in protest. Swarms of people armed with picketing signs and racial slurs circled the wall of armed militia surrounding the school. Shouting, spitting, snarling at this silent girl in a freshly pressed white dress. “GO BACK TO AFRICA!” Barlev shouts in reenactment.
Barlev’s students fill-in their study guides’ sequence of events section as the story unfolds, the bold words indicate those filled in. Nine outstanding black students are selected by the NAACP, on the basis of their academic and moral strengths, to integrate Little Rock Central High School. Many of the parents of the “Little Rock 9” are threatened and intimidated with the loss of their jobs if their children try to integrate Central High.
This 4-page study guide also includes Names to Know and Key Quotes and Phrases sections. These active citizens or change agents in training as I like to call them, are confidently immersed in information. They’ve already drawn the National Guard and the mob around Central High on their Xeroxed handout picture of the school. Every handout was matched by an identical overhead, every story with an image. Barlev even shows sections of Eyes on the Prize to stress the severity of this mob and the repercussions of this protest.
Barlev has been teaching this course for seven years and due to the overwhelming response of former students, she will be teaching multiple sections of the seminar next year. “Traditionally there have only been 2 sections, but this year, thanks to the “sales pitch” of the guidance counselor, over 100 students registered for the course. I thought that would be a one-time-only phenomenon, but a group of my “alumni” recently visited 7th grade classrooms and delivered their own sales pitch for the course, resulting in record numbers of students signing up for next year. I am very gratified that what started out as just another elective class in the “arts rotation” is turning into a popular experience.”
Interested in learning more about Deena Barlev’s class? Email her your questions!