Spotlight: Jill Bryson
This story is the first in a series on teachers who are using Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching in innovative ways. Please send us your story or suggest teachers you know who are using the book in their classrooms. Story and photos by David Levine.
Jill Bryson works with student Aracely Cortez
to edit her writing.
When Jill Bryson’s colleague introduced her to Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching, she stayed up until 2:00 AM that night reading the anthology. Jill, a history teacher at Washington D.C.’s Next Step Public Charter School, was excited to find a resource that could engage her students in learning about recent struggles for freedom in the United States. Most of her students are Latino, and many of them are recent immigrants from El Salvador. She comments, they “have absolutely no idea of what happened in African American history in this country.” Since there is often tension in the D.C. community between blacks and Latinos, she feels it is especially important that her students develop understanding of and empathy with the African American historical experience.
To introduce students to crucial issues concerning black liberation, she showed the students Freedom Song, the story of the Civil Rights Movement in a small Mississippi town (see pp. 131-134 of Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching). The movie provides a nuanced portrayal of segregated life and the dynamics of the civil rights movement in the rural South. After class discussion and a viewer response writing assignment, she moved the class on to consider the Jim Crow Era and the black freedom struggle of the 1960s. As part of these units, she adapted two lessons from Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching: “Voices of Black Liberation” (pp. 117-119) by Larry Miller and “Democracy and Empowerment: The Nashville Student Sit-in” (pp. 110-116) by Randi Douglas.
To have students consider conflicts over the goals of African American education during the Jim Crow period, Jill adapted the debate Larry Miller describes in “Voices of Black Liberation” to focus on the conflicting ideas of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. She had students read and discuss excerpts from Washington’s 1905 Atlanta Compromise speech and DuBois’s “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others” in The Souls of Black Folk. In addition to engaging students in a critical issue relevant to their own experience, this lesson allowed Jill to focus on reading comprehension skills and introduce students to the rudiments of effective argument—important preparation for an upcoming class debate on nonviolence versus armed self-defense. Challenged by the vocabulary, syntax, and metaphorical flights of early 20th-century rhetoric, the classes stretched their reading skills by working out the meaning of the two pieces. When they struggled to understand Washington’s plea for Southern blacks and whites to “cast down your buckets where you are,” she replayed the scene inFreedom Song during which the father (played by Danny Glover) explains to his son that their family is “casting down buckets where they are” by buying land and building a house on it. To learn the core idea that debates centered on conflicting ideas, students matched sections of the DuBois and Washington readings that addressed the same issues, thus highlighting the clashing views of the two educators. Sympathetic to DuBois’s argument to strive for higher education, several students commented on their own parent’s pleas for them to aim for higher educational and vocational goals than they had been able to achieve. One student’s parent said to her, “Study, study, study, mi hija, because I don’t want you to be stuck doing what I am doing!”
From left to right: Aracely Cortez, Natalia Correa, Jill Bryson, Ada Ruth Vasquez, Ana Salgado.
During her unit on the modern civil rights movement, Jill initiated a sit-in roleplay similar to the one described in “Democracy and Empowerment.” She recalled the gist of her introduction for the community meeting that begins the roleplay, “We’ve just seen in the movie how some of the kids were just getting involved in the movement when SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) got into town and they started teaching the students how to handle themselves. They had to carefully practice what to do because in demonstrations emotions can get the best of you. Even if you have the intention of staying nonviolent, when you get into the situation it is not as easy as it might sound when you’re just talking about it. We’re going to pretend what it was like at this meeting, so that when we get on the bus or go to the lunch counter we are prepared.” Four students were responsible for reading instructions on nonviolent protest that Jill adapted from “Democracy and Empowerment.” She divided the rest of the class into policemen and demonstrators. Before starting the roleplay the class read John Lewis’ account of a Nashville sit-in (pp. 115-116). Some students were astonished by Lewis’ portrayal of the cruel harassment the white crowd inflicted on the demonstrators.
The class then moved into a circle and Jill looked for volunteers to model the part of a demonstrator as she modeled the part of a cop. She comments, “One of the things that is difficult with this age group is that in contrast to younger students they don’t want to act things out in front of their peers, even though for some students this is the best way to learn and it is where they really shine.” Because she started out asking for volunteers to model the role-play with her, Jill was then able to get most of the class to participate in policeman/protester pairs. She asked the students, “What are you going to do if someone tries to pull you off the chair? What are you going to do if someone has gotten you down on the ground and they were kicking you?” Students acted out each scenario, froze, and moved on to the next one. Jill believes that the physical acting out of being in another person’s shoes helped her students develop empathy. This is borne out by her follow-up assignment: having students assume the identity of a student sitting in at a lunch counter and writing a friend about how they felt. Sandra Hernandez wrote, “I’m sitting here at the lunch counter. I’m feeling a lot of things going on in my body. I feel scared and nervous, worried, impatient, and proud at the same time.” Daniel Funez wrote, “I’m so worried that I never will see you again after this. That makes me feel very sad … My soul is prepared and I know that if something bad happens to me I will be OK with myself because I know that this is a good cause.”
Bryson and student Gerson Lopez discuss an essay assignment.
Jill felt that in the debate on nonviolence versus armed self-defense that followed this lesson she had not given her students enough information on the self-defense perspective. She plans to research this view further, and to use the political cartoons in “Understanding Self-defense in the Civil Rights Movement” (pp. 477-483). She is also eager to use the articles in the anthology on Latino struggles for civil rights. Summarizing her thoughts on the lessons she used, Jill commented, “Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching gave me the materials but more importantly the inspiration to approach the Civil Rights Movement from more than a MLK/Rosa Parks perspective. I had the tools to guide my students through a time when young people their own age were mobilized to make a difference. I know that they learned about African American history in this country, but I also hope that they internalized the power they have to make change. Time will only tell. As for me, I plan to keep on moving and learning.”