University of Values


Spotlight on Janet Morrison: University of Values

Ten years ago Janet Morrison started a summer camp where high school students teach elementary school children about social justice and the importance of being community leaders. But this is not a seasonal feat. Every Thursday night throughout the school year Morrison teaches teens to design lessons for the summer camp. There is a great sense of pride in becoming a summer teacher, (nine of the positions are paid!), and many of the campers anxiously await their chance to become teachers too.

Last year the camp focused on voting rights. This year the focus is on the Civil Rights Movement. Morrison always strives to keep her weekly classes as interactive as possible. Unfortunately creating innovative lesson plans on the Civil Right’s Movement proved to be difficult because of the lack of inclusive, engaging resources. Morrison immersed herself in different workshops, books and organizations prior to beginning the Thursday night sessions. During her research she discovered Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching.

“It’s been a great source of curriculum ideas. It was the first thing I picked up. I knew I wanted to focus on civil rights and wanted to keep a social justice theme. It is the only resource I could find that included engaging lessons for elementary school students,” says Morrison.

Morrison also participated in the Civil Rights Teaching Global Learning Network, a groundbreaking online education project that links classrooms together across geographic and cultural lines in dialogue and collaborative lessons on civil rights. This project was helpful because she was able to see examples of what other students were working on and was able to get lesson plan ideas and advice from Maggie Donovan, one of the teachers (and contributing writer to Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching) who shared her wealth of knowledge with the network.

In her weekly sessions Morrison used several lessons from Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching, including Women’s Work: The Untold Story of the Civil Rights Movement (handout on this lesson). Her students took on the role of the women in the lesson by pretending they were at a civil rights conference and having political conversations with each other. They really got into their characters which helped heighten their awareness of the important but often overlooked work of women during the Civil Rights Movement.

Morrison also turned to other resources for creative and meaningful lessons. In one class she had her students participate in a role-playing activity on student sit-ins. The students were split into three groups, playing the Black college students at the counter, the white waitresses and the angry white mob. They were given scripts and every student played all three roles. Her students were able to feel the pain of the college students and the power of those yelling at them. Several students said they never expected to feel so powerful when they were in the position of taunting those at the counter, which presented an interesting role reversal for students whose voices in society are often marginalized. (Resource: The Civil Movement for Kids: A history with 21 Activities)

After the sit-in role play Morrison realized her students needed to express themselves in a group setting so she created a lesson where her students got the opportunity to share their feelings and find their voice. She read the book Black Misery (by Langston Hughes) in class and explained it. Afterwards her students wrote and read their own misery poems to the class, which helped them share their stories, talk about some of the burdens they bare and link their lives to the Civil Rights Movement.

After learning about the Civil Rights Movement, the high school student’s work on developing lesson plans, which are as interactive and powerful as their weekly sessions. Morrison reviews their lesson plans and by the time the first day of camp begins, the teenagers know the background information, the camp’s topic for the summer, and has prepared lessons. Morrison has noticed that it is much easier to get the high school students to study material if they are learning for the young children they want to reach.

“Adults don’t realize how much teenagers care for these kids. The kids worship the teenagers and the teenagers get a great sense of pride from that and realize their influence,” says Morrison.

The camp and the weekly classes are set up to empower teenagers to take on leadership roles and has evolved to have as much to do with power as they do social justice. The teenagers are empowered to become leaders, educators, role models, vocal community members and in turn, by example, so to are the campers. This program works well because there are high expectations, from Morrison, from the teenage student teachers and from the campers. This shared value system fosters community and stimulates growth. Each year the seasons change, the bar rises and the process continues.

To learn more about the University of Values program, located in Dallas, Texas, email Janet Morrison.