January 10, 2017

Teaching Civil Rights in a 5th Grade Classroom


"Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope."

This quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could not be more beautiful. To me it symbolizes the changes that all Civil Rights Activists were working towards.

If you are familiar with my blog you know that I am an advocate for teaching love and appreciation for diversity in the classroom. At the kindergarten level this seemed to not be a larger undertaking. However, teaching 5th grade I have a bit of a challenge. My students now come to school with a certain mindset on the world they live in. Now, this could be a wonderful thing to embrace or it could mean breaking down barriers in your classroom.

I want to share with you some tips for teaching about the civil rights in your classroom. The biggest point I can make is that you need to teach about these influential chapters in the history of the United States.

Go In Depth

At the elementary level we typically pair a craftivity with historical content. I know I did! Art is such a fantastic subject to integrate into our content, as it is typically overlooked. However, in 5th grade I am thinking my students will not want to make a paper bag Dr. King. :) So instead I want to open their mind to the real issues. In the lower levels they give a great background on who individuals are so that I can dive into the stronger issues.

Don't Be Nervous

Anyone feel this way? Ever feel that as a white teacher what right do you have to teach about issues impacting African Americans? Um, HELLO! You have every right!! Who cares if your ancestors were not the ones who suffered the heartache of millions of Americans. This is part the U.S. history....of your history. 

Could you imagine if teachers did not go in depth on issues just because it was unconformable? 


Yes, it is hard to talk about our painful past. Are we proud of it? Heck no! But if we do not learn from our past, aren't we doomed to repeat it? I am SO passionate about teaching historically accurate facts to my students. I personally cannot rely on another teacher to teach the content I am passionate about.


Use Great Resources

This is so key and I really feel like it could make or break your lesson. Now, who else can teach lessons on the fly? After some time we all can. However, this is a lesson that needs to be planned and thought out.

First, know your students. At the end of the day you know what is appropriate to share with you class. I personally shared with my kinders a decent amount, at an age-appropriate level. Some teachers would not do the same, but that is your decision to make. Trust your gut!

Resources I Use


I began by touching upon the history of slavery using videos from the History Channel and oral discussion. I felt it important to go through a progression to have my students understand how we moved from slavery to the Jim Crow Laws to the Civil Rights Movement.

Here is another great video that could be used to start your dialogue. My class loves the kid president, and how cool to have someone they can relate to?!


At the beginning of the school year I purchased a subscription to Flocabulary because my students loved it so much! I love the blend of content with music! You can watch the beginning of the Civil Rights video if you do not have a subscription and it would be the perfect hook to your lesson.

Finally I really wanted my students to have an idea of what are country was going through. Yes, it is painful, but it is so necessary for them to understand. In my rural area they could never fathom this could of hate or racism.

I utilized the free film kits from Teaching Tolerance - you can find them here.
Need a place to start? These films are perfect. They are under 40 minutes and come with a disc of teacher resources. I highly suggest adding them to your school for yourself and other teachers. 

As educators we have the difficult task of changing mindsets and teaching empathy to our students in a world filled with hate. BUT we are molding the future, we are making the world better. Do not stop embracing others and teaching your students the importance of what it means to help others. We have one life and one world, and we are all in this together. Be the change.

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