Educator Spotlight: The Bridge to Selma

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Crystal Culp, this week’s Educator of the Week, makes learning personal by challenging students to make connections between an historical event and their own lives. Crystal is a social studies and history teacher for grades 7 through 12 at a juvenile detention center called McCracken Regional School in Paducah, Kentucky.

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Photo by Charles Main, Communications Director for the Kentucky Education Association

Activity: The Bridge to Selma

Grade Level: 7-12

Time Commitment: 4-5 hours or a few class periods

Putting History in Context
I began a lesson on the historic civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, by providing students with an unlabeled map of Alabama. I asked the students to identify the resource materials they’d need in order to label the map, and then to find the absolute location of Selma.

We then looked at a timeline of events from the Civil Rights Movement, labeling the events on the map so students could have a context in which to understand the Selma to Montgomery marches. To learn more about the marches, we watched a segment of the video “Civil Rights Martyrs” and the movie Selma.

Afterwards, we discussed the idea that we all face our own “Edmund Pettus Bridge” or difficult obstacle in life. The students created an art piece to represent their personal bridges. They also wrote a short accompanying essay to describe how they’d represented their life’s biggest obstacle with their artwork.

Was it hard for your students to connect the historical example to their own lives?
Especially because we’re in a juvenile detention center, I try to do personal activities as often as I can, so students can start taking ownership for their behavior and they don’t feel like victims anymore. There comes a point in everyone’s life when they have to realize that they’re responsible for their own actions, even though there may have been legitimate causes or influences in the past.

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One student’s representation of his personal Edmund Pettus Bridge. Photo by Crystal Culp.

All of the students created a bridge that had a problem in some way because they were picturing their own lives in this bridge. One young man built the deck of his bridge very slanted. In his essay, he wrote that his dad was not a stable character in his life and he felt a lack of support from his family. The deck of his bridge represented the feeling that he may slide off at any moment. That’s a pretty powerful thing for a young man to be able to recognize, and it helped him see the history reflected in his own life.

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How do you incorporate current events when studying history?
We read the newspaper and discuss current events every day. It’s easy to only think about one event and not acknowledge what else is going on in the country (or the world) at the time. I always try to put current events in a wider context.

When we consider all the layers that contribute to our current events, it serves as a helpful reminder that history was multifaceted as well. And the distinction between history and current events is blurrier than we often imagine.

For this particular lesson, I asked my students to consider a modern debate around the name of the Edmund Pettus Bridge because of its namesake’s history with the Ku Klux Klan. That inspired a conversation about how the South has changed and how it has not changed. Some of my students thought that the landmark should just be called “The Bridge in Selma” because the name “Selma” itself holds so much power and doesn’t have to be explained. They argued that this name would acknowledge everyone who was involved in the marches, rather than singling out one person or another.

What has been one of your most memorable “teachable moments”?
I’ve been teaching in juvenile detention for 14 years now. When I began teaching, I had a lot of sympathy for my students because of the situations they were currently in. But I would try to just forget their circumstances and be culturally blind when teaching them.

Then one day, I was having a discussion with my students about their goals, and there was one young lady who was avoiding eye contact so I called on her. She looked right at me and she said, “I just want to have a life like you have.” I was trying to figure out what she meant when she went on to say, “I want to have a job and a family and a home that I take care of.”

And that’s the moment that the sympathy I have for my students turned to empathy because for the first time, I could really see how she felt. That day, my teaching changed. My students became my focus. I hold them more accountable for their behavior now. I want them to own their mistakes—and their victories, too.

Teachers: Want to try this lesson in your classroom?
Check out our great article on the marches, here. And consider incorporating another exciting current event: Just last week, the marchers were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor in the United States.

green nominateDo you know a great educator who teaches about our world? Nominate a colleague or yourself as the next Educator of the Week!

The Educator Spotlight series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.

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