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The Story of Claudette Colvin: Students as Historians

Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia
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Thinking back on my own personal history as a student, I have remarkably few memories of impactful learning happening inside a classroom. I remember social situations (both good and bad), I remember moments of personal connection with teachers, and I poignantly remember the small number of real-world, hands-on experiences facilitated by teachers.

Deep, impactful learning is learning by doing, learning by experiencing, and learning by discovering. When learning is built around these beliefs, classes can be structured so that creation and discovery happen both inside and outside of the classroom walls. With this in mind, I structure the study of history around the concept of students working as historians. Instead of restricting them to memorizing dates and events, I want young people to understand that history and the past are contested and contestable. When doing the work of historians, instead of merely learning about history, students actively immerse themselves in gathering information, interpreting sources, and developing original ideas.

A Model Text

In every country, there are certain heroic figures and events that are widely accepted as parts of national ideology. In the United States, Rosa Parks is rightly celebrated for her role in the Civil Rights Movement and the actions she took that sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Most Americans don’t know that almost a year before Ms. Parks, a different young woman made the same choice on a segregated bus.

This past year, when my daughter and I discovered the book Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice in the library, it was immediately clear to me that we had encountered a story that provides rich material for learners to unpack about historical narrative, interpretation of sources, and national memory. The inside cover of the book sets the stage for the story within:

On March 2, 1955, a slim bespectacled teenager refused to give up her seat to a white woman on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Shouting, "It's my constitutional right!" as police dragged her off to jail, Claudette Colvin decided she'd had enough of the Jim Crow segregation laws that had angered and puzzled her since she was a young child.
But instead of being celebrated, as Rosa Parks would be when she took the same stand nine months later, Claudette found herself shunned by many of her classmates and dismissed as an unfit role model by the black leaders of Montgomery.
book cover  - Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice

Phillip Hoose's book is an amazing combination of narrative, photos, interviews, and primary source documents. Reading the book provides an accessible, first-hand account of the product and process of someone doing history. It's a fascinating read and makes the process of historical discovery and the concept of historical narrative accessible to students.

A Classroom Example

Access to technology makes it possible for students to discover sources and present analysis in many innovative ways. After reading Hoose's book over the summer, while planning my own courses, I realized that Alexis de Tocqueville's famous book Democracy in America, published over 170 years ago, can still be used as a model text for a modern-day inquiry into the status of democracy in America.

In my American Government class, we began our unit by reading excerpts from de Tocqueville's work and discussing his findings, his process, and his product. I then introduced the project and the idea of doing the work of historians and producing work that combined multimedia with text. I shared different resources, and together we brainstormed questions for investigation of the chapters. Over the course of two months, students researched, did fieldwork, wrote, produced media, and consulted with me as they did history while playing the role of modern-day de Tocquevilles. At the end of the process, students excitedly chose modern-day de Tocqueville names for themselves, and we published their work. You can view all of the student projects from the unit on this site and read an article about the process by clicking here.

The work of historians is complex, controversial, and forces us to more deeply understand and examine our own realities. School should give students opportunities to learn in ways that challenge them to investigate meaningful issues, make their own discoveries, and produce work that matters in the world.

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Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

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TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


They've all been pestering Principal Lurlene and Assistant principal Coco to go on more field trips, especially field trips that didn't cost much as the pesterers noted that if field trips didn't cost much that their parents were okay with that, too.

Lurlene asked me...Mind taking a wad of them one day to a place that will scare them out of wanting to go on more field trips?

In the Oakland Cemetery visitor's center, Clark asked the nice volunteer fellow where he could find his great-great-grandfather and the nice fellow gave Clark a map and showed him where he was resting. Clark said thank you and walked out to the porch with the map and the fellow came trotting out there and told Clark...uh, young man...that the maps were four dollars.

The rest of the group went on ahead to the Confederate soldier section. Clark and I went to pay our respects to Clark's great-great-grandfather. On the way, Clark placed a golf ball on the gravesite of Bob Jones.

When we found Clark's great-great-great grandfather, Clark asked if he could call his father to tell him where he was standing at that very moment.

Give him a holler, I said.

After Clark talked to his father he asked me what he should do next. How do somebody in a grave?

I told Clark to just stand and gaze at his great-great-grandfather's headstone and his great-great grandmother's, too, and just be silent and calm and think about how important family relationships are. Just gaze and think. That's what you do.

Clark's great-great-grandparents died a long, long time before Clark was born. Clark still seemed like he was going to cry. But he didn't.

As we walked back toward the buses in the cold wind, I could tell Clark was moved. He takes deep breaths and blows them out when something heavy is on his mind and has a hard time forming words at first. I put my arm around his shoulder and gave him a squeeze. I told him he did a good thing today, and that it had been a great pleasure to be with him.

On the way back up the highway we came to the only toll booth in the historic state of Georgia. I started reaching into my coat pocket where I had put some toll booth money earlier in the morning.

Clark tapped me on my right shoulder. He held out his palm. He had two quarters in it.

I thanked him and told him I had it covered.

Clark insisted that he pay our toll. It was something he really wanted to do today. He said he'd been planning it.

I took the two quarters from Clark, and told him he was a mighty good citizen, too, just like his great-great-grandfather, a long-ago governor of Georgia--a state he helped make a better place, too.


Todd's teaching memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave," at corkscrew turns hilarious, heartwarming, and even heartbreaking, will be published this fall by Stairway Press.


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