MORE THAN ROSA PARKS: Critical Multicultural Social Studies in a Fourth-Grade Class

By Bolgatz, Jane | Transformations, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

MORE THAN ROSA PARKS: Critical Multicultural Social Studies in a Fourth-Grade Class


Bolgatz, Jane, Transformations


When Rosa Parks died in October 2005, she was celebrated as a hero, the mother of the civU rights movement. She was laid in state at the Capitol rotunda so that people could pay their respects to one of the most important figures in the fight for racial justice in the United States.Yet, one person alone rarely changes history. Parks' refusal to move from her seat on that bus in Montgomery on December 1, 1955, sparked one of the most inspiring events in die history of civü rights in the United States: the 381day boycott of the Montgomery buses by African Americans. But the boycott would never have worked if thousands of people had not been wiUing to make personal sacrifices, organize the movement, and take the fight to the courts.1

When school chUdren learn about Rosa Parks, they mainly learn about the day when the "tired seamstress" refused to give up her seat. Rarely do they learn about the unnamed African Americans who helped make the fight against segregation successful or about the roles that many white people played in the events that led to Parks' action. As Herbert Kohl points out, this version of the narrative leaves out the political aspects of the story: Rosa Parks is seen as acting alone, Martin Luther King, Jr. is portrayed as the hero, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott is mobüized out of spontaneous emotion.

In this article, I describe how a class of elementary school students learned about the beginnings of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Rather than hearing the traditional stories of singular heroes, they engaged in a role-play that aUowed them criticaUy to examine how social and economic relations are affected by race. As this experience demonstrates, it is possible to open conversations with chUdren about racism in elementary school social studies classes. In the process, it is also possible for students to imagine the roles of marginalized citizens in US history.

Multicultural and Critical Multicultural Social Studies

Teachers and theorists have been interested in social studies instruction that addresses cross-cultural understanding and issues of poUtical, social, and economic equity for many decades. WhUe much of public education was directed at the project of assimilating massive numbers of immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century, in the 1920s educators worked to have students understand and respect ethnic and racial diversity. In the 1940s, programs known as "intergroup education" sought to reduce students' prejudice (C.A. M. Banks 253). At mid-century, Theodore Brameld wrote optimistically that "opportunities to develop closer understanding of and between cultural groups through curricular efforts [were] abundant" (157). Brameld advocated that schools should help children understand institutional exploitation as well as help lessen prejudice.

Currently, there are various definitions of multicultural social studies. At the most basic level, they involve integrating into social studies topics and examples that represent various groups, particularly those who have been under-represented or inaccurately represented in traditional curricular materials. Building on the earlier intercultural education movement, multicultural social studies has also focused on helping students reduce their prejudices and adopt more democratic values. Attention to social history and to the lesser-known actors in events such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, however, is still not common in the teaching and learning of history.2 As Derrick Alridge notes in his study of representations of Martin Luther King, Jr., in history textbooks, "[w]hile efforts have been made in the field of social history to tell the stories of the common folk, narratives of 'great' men and events pushing America toward an ideal of progress and civilization continue to constitute the standard way in which many historians and history textbooks disseminate this information" (670). The focus on heroes in the teaching of multicultural history, Alridge and others contend, leads to a distorted view of the past. …

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