Laura Potts Langdon Credit: photo by John Booz

“Choices in Little Rock,” a social studies curriculum developed by the non-profit education organization Facing History and Ourselves, examines a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement: the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. Unlike traditional history courses, in which students memorize dates and events, this curriculum asks students to make connections between the choices young people faced in the past and those faced by students today. This year, Facing History will train more middle school teachers to teach the Little Rock course. Potts Langdon, an 8th-grade social studies teacher at Ames Middle School in Logan Square, talked to writer Yvon Wang about the impact of the curriculum on her students.

Why did you start teaching Facing History and Ourselves?

The CPS social studies curriculum was vast and textbook-oriented—it was more about breadth than depth. The Facing History curriculum combines social studies, literature and the humanities. It made me understand that teaching isn’t about these little disparate pieces—it is about teaching a whole idea and creating learning opportunities for children to make the connections on their own.

What is one of your classes like?

We talk about personal and social responsibility. A student at my school was an innocent bystander who was killed by gang violence. It’s important for us to have the kids understand that’s not normal, that we have to take a stand against violence to change it.

How do students react to Facing History?

Some kids do not necessarily participate as much in skills-based, let’s-read-the-graph, let’s-look-at-the-chart lessons. Especially with young boys, but then all of a sudden they’re the ones raising their hands, asking questions. For example, in “Choices in Little Rock,” there are primary source documents about the Jim Crow laws. You could open up the textbook and read it in paragraph form, but it’s a whole different thing to look at those documents and have [students] say “Wait, are you serious that there was a sign that says ‘No Negroes, no Mexicans, no dogs’?”

How do you reconcile the broader education of Facing History with the pressure for students to perform well on tests?

You have to integrate them. When we did the unit on Little Rock, the kids wrote their response journals, did presentations, had discussions. It’s not very test-driven. But at the end of class, they would answer questions— “Can you tell me what the Jim Crow Laws were?” If they do one question a day, they’ll be confident when they’re tested.

Do you see a change in the kids who’ve taken Facing History courses?

The kids come in knowing a lot about the civil rights movement. Then they start to make connections between our civil rights movement and the Holocaust or [the genocide in] Darfur. They’ll say, “Whoa, this didn’t happen only in America.”

What is the greatest change you’ve seen?

They’re more tolerant. They begin a journey some people don’t start until young adulthood, where they examine who they are, who they’re becoming, their prejudices, the prejudices of the world where they come from, and why [those prejudices exist]. Once they become aware that it exists and they’re a part of it, they can also be aware and change it, be more conscious of their actions.

Is it difficult to connect with the students?

One of the first things they read is a story about conformity and identity called “The Bear that Wasn’t.” It’s about a bear that wakes up in a factory, and people tell him he’s not a bear—he’s a silly man wearing a fur coat. By the end of the story, he believes it. At first the kids say, “I’m not a baby, why am I reading this?” But then they start to see how society can influence your actions or behavior. Someone will say, “What if those people in the factory had told the bear it could be anything?”

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