Civil Rights Remix

This year I was tasked with re-designing my usual fifth grade social studies unit. Always up for a challenge, I had a great time creating this three week unit and working with my students to try it out. Here’s what we did!

Week One: Building Background Knowledge and Expanding the Narrative

To kick off the unit, I first posed the question to my students, “what does a fair community or country look like?” I wrote down their responses, and then I asked them what they knew about the United States during the 1960’s and the years prior. In which ways was our country fair? In which ways was in unfair? We then took some brief notes in our interactive notebooks. These notes were from my old unit, and didn’t fit perfectly with the new one, so I would probably redo these for next time, but they provided most of the background info we needed.

As I’ve found each year with my students, they were able to name a few key players in the Civil Rights Movement before our unit began: Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks. Because of our class novel, The Lions of Little Rock, they were also able to name the Little Rock Nine, but that’s where the list ended. To get aquatinted with a more diverse array of figures from the civil rights movement, I designed a civil rights “find someone who” activity (see the resource on TeachersPayTeachers).

Students were each given an info card to learn about their assigned person, and then they took on the personas of each person and walked around the room “meeting” each other and discussing their roles in the civil rights movement. Each time they met someone, they would find the right space to sign on their “find someone who” sheet. The activity was so fun and engaging, and sparked amazing conversations and great exposure to people they wouldn’t typically hear about. It also highlighted different kinds of change making strategies used, such as sit ins, walkouts, boycotts, and strikes.


We wrapped up the week by reading The Youngest Marcher, by Cynthia Levinson. The main character of the book, Audrey Faye Hendricks, was one of the characters that we were introduced to during the “find someone who” activity.

Week Two: Voting Rights

For our second week of the unit, we focused on voting rights. I introduced the concepts of poll taxes and literacy tests, and we watched a video clip from the movie Selma in which a Black woman (played by Oprah Winfrey) is denied the right to vote based on a bogus literacy test. Another great option to open this topic is to use the picture book Granddaddy’s Turn: A Journey to the Ballot Box, by Michael Bandy. 

We read a Newsela article about poll taxes and literacy tests, and then students were each given a copy of the 1965 Alabama literacy test. I gave them about 5-10 minutes to struggle through the text, and we reflected on what it might have been like to be required to take this test, and why it was unfair. I very purposefully framed this question as “why was it unfair,” instead of “do you think it was unfair?,” as I did not want to pose this as a debatable issue.

After learning about the ways in which votes were suppressed, I posed the question to my students: how do you think activists could have challenged these unfair laws and policies? Students were then told that they were no longer fifth graders, but instead, they were a chapter of SNCC (who we had met and learned about during our initial activity the week before), and it was their job to work together to devise a strategy to challenge these voting laws. We reviewed strategies we had learned about in our read alouds and in our “find someone who” activity (sit ins, marches, boycotts, strikes, walk outs), and then students set out to work in groups to devise a strategy in which they would challenge me, the voting registrar, to allow them their constitutional right to vote. Students were able to choose their own groups and work with as many people as they wanted to, as long as they did not work alone.

I have been nervous to do role plays in my classroom, since I (among with countless other teachers), have done them so wrong before. This role play, however, was amazing! Its success was founded in students all working together. Students did not take on the role of oppressed or oppressor, but instead, they each took on the collective role of changemakers. It was brilliant.

Each group devised a plan, using this think sheet to organize their thinking. After planning, they practiced, and then on the following day we carried them out. I was blown away! The role plays were amazing, and about half of the class worked together to stage a highly organized sit-in in the “registrar’s office.” It was incredible.

After each group tried out their strategy, we discussed strengths and weaknesses of each approach. The theme that emerged was that the groups who had a focused, organized approach were able to stage the most successful protests.

After these role plays, we spend the last day of the unit learning about a few strategies that SNCC did use, namely the Selma to Montgomery March. We read about the march, mapped out the march, and used this station rotation sheet to dig into the march as a change making strategy. Resources we used to learn about Selma are included in the resources list at the bottom of this post. It was also in the plans to discuss Freedom Summer and the Birmingham Children’r March, but it was too much to cover in one week.

Ideally I wanted to wrap up the week with Lillian’s Right to Vote, by Jonah Winter, but again,  we didn’t have time, so I left it available for students to pick up on their own.


Week Three: Challenging Segregation Laws

Our third week of the unit was formatted much like week two, but the focus of this week was on segregation laws.

We started out by discussing the word segregation. I asked students to name all of the places and spaces they could think of that they knew had been segregated prior to the civil rights movement. After coming up with our class list, I told them that we would be studying a set of primary sources to look deeper into these issues.

Working at their tables, each group of students received a ziplock bag that had different segregation laws (I prepared these bags ahead of time). Students worked together to read these laws and sort them into categories. I challenged students to come up with their own categories and I scaffolded where needed.

Students were very motivated to read the original text, and they had to use context clues to figure out some very challenging language. They not only had to be able to read the words, but also determine the main idea of multiple laws in order to sort them. Very impressive literacy work!












categories one group came up with


After sorting the laws, we discussed which laws were the most shocking, which stood out to them, and how they decided to sort them. I then told them to put their SNCC hats back on, because it was time to change these laws!

Students were given the choice to work with whoever they wanted to (again, no cap on number in the group, but they could not work alone), and I tasked them with choosing either one law or one category of law that they wanted to change. We reviewed which strategies had gone well the previous week (again, focusing on how activists organize), and then students began working, using a similar think sheet to guide their thinking.

Because students were working on different laws, I had to be flexible with my own role. Again making it very purposeful that I was the only gatekeeper involved in the role play, I told students that I was willing to take on any role they needed me to. The class ended up dividing into two groups and focused on segregation on buses and trains. Per student request, I ended up playing a bus driver and a train conductor.

After two days of learning and planning, we conducted the role plays. Two different strategies were used: one group chose to hold a sit in on the buses, and the other did a walk out on the train.

a group of students rehearsing their bus sit-in

The sit in was phenomenal! It led us into a discussion of the Freedom Riders, which is what we ended up studying for the remaining couple days of the week. The class read a Newsela article, and we used books I had available in the classroom (see appendix).


Summation of Unit: Informational Writing

We officially had three weeks to teach the unit, so after three weeks, responsibility was passed fully to the students and held under the umbrella of our informational writing unit. Students were tasked to publish an informational piece of writing about one person, group, event, or change making strategy from the civil rights era. Here’s a snapshot of some of the topics they were able to name during our brainstorming phase. Remember at the beginning when they only knew MLK and Rosa Parks?!

*Hunger strikes are something that we did not learn about, but the kids were really attached to the idea so I kept it up there.

Students are still working on their informational writing, and I am excited to share the final pieces when students are ready to publish.

Resource Appendix

Things I purposefully AVOIDED in this unit:

  • We did not talk about speeches as a change making strategy. Yes, there were many powerful speeches used during the civil rights movement, especially memorable ones from MLK Jr. However, by continually learning “I Have a Dream” led to the end of segregation, students have the misconception that making a speech was the civil rights movement. By challenging and expanding this narrative to include collective change making (i.e., 300 school children walking out of school), students have a broader understanding of how change is made, and are in turn more likely to see themselves as part of a more expansive change making narrative.
  • We did not talk about making/holding signs as a change making strategy. Oftentimes, students (and people in general), equate holding a sign with protesting. Yes, signs are an integral part of a protest, however, the organizing that happens before the signs are made is where the change making really starts to take shape. Without organizing, you’re just a person walking around with a sign.
  • Students did not act out oppression or violence. In our role plays, the power rested in my hands. I took on this role because I was confident in my knowledge of the subject matter and of my students. Students were never pitted against each other, students were never singled out based on their race. They worked together. During the role play, I would break character and verbally walk them through any situation that might have resulted in violence. I.e., “okay, so how do you think the police might have responded in this situation?”
  • We did not talk about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, except for their mention within the broader context of the movement. There are some really great approaches to teaching more accurate and contexualized narratives of these two figures, and I would highly suggest looking into these resources if you want to teach them.
  • We did not focus on oppression. Yes, we learned about oppression, but what we really dug into was activists responses to oppression. In this way, we were able to focus on student and activist agency, and hopefully, my students are now more likely to see themselves as people who are capable of making change in their country and their communities.


For older posts on my approaches to teaching the civil rights movement, follow this link to the archives.







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