Teaching The Movement: A Student's Perspective

Whitman College, Walla Walla Public Schools, and the Southern Poverty Law Center have partnered since 2011 to create Whitman Teaches The Movement. A program which utilizes free Teaching Tolerance materials to prepare students to go into local public school classrooms to creatively teach lessons on the modern American Civil Rights Movement. This year Whitman sent 42 students into 34 classrooms over a 2 week period. For more information on creating a Teach the Movement program on your campus visit the What You Can Do tab on our website.

Story by Whitman Teaches The Movement Volunteer, Katy Wills '16, photos by Matt Banderas


“They’re more scared of you than you are of them,” I kept repeating to myself as I walked down the hallway of my college town’s local high school, heart thumping. I was scared to go into a high school with students in the peak of a judgmental and self-conscious stage of life, but I was trained for the lesson and I felt ready. I was ready to walk into a classroom of engaged students ready to learn and be inspired by an amazing civil rights crusader, Cesar Chavez.

The lesson began with a 39 minute film giving a concise yet detailed overview of the origins of the farmworker rights movement and then transitioned into small group discussions facilitated by student leaders from Whitman College. My partner and I split the class in half and got to work. I settled down with my group of 10 and we went around the circle introducing ourselves and describing an aspect of the film that stood out to each of us. Students were most vocally horrified at the thought that there weren’t bathrooms in the field, but cited the prevalence of pesticide spray and the lack of water and fair pay as disturbing as well. The lesson provided a solid base to understand the gross inequality farm workers faced in the 60s. I was pleased with their ability to relate the racist and classist experiences from the film to what they see in the news today.

I can speak more to my experience than I can to theirs. I spent just over an hour with this group of 14 year olds but I’ve spent 20 years in my own head. While I was sitting in the classroom I made an important realization about my own reasoning for participating in Whitman Teaches the Movement. This opportunity was critical for me because it helped me understand that youth have incredible power. I was inspired by the idea of training a new generation of activists, but while standing in front of 20 awkward, confused, pubescent faces, I realized that I am an integral part of the current generation.

It took me until my third year at Whitman to engage in the important experience of “teaching the movement” because I assumed for two years that it wasn’t my place. As a white, middle-class student at a prestigious college, I found myself uncomfortable with my privilege. I felt it wasn’t okay for me to teach about civil rights to younger students because I’m part of a class of people who have committed monumental crimes of oppression. Teaching the movement was important because it gave me opportunity to stop my personal trend of privilege paralysis and come to terms with my potential as an agent of change.

Teaching the movement is an empowering experience for the teacher and allows the students a change of pace and insight into the passions of those to whom they may look up but I can’t say that their minds were blown. It would be insincere and presumptuous to rave about the 65 minutes I spent in the classroom as a groundbreaking experience for those wily and slightly scary high schoolers; but what I can say is that I planted a seed in their minds and poured a little water on my own.