By examining historic primary documents and modern-day pedagogy, aspiring educators learn how to promote educational excellence for all.
Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and of Cultural Studies, Jackson State University
PhD in American Culture (focus: 20th-Century African American Culture), MA in American Culture and in English, BA in English, minor in African World Studies
For many people, “social studies” conjures memories of grinding through musty high school textbooks and trying to connect dry details of history to current life and times. But there is a more dynamic and immediate approach that Deidre L. Wheaton, PhD, would like to instill in the teachers-in-training who fill her Law and Social Studies class. After all, these education majors will be tasked with teaching social studies to the next generation.
From her position as an assistant professor in Jackson State University in the heart of Mississippi, Wheaton is perfectly placed to use fresh and contemporary teaching approaches, as well as civil rights history—whose effects still echo throughout the region—to expose her students to living, breathing notions of educational equality and excellence.
Challenge: Historical distance from the civil rights movement
Most of Wheaton’s teaching students hail from Mississippi, a state at the center of the civil rights movement, where access to education was once severely limited for minorities; many of these future teachers will take positions across the state when they graduate.
Wheaton realized that, as history moves ever forward, younger generations (such as those entering her classes) might have only a passing knowledge of the struggles and sacrifices that came before. Or they may be unaware of the circumstances that made it a social—and legal—necessity to ensure the equality of educational opportunity.
“Given the climate and nature of education in our state, there has been more attention on our part to the fact that many of [our students will] go on to teach in predominately African-American school districts,” says Wheaton. “So we wanted them to have some insight into how legislation and policies impact equity and access to educational opportunities.”
Innovation: Providing perspective to deepen understanding
When Wheaton redesigned her Law and Social Studies course in 2017, she sought to help students emotionally connect to historical moments in Southern civil rights and educational reform, such as the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, which declared state-sanctioned racial segregation of public schools to be unconstitutional. (This legislation set the legal foundation for school integration and sparked hope that educational equality was on the horizon. Unfortunately, notes Wheaton, in cities like Jackson, the dream of equal access to high-quality education is still a work in progress.) To that end, Wheaton has implemented an approach that requires her students to examine education (and the wider world) from multiple perspectives—including their own, their professor’s, and those of the people who began the fight for educational opportunity for all. Through a variety of creative strategies, Wheaton demonstrates how to analyze, appreciate, and verbalize the legal framework and civic importance of this subject—with the ultimate goal of preparing these soon-to-be-teachers to bring the same issues to light in their own classrooms.
“There is room for everyone to have conversations about equity and access, even if you’re a middle school or high school teacher in a predominantly white school district,” says Wheaton. “How do you step outside of your vision of the world, your experience of the world, and see it from someone else’s perspective? It’s kind of difficult if the only people you’re around are people like you—economically, racially, culturally.”
Course: SS 301 Law and Social Studies
Frequency: Two 80-minute meetings per week for 16 weeks
Class size: 40–45
Original course description: This course examines laws and court decisions affecting the rights, responsibilities, conditions, and expectations of public school teachers and the students and districts which they serve.
SS 301 Law and Social StudiesSee materials
Lesson: Helping students view life from multiple perspectives
“This [revised] course examines the interdisciplinary nature of social studies education by intersecting content related to the laws and major court decisions affecting public school teachers and students’ access to equitable educational experiences. Additionally, this course introduces teacher education majors to strategies of planning social studies instruction, managing student behavior, and developing dispositions that promote social studies pedagogy as a form of social justice.”— Deidre L. Wheaton, PhD
To help students take on other points of view—to see through the eyes of and walk in the shoes of those who came before—Wheaton knew she would have to make use of a variety of tools. She began by selecting important primary and secondary documents and materials, creating interactive lectures, finding opportunities for collaborative learning, requiring continuous research and writing—all of which serves as fodder for multiple “modified fishbowl discussions.” These freewheeling and frank classroom talks allow and encourage students to challenge one another on the materials, opinions, and historic turning points that have brought us to where we are today. She later asks students to synthesize their findings into micro-teaching presentations, which she discusses with them both before (for planning) and after (for feedback).
Wheaton shares these tips for educators seeking to inspire students to connect with historical materials, while developing skills to be agents of change for a brighter future:
Provide materials to ponder
While the passing of time may have created an emotional disconnect for her students, it has also led to the proliferation and accessibility of more archival material, historical documentaries, primary texts, and scholarly works documenting important moments in education reform, such as the 1954 Brown ruling.
With this in mind, Wheaton has organized her course content by exposing students to a wide array of these materials.
For example, Wheaton has her students read and study these three key historic documents, among others:
- The original text of the 14th Amendment, which granted African-Americans (and all persons born or naturalized in the U.S.) equal protection under the law
- The Brown decision affirming equality of education
- The “Southern Manifesto,” a 1956 congressional document and response to Brown that strongly opposed racial integration
Help them understand historical perspective
As students cull through the primary and secondary materials provided by Wheaton, she posits a series of guiding questions to help them better grasp the basic concepts of social studies education and legalities. She also ensures that they think about the time period itself, rather than filtering what they read through a 21st-century lens.
“[Last semester,] we went through and created a list of things we were going to look for when reading,” explains Wheaton. “We talked about objectivity and how to take into consideration the norms of that historical moment. To say, ‘What were common attitudes of that time period? Who is the person writing this, and to whom are they writing? What arguments are being made in this text? And what is their purpose in writing this?’ I think it really helped [the students] make sense of it all.”
Highlight current perspectives, too
Despite the equality that the Brown ruling was designed to create, most of Wheaton’s students graduated from majority-black Mississippi high schools. “That was an observation I wanted them to pick up on,” says Wheaton. “That, yes, this law was important—a landmark decision for a lot of different reasons—but we still have to consider, as educators, what this means in terms of equity and access, especially in a state like Mississippi where a couple of miles can mean the difference between the type of school a child has the chance to attend.”
Enhance history with modern technology
These are just a few types of technology she has found helpful:
A course management system. Wheaton makes sure written assignments, classroom lectures, and group projects can be accessed through the college’s Canvas course management system.
“I can post course assignments, so students can go there and see what happened in class and ask questions outside of class time,” she says. “And there are discussion boards put up periodically so [students] remain engaged. [Canvas] also gives me a chance to wrap up things that we may not have completed in class.”
Student response systems. Wheaton also makes use of technology that allows students to respond to a teacher’s questions or surveys using a clicker or mobile device. She encourages her teachers-in-training to use them in the PowerPoint presentations they create for the class. “So, what would have been maybe a boring sort of lecture on X becomes something with questions that their classmates had to respond to using their phones,” says Wheaton.
Social media such as Twitter. Wheaton plans to create a Twitter account for her course to allow students to access class information, while learning to use the platform for their own educational and academic purposes.
“It’s a way for [students] to think about what we discuss in class and how it’s relevant to other things that are happening in the academic sector,” says Wheaton. “They can [use Twitter to] follow educators or educational organizations that they [like], and it’s a way of tracking conversations that are happening in the field.”
Use visuals to illustrate changing viewpoints
Several times each semester, students work in groups, covering the walls in the classroom with timelines of education legislation and policy that are related to African-American social progress. The timelines also include policies such as Mendez v. Westminster and major reports such as the Coleman Report and A Nation at Risk to help students situate the African American struggle for equal education with the struggles of other minority groups, while also seeing how American education has been discussed at the national level. This help orient the students to progress made over the years.
Wheaton’s students also view documentaries, such as the 14-part 1987 film Eyes on the Prize, which documents the civil rights movement, and Unseen Tears, a 2009 film chronicling the trauma experienced by Native Americans in a New York State boarding school.
Encourage students to switch perspectives in the moment
As her students are future educators, Wheaton also wants her students to see and discuss the classroom experience from the perspectives of both teacher and student. Some of the ways she accomplishes this include requiring students to deliver micro-teaching presentations, engage in role-playing, and simulate dramatic moments in imaginary classrooms. She also has them engage in a series of straightforward discussions throughout the semester that enable students to share their opinions but also serve a higher purpose: They model the strategies that will help these future teachers conduct sensitive discussions in their own classrooms after they graduate.
First, students explored the concept of setting up discussion parameters to keep the conversation civil. Says Wheaton, “[Students had to consider,] ‘What is required if we’re going to have a discussion on something that’s controversial?’” They also discussed what it means to be an active listener and an engaging speaker.
Further, Wheaton would periodically pause the conversation to discuss what kind of teaching methodology was being employed in that moment and look at the classroom interaction through the lens of an educator.
“This is a pretty common strategy,” says Wheaton. “They seemed to find it really, really helpful to step back from the experience and talk about what happened from the pedagogy side.”
“Basically,” adds Wheaton, “we’re trying to give them opportunities to be engaged in doing the types of tasks they would ask students to do. Then they would put on their teacher hats in the [next] moment and show me that they recognized what was happening.”
Wheaton wishes to acknowledge the support of the US PREP coalition, the Texas Tech University Design-Based Research team, and her colleagues at Jackson State University for their coaching, intellectual feedback, and technical support during the course redesign process.
The benefits of her dynamic classroom techniques are manifold:
- She has increased her own students’ engagement with the materials she is covering.
- She is modeling active learning methods to these education majors.
- She is informing new teachers of the legal framework for teaching social studies.
- Perhaps most important, she is arming her students with the facts and context of history itself, so they can speak intelligently about social justice in education—and one day serve as a force for positive change.
As the semester progresses, Wheaton has seen her students learning to make persuasive arguments about social studies history and points of view, while also learning how to step back and see both sides of complex policies and practices.
Broadening future teachers’ understanding and awareness of the ongoing issues of inequity in education begins in the university classroom, notes Wheaton. “It needs to be a priority for the educator,” she says. “You want your students to be people who can go into the world and be responsible and productive but also mindful of how their decisions impact other people.”