Teaching Civic Ideals and the Writing Process using Primary Sources

 This post is by Jen Reidel, 2019-20 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

Rosa Parks once said, “Memories of our lives, of our works and our deeds will continue in others.” The Rosa Parks Papers at the Library of Congress, some 7,500 items including photos, artifacts, and manuscript documents, testify to her courage, humility, and depth. They also reflect how she inspired others. Bring these powerful objects into your classroom to engage and inspire your students.

Rosa Parks Papers: Writings, Notes, and Statements, 1956-1998; Accounts of her arrest and the subsequent boycott, image 27

Evaluating those documents based on their historical context, word choice, and revisions can deepen students’ understanding. For example, students could examine her account of her arrest using several lenses. First, students might evaluate the document to determine what conditions led to Rosa Parks defying the law. Select items from the Jim Crow and Segregation Primary Source Set to help students better understand the historical context, if time allows. This question may lead to a larger discussion centered on what conditions frequently act as a catalyst for challenging the status quo.  Encourage students to consider what conditions in their own lives might push them to practice acts of civil disobedience.

Next, direct students to evaluate the exchange between Rosa and the policeman beginning with, “when I asked the policeman…” Facilitate a class discussion, selecting questions from the Teacher’s Guide Analyzing Primary Sources as needed. Students may make direct observations using text quotes of what Rosa and the policeman said to one another. Then, building on those observations, ask students to reflect on what could be inferred from the exchange and what such inferences reveal about segregated America.

Another strategy is to ask students to evaluate the placement of a scratched-out word. In particular, direct students to the final section of the document beginning with, “I act, I went, with…I didn’t resist.” How does its apparent deletion change the overall meaning? What does the change suggest about the world of Rosa Parks? Ask students to think about the meaning of each revision in comparison to the final phrase of “I didn’t resist.” What does the final phrase reveal about Rosa Parks, about the Civil Rights Movement, and about segregated society?

An extension activity to emphasize Rosa Parks’ agency and the power of her words, is to ask students to choose a selected phrase from the document to write on a notecard. Once they choose their phrase, ask them to write two words they believe relate to the phrase and Rosa Parks. Ask for volunteers to share their selected quote and corresponding words. Lead a discussion with students regarding what phrases were most powerful for the class and why.

Analyzing the document through the frames of civil disobedience and Rosa Parks’ writing process offers students a personal account of why someone might challenge the status quo as well as the importance of accurately writing about their reasons of doing so.

What did this document reveal to your students about Rosa Parks? Share with us your experiences.

3 Comments

  1. John Hunter
    February 13, 2020 at 12:21 pm

    Even though i have retired from the classroom, I still like to learn about relevant initiatives. This post as are all your posts is needed and relevant,

  2. José Cortez
    February 17, 2020 at 5:51 am

    Law, Civic Ideals great compendium for teaching values

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