Teaching Civil Disobedience in the Midst of Nationwide Insurrection

Guest blog post by Tatiana Oliveira, 4th grade virtual teacher in Greenville, SC

On January 6th, 2021, America and the rest of the world watched in horror as white supremacists stormed Capitol Hill in Washington, DC to protest the results of the 2020 election. Almost immediately, the question arose for educators across the country: How do we approach this with students?

In my virtual fourth grade classroom, we held a candid and honest conversation about the events of the previous day. One student asked why Black Lives Matter protestors were treated so differently from these protestors. Other students shared their observations about how people with black or brown skin are treated in the United States. 

Students recognized that the violence was wrong, and that it has no place in our democracy. But the question remained: How do we reconcile these protestors with peaceful protestors such as those during the Civil Rights Movement or the Women’s Liberation Movement? 

To illustrate this distinction, we engaged in several activities over the next few days, including:

  • Read alouds of books that depicted examples of peaceful protests, such as Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins by Carole Boston Weatherford, The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles, and Ron’s Big Mission by Rose Blue. 
  • Responding to and asking questions about the violence we had just witnessed. For example, one student wrote a letter to President Biden asking for him to initiate police reform and hold police officers accountable, while another student recorded a Flipgrid video explaining his mixed feelings about the Inauguration. 
  • When learning about the Constitution the following week, we read I Am Martin Luther King, Jr. by Brad Meltzer to better understand our right to peacefully protest under the First Amendment.

It is important to show students the power of nonviolent resistance beyond standalone read alouds during Black History Month or Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The Capitol Hill riot cannot be the reference point for students when they think about protesting for meaningful change. As educators, we must teach them the fundamentality of peaceful protests to our democracy, and the role they have played in cultivating reform in American history. 

There is a significant contrast between the events of January 6th and protests of the past in the manner of, and the reasons for, protesting. As educators we must teach this intentionally and explicitly. Books are one of the most powerful platforms for having these difficult conversations at all grade levels.

Texts about Peaceful Protests

Elementary

The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist by Cynthia Levinson

This biography tells the story of nine-year-old Audrey Faye Hendricks, who was enraged at the segregation laws in 1960s Alabama. The youngest known person to be arrested for protesting in the Civil Rights Movement, Audrey helps lead the cause of “filling the jails,” and makes her mark as a young pioneer of desegregation.


Rosa by Nikki Giovanni

A common misconception is that Rosa Parks’s peaceful protest was a spur of the moment, impulsive decision, because she was tired from work and did not want to get up from her bus seat. This text takes the reader through the background of that protest, and to the greater Montgomery Bus Boycott that took place as a result. Through its powerful illustrations and in-depth look at Parks’s life in the context of the Civil Rights Movement, readers will understand just how significant a role she played in the fight for racial justice.


Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel

It is difficult to imagine a world in which children are forced to work rather than go to school, and are even employed over their parents. But that’s just what happened with Clara Lemlich, an immigrant from Ukraine in the early 1900s, who worked in a shirtwaist factory as a young child. Tired of not being fairly compensated or treated justly, Clara helps organize a massive walkout with her fellow female employees, resulting in changes to their salaries, working conditions, and treatment.


Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh

Winner of the Jane Addams Award and Pura Belpré Award, this picture book tells the often overlooked story of Sylvia Mendez who, despite being an American citizen, was prohibited from enrolling in her local elementary school in the early 1940s and was instead forced to enroll in the nearby Mexican school. Her family, confused and frustrated by the laws of segregation, launches a full petition and lawsuit to desegregate California schools. As one of the major court rulings leading up to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, the Mendez family’s fight helped integrate California schools and showed the power of a community rallying around a common cause.

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

Based on a remarkable true story, a gorilla named Ivan lives at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade with his friends, an elephant named Stella and a stray dog named Bob. Ivan longs for a day when he can be free among his family. When a baby elephant named Ruby joins their group, Ivan realizes he must fight to help get her out of captivity. He does this the best way he knows how: through his art. The signs he makes, along with his drawings, draw attention to the mistreatment of the animals at the mall, and help free Ruby and Ivan.

Middle & Secondary

A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramee

Shay is a twelve-year-old girl who avoids trouble at all costs. But as a junior high schooler now, Shay has started to notice some new dynamics – with her family and with her friends. Her older sister, Hana, is active in Black Lives Matter, but many of Shay’s classmates don’t understand that movement. Shay is caught between wanting to fight for people who look like her, and wanting to just fit in at school and stay out of trouble. As she begins to learn more about the meaning of Black Lives Matter, Shay realizes that not all trouble is bad, and sometimes you have to break a few rules to see real change.


Internment by Samira Ahmed

Set in the near-future, the American President has passed several laws restricting the rights of Muslim Americans, and forcing them to live in an internment camp. Layla, a seventeen-year-old, along with her parents, are three of the citizens forced into this camp. Determined to break out, Layla forms an alliance with others in the camp and begins a revolution against the camp’s Director and the guards. 


Land of the Cranes by Aida Salazar

Betita’s father loves telling her stories about her family’s journey to the United States from Mexico, and Betita loves using picture poems to illustrate her family’s plight. But after her father is deported back to Mexico, and Betita and her mother are taken into custody at an ICE detention center, she loses her passion for creating picture poems. She realizes, however, that her poetry is her greatest weapon in the fight against injustice, and uses it to draw attention to the inhumane treatment she receives in the detention center.


Additional Recommended Texts/Resources:

Enough! 20 Protestors Who Changed America by Emily Easton

Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez by Kathleen Krull

My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Christine King Farris

Peaceful Fights for Equal Rights by Rob Sanders

Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

Lillian’s Right to Vote by Jonah Winter

A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara

Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice by Elizabeth Acevedo, Mahogany L. Browne, and Olivia Gatwood

March: Books 1, 2, 3 by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

Greta’s Story: The Schoolgirl Who Went on Strike to Save the Planet by Valentina Camerini

Hector: A Boy, A Protest, and the Photograph that Changed Apartheid by Adrienne Wright

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

Just Mercy (Adapted for Young Adults): A True Story of the Fight for Justice by Bryan Stevenson

From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks

Efren Divided by Ernesto Cisneros

Tatiana Oliveira is a 4th grade virtual teacher in Greenville, SC. Follow her on Twitter @tmoliveira17.

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