There are a number of areas in our curriculum where my third grade students investigate material related to the history of segregation and discrimination as it has existed in the United States. This is particularly true in the areas of reading and social studies but also grows from discussions of current events or even something which has occurred in the life of an individual student. Though there is considerable written material which traces the history of segregation, the fight for African American Civil Rights, and the attitudes of people who lived during these times, I often find that it is difficult for students to establish a connection between events of the past and situations which exist today. For many students, the struggles faced and endured by African Americans during the first half of this century, though often interesting, seem remote and disconnected to the present. It seems obvious that much of this difficulty which pupils encounter in relating to events of the past is due to a lack of maturity and experience. It also seems clear that making the people who took part in these historical events more “real” will make their situations more understandable to eight or nine year olds, or even adults, for that matter.
While teaching a unit, which I wrote in 1996, on using film to teach about AIDS , I found the results dramatic. By incorporating movies and documentaries such as
The Ryan White Story
into my teaching, my pupils demonstrated a newly discovered understanding of this disease and a related empathy for those who live with it, an empathy and understanding which I had not been able to develop in previous years. In this years unit I hope to achieve the same positive results by employing a similar approach.
Specifically, this unit uses films which focus on the history of discrimination in professional baseball and the subsequent struggle to gain equality for African American athletes in this sport. These films will serve as a springboard leading to further historical study which will help students to understand the broader and often parallel presence of inequality existing in American society as a whole. “When Only the Ball Was White,” “The Jackie Robinson Story,” and Ken Burns documentary on baseball are just a few films which will spur this investigation. As with the unit on AIDS, I believe the inclusion of film will make the Civil Rights Movement a much more understandable, relevant part of United States history.
The films suggested for use include documentaries, historical fiction, and material that is largely fictitious. Together with written material, they will show how the discrimination against African American athletes in professional baseball fostered the development of a parallel structure, the Negro Leagues, which, despite considerable obstacles, allowed black players to maintain a presence in the field of baseball, a presence which, not always consciously, nudged and pushed, until black athletes had to be included in the larger picture. Coupled with movement in society as a whole, this persistent presence helped to hasten the time when the white power structure finally realized that moral, ethical, and economic pressures made the time right to break the color-line, a line which never should have existed.